New Book: “Borne by the River” details Canoeing the Delaware from Headwaters to Home (Plus: a PL Q /A with Author Rick Van Noy)


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After a near-fatal stroke and a separation, amidst a global pandemic, Rick Van Noy decided to go for a paddle with his dog, Sully. In Borne by the River, he charts the story of discovery, and healing that came from this solo canoe journey. Paddling two hundred miles on the Delaware River to his boyhood home just upriver from Trenton, New Jersey, Van Noy contemplates his fate and life, as well as the simple joy of sitting in a small boat floating down a large river with his dog, Sully.

Borne by the river
Van Noy’s dog Sully in the bow.

Deftly combining memoir, natural and local history, and engaging reportage of his encounters with other paddlers and river enthusiasts, including members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, Van Noy reveals deep and shifting layers of environmental, historical, cultural, and personal significance of the Delaware.

Borne by the River reckons with the way that rivers braid into one’s own life—thrilling rapids, eddying pauses, and life-changing rifts and falls. Van Noy rediscovers and shares how river journeys can scatter anxieties, wash away regrets, and recreate the spirit in its free-flowing currents.

canoe book Borne by the riverLike the braiding and bending river itself, Van Noy contemplates life and fate in this deft combination of memoir, nature and local history. Accompanying this personal excavation are the river’s shifting layers of environmental, historical, cultural, and personal significance. The story contains engaging reportage of encounters with paddlers, river enthusiasts, members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, and locals to whom the Delaware is deeply significant.

Paddling Life caught up with Van Noy to find out more on his paddling background, the book and his life:

PL: What’s your paddling background? 

I grew up in a small town on the Delaware River, so it was always there. One summer day, when I was about 12, some neighbors said they were headed upstream with canoes, and I was curious about the river above our town. My mother and I joined, only she didn’t want to steer. So I was in the stern, trying to mimic those older guys, find the V and weave through the rocks. One of them owned the local canoe livery where they rented the big heavy Grummans, and where I would later work as a teen. I did more trips with friends in my early twenties, with my son nearly every Memorial and Labor Day weekend on the New or the James in Virginia. I picked up whitewater kayaking in my 40s, rafted some western rivers, and I like to paddleboard in short spurts for exercise, but in my 50s, it was back to my roots, a canoe.

PL: What made you come up with the idea for the trip? 

I had paddled sections of the Delaware, but never the whole thing continuously, and always wanted to. I felt a deep connection to it, having grown up beside it. In 2019, I incurred an injury to my neck, like the kind you get from whiplash, though I didn’t know how. This led to a tear in my internal carotid artery and subsequently, a stroke and helicopter ride to the hospital. It took a while to recover, but after an event like that, you begin to think about the limited time you have left, and what you might like to do. The river trip was there and calling. I came back some like anadromous homing fish, as the shad do each spring.

PL: What did you learn from it?

One of the great surprises and joys was the kindness of people. Twice I was called over by groups hanging out on the bank who shared food and drink: caprese salad and barbecued chicken. One group poured a Scotch while I sat on the rocks. Near the end, looking back, on both the river and on life, I reflected that the great thing about a river is that it doesn’t know reverse. A river will do what it does. You can choose to go around this rock or that island, but for the most part you make your best guess and paddle on. You learn to accept what the river wants, to take what it gives. Rivers are always changing and healing, as they are themselves healing.

PL: What was the hardest part? 

Foul Rift might have been the hardest rapid, at least due to its reputation in the historic accounts I was reading, from timber rafters and others. In the middle of the trip a little doubt and loneliness crept in, but I just kept putting blade to water and paddled on, which was also one of the lessons. Writing is like that too—one sentence after another.

PL: How’d it feel paddling up to your hometown? 

When I came through the last rift into my home stretch, a really strong headwind turned us around. It was like something was telling us not to finish, and by then, I almost didn’t want to. The wind was caused by an upcoming hurricane and storm, still a few days away. That chapter is called “Flood,” and I discuss some recent floods, but also the flood of memory there. All the boat docks were familiar and the people who owned them, or used to. There was this vertical sense of reliving memories, like the ramp I helped create, the elementary school I went to, the rope swing, picnic and swimming spots, but also this horizontal sense of all that river and current behind me, leading to this confluence. And yet, part of what I was experiencing was not wanting to leave what had become home for eight days.

PL: What do you love about canoeing? 

I love to canoe because a canoe is quiet, except when a wave slaps the hull, and I love that. You can throw gear (and a dog) in a canoe, and this becomes a ritual, load and unload, cinch down. I canoe to see how the water has shaped the land, to follow the meander. To know the river’s former lives and those whose lives it has touched or nourished. I canoe to stare at the shapes of cobble on the bottom, to glimpse a finny shadow. For the cadence of lift and lower of the blade, linking your breath to the paddle, watch the vortices trail behind. To feel it in your neck and shoulders, a twist in the torso. To see who or what is out there. To crane for birds. To read the maps. To process the reading. I canoe to pull into a gravel bar, scout the route or strainer in the bend. I canoe to camp on sandbars, watch the flames crackle, leap, and glow. To find the good swimming holes. I canoe to drift and drift, and know that if I keep drifting, I would meet the ocean. To awaken reverie. I canoe let all of it in, and at same time, let it all it out. To be carried by the river.

PL: What do you hope readers take away from the book? 

I became enchanted by the river, and also its community and history, so I hope readers are similarly enchanted, enough to get out and paddle, chart their own voyages of discovery, meet other paddlers and river lovers.

Author Rick Van Noy Rick Van Noy is Professor of English at Radford University. His books include Sudden SpringA Natural Sense of Wonder, and Surveying the Interior.  Borne by the River is available from Cornell University Press.

(Photo courtesy Marc Strong)

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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