‘Canoe Chaos' to calmer waters
Chris Nielsen and others remember the wild-west days of the Upper Delaware, when the NCSP got its start
If you want to know the history of the National Canoe Safety Patrol, “talk to me,” said Chris Nielsen, the patrol’s first commodore, “I know more about it than anybody. Because I was there.”
In the mid and late ‘60s, the Upper Delaware River—from Narrowsburg to Barryville—was mostly known for its headwaters in Schoharie and Delaware counties, which supply New York City with drinking water. Downstream, the river from Narrowsburg to Barryville was always a recreation spot, of course, but, “recreation in those days meant motor boating or fishing,” Nielsen, now in his 90s, said on the phone.
“Way back in 1955, almost nobody thought of canoes on the Upper Delaware,” wrote Jan Cheripko in the 1983 edition of the Sullivan County Democrat’s Upper Delaware Magazine. Al Henry, who grew up in the area, remembers a calmer summer season on the river. “I have recollections of sitting in the river in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and, on weekends, there was not much activity at all,” he said.
“People didn’t know how to use the boats themselves or how to teach people safety. There was chaos out there—literally chaos.”
Around 1969, that changed. When Winifred Luten wrote about his three-day trip on the Upper Delaware from Hancock to Callicoon that year for the New York Times, the Lander’s operation—which then operated the Ten Mile River Lodge on Route 97—had grown from 10 canoes to 100. That number would swell into the thousands.
Some people, including Rick Lander of Lander’s River Trips, attribute the takeoff in Delaware river boating activity to that Times article. Others, like Henry, who would go on to join the National Park Service, say Woodstock may have been the cause.
Regardless, “there were more people in those days going down the river than there are today,” Lander said. The following summers in the mid ‘70s were “canoe chaos,” said Nielsen, quoting a headline he remembers from that time. “Thousands of people [were] coming to the river from the city,” he said. “People didn’t know how to use the boats themselves or how to teach people safety. There was chaos out there—literally chaos.”
In nearly every issue from 1977 through to 1981, The River Reporter included an article about the bustling river traffic, the National Park Service, or the scenic river and recreation act. As more and more people flooded the river on weekends, canoe liveries expanded, the federal government considered the extent of its involvement on this stretch of the river and maintaining safety became paramount for Nielsen and others.
Nielsen remembers being part of a number of political and technical discussions about river usage before and during the formation of the Upper Delaware Council. “We would meet in Narrowsburg or Barryville and have planning meetings,” he said. “They’d get together and talk about things like wanting a limit to the number of people on the river—quotas were a big discussion.”
In 1977, Congress was considering a bill to include a stretch of the Delaware River—from Hancock to Sparrowbush—as part of the Federal Scenic and Wild Rivers Act. A group of representatives whose businesses accounted for 25% of the canoe traffic on the Delaware at that time, including Bob Lander, had formed the Delaware River Canoe Association to represent “local interests,” in that decision, according to a TRR article that year.
“There was a... thought that they were going to buy up the whole river and throw us out,”Rick Lander said. According to a report from TRR, an early draft of the bill did include a provision that the National Park Service would assume control of the roughly 20 canoe liveries along that stretch of the river and lease them out to private owners, thus limiting the number of people allowed on the river.
As Nielsen remembers it, he wasn’t keen on cutting down recreational use of the river—just making it safer.
Nielsen and his wife had been patrolling the river by their house in New Jersey. “After about six or eight months down there, we realized that we weren’t doing much,” Nielsen said. “The usage was on the Upper Delaware.”
First formed as a loose group of club members, in 1979, the National Canoe Safety Patrol (NCSP) had its first formal year of operation—modeled after organizations like the national ski patrol—recruiting and training people the previous spring. Most of the recruits were from canoeclubs in the tri-state area. Carla Hauser Hahn, then 26 and working with the National Park Service, joined in 1980, drawn in immediately by her first trip down the Delaware.
Nielsen remembers about 45 to 50 people being trained and enrolled that year. “So when we started we had a pretty good force,” he said. The group couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The pattern of use back in those days was to put people on the river from Narrowsburg to Barryville and from Barryville down to maybe 12 miles or so upstream from Port Jervis—as a result, both of those sections were extremely crowded,” Nielsen said.
In the summer of 1980, the first summer of National Park Service operation in the area, TRR reported 10 people drowning in the Upper Delaware.
“It was a free-for-all—a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol, a lot of rowdy groups,” Henry said. “It was scary sometimes. They could get hard to handle.”
At the time, all of Lander’s River Trip canoes were aluminum, prone to getting stuck where plastic boats don’t. “ So we’d have, you know, six or seven boats locked up at Skinners Falls in a big metal pile,” Lander said. Henry remembers, in the beginning of his time with the Park Service, that the rangers would sometimes call the liveries to tell them not to put more people on the water. “It was like a sewer backup, you know, you had to go out with your plunger,” and fish all the metal boats off the rocks, he said.
The designation of the Upper Delaware as a scenic and recreational river did, of course, come to fruition. But, likely thanks to lobbying from locals, the liveries remained private businesses and quotas on the river were never established. The NCSP joined up with the National Park Service in its first year here and offered river-safety training to rangers, acting as “Volunteers in the Parks,” or VIPs, to the park service.
Partnerships like that between the NCSP and the NPS resulted in a mix of federal and local control that prompted then NPS area manager David Hutsky to call the first few years of operation here a “grand experiment.”
“[The NCSP] were godsends,” Henry, who was a park ranger at the time, said, “because they basically had an awful lot of good expertise, and they could station their resources in [rough] areas.”
The waters of that experiment weren’t always smooth for the patrol, said Nielsen. “We had to combat a tremendous amount of public resistance from people,” Nielsen said, and Rick Lander confirmed. “They thought we were up here to shut down their operations because it wasn’t safe. My thought was... to show [people] that we were there to help them, not hurt them. I had many fights with Bob Lander. In time, we became the best of friends.”
The first TRR article on the NCSP as an official organization appeared in 1980. The Upper Delaware was the first national park to use VIPs to assist with river safety. That season, more than 40 NCSP members took part in a pre-season training with the park service.
“Our experienced canoeists will give campfire talks on safety, demonstrate canoeing skills and offer on-the-spot instruction,” Nielsen was quoted saying at the time.
The same is true to this day.