Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park: Mule Barges, Rough Men, and Bass

Delaware & Raritan Canal

The Basin

Coal barges pulled by mules, maneuvered into Baker's Basin by muscle, took refuge here from the Delaware & Raritan Canal current. Rough, wearied men rested on the 10 or so acres overnight, not so exhausted. They built bonfires, partied and drank. The stories told here are legend no one will ever know. Nineteenth century history never printed. Free as the air we breathe. The lusts that gleamed in fire-lit eyes as men rapped back and forth about women must have been enough to power a tractor trailer.

I heard about bass caught here when I was 10, so I cajoled my father to drive me over to have a look, having memorized directions from the father of a girl I knew, a father who cast big bass plugs into the pond.

Dad drove me over. There were about a dozen black men hanging out, and I felt deeply curious, because they didn't seem in the same space I came from at all. One of them turned and glared at me with wide open eyes holding great power. Mine didn't flinch. From the passenger seat, I held his enormous gaze, and analyzed it as I concentrated. Not exactly hatred or negativity, though that was there with rage just behind. I swore I saw the faintest glimmer of desire to know, rather than destroy.

"This place is wild!" My father said. Without saying another word, he simply swerved the station wagon around before he ever stopped, and vacated the grounds.

I understood and said nothing.

Four years later, by my request, a friend's father drove the friend and me over. We fished. Maybe that's when I first noticed the Allied Van Company immediately in front of the gravel lot, off U.S. Highway 1, loaded with tractor trailers. One form of commerce transportation to another.

I caught a bass and couldn't believe fishing as good existed so close to home. I had caught bullheads in the canal downstream, crossing Route 1 on my bicycle as a 12-year-old. But largemouth bass?

I fished here often, completely unafraid of my neighbors from Trenton. I don't know what Dad thought. Probably nothing. Most adults repress their fears and hope for the best.

It's good I went that first time with Dad. Then, the original mule entry existed. Four years later, a mere ditch pipe exchanged water where the open swath had been filled in. I saw something that existed since about 1830, when canal construction completed.

Now, not mule barges, but bass cruise in from the canal and winter over in the calm basin water, deeper and better habitat for bass in cold water, water in which they don't have to expend such energy with low metabolism struggling against a current. Just like the barges at night.   

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