How I (Mostly) Found Peace in the Wilds of Philadelphia

One urban-bred writer’s 40-year journey from nature-hater to Schuylkill sojouner.

Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Illustration by Kelsey Dake

It’s a beautiful day on the upper reaches of the Schuylkill River. The birds are singing, and sunlight streams through clusters of leafy trees that bend over the water. I’m cruising along in a small beige kayak, enjoying the sound of the water coming off my paddle as I dip and pull, dip and pull. All would be perfect, really, if it weren’t for one very embarrassing fact: My kayak is attached by rope to the kayak in front of me. I’ve been paddling too slowly, so I’m being towed.

I’m one of about 120 people on the water for the first day of the annual Schuylkill River Sojourn, a weeklong trip that travels the river from the town of Schuylkill Haven to Boathouse Row. The Sojourn has been going for 18 years; participants come from all over the country. Meals, guides, campsites and assistance with kayaks are all included. A full trip costs $620, not including kayak rental. Many people are repeat customers.

I’ll only be paddling for one day, which is probably a good thing — at least for the guides who have to deal with my apparent lack of skill. I’ve kayaked before, but mostly on glassy lakes and bays. The last time I went, I took my Chihuahua and spent the day taking photos of her while she trembled in her oversize life jacket. It wasn’t exactly a vigorous workout.

But the Schuylkill Sojourn is no joke. Each morning begins with a safety talk to review the perils that may be encountered on the next stretch of the trip. Being a naturally fearful person, I was definitely intimidated when guide Allan said, “Today’s low water conditions are giving me flashbacks to 1999” and then went on to describe a difficult voyage that involved banging into rocks. “It’ll be challenging,” he said. “We have no idea what’s on the bottom of this river.” We don’t?

By the time Allan got to the phrase “self-rescue position,” I was ready to run back to the safety of Philadelphia. But I couldn’t retreat. I had to go through with this. It was one of the key steps in Spikol: Project Wilding, or The Undomestication of an Urban Woman Afraid of Life.

FROM THE START, my relationship to the natural world has been tenuous. Growing up in the city, I thought “nature” meant Rittenhouse Square. I had little exposure to anything other than city streets. My parents had friends who liked the outdoors, so there is photographic evidence of my standing on something other than a sidewalk. But often when the Spikols pushed the boundaries, disaster followed.

One time we went to pick berries somewhere with one of my mom’s nature-loving friends and her kids. As I remember it, I fell into a ditch and got burrs all over me — an utterly foreign experience. What if they never came off? I cried all the way home. A trip to an apple orchard was similarly marred by a bee that flew into a cut-out panel of my bell-bottoms and stung my leg, which I responded to as if I’d been machine-gunned. I avoided apples for years afterward.

There was a single rock-climbing excursion — for some reason it took place on a wall of ice-covered rocks next to the Art Museum — that my father now speaks of as a few hairs short of Everest. My strongest memory of that trip is the terror in my father’s eyes as he clung to the icy surface and shouted at me: “Elizabeth! Hold my pipe!”

Spikol père et fille also went on a school-sponsored father-daughter canoe trip, which my father characterized for years after as, basically, The Revenant. The journey, which other kids and dads delighted in, was fraught with peril for us. “We were almost decapitated!” he’d say of our having to duck beneath a low-hanging tree branch.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone among city kids who lacked familiarity with the natural world. To counter this reverse-sheltering, my elementary school arranged with the owners of a 30-acre farm in Ambler for us to spend one day each week on their rural property. They had cows and chickens and llamas and a barn with a wood-burning stove. These days, I would find all that delightful, but as a child, going to “The Farm,” as we called it, was my personal Guantanamo. Even now, I sometimes wake up on Tuesdays — farm day — in a panic that only dissipates after I tell myself, “I’m an adult. No one can force me to play capture the flag in subzero temperatures.”

The problem was that much of what we did at The Farm revolved around physical activity, my least successful arena. And it was all outdoors, no matter the weather, and I was oversensitive to cold. Other children would bound off the school bus like race dogs released from their pens while I entered into negotiations with the one teacher who drove, wheedling permission to sit in her car and read.

Even on the warm days at the farm, when I actually enjoyed walking in the creek or working in the garden, there was always more time allotted to group sports, which for me just meant more opportunity to be called a spaz and a klutz and embarrass myself. The whole thing created an unfortunate connection, in my mind, between the outdoors and athleticism, making me believe that experiencing nature required skills I simply didn’t have. I believed this until just a few years ago, when a constellation of events encouraged me to reconsider my relationship to the outdoors.

The first was when I read The Forsyte Saga, a frothy trilogy John Galsworthy started writing in 1906. One of the main characters, Old Jolyon, takes great pleasure in nature, which is described with particular specificity and emotion. It’s as if Old Jolyon’s senses are heightened so that his experience of the physical world is acute: the “revel of bright minutes,” “the hum of insects,” “the scent of limes and lavender,” “the racket of bees” and so on. Then, one day, while he’s sitting in the shade of his favorite tree, musing on the exquisite beauty of summer, he dies. This stunned me. How could he die right there, in the midst of all that life? There was a bumblebee on his panama hat! His dog was resting its head in the beam of sunlight that fell on his boot! His presence was required!

I cried for Old Jolyon harder than I cried for three out of four grandparents. For weeks after I read the book, whenever I’d see an especially pretty sunset or hear the elaborate call of a bird, I’d sigh and think, “Old Jolyon would’ve loved this. I wish he were here to see it.” But then, after all, I was here to see it, and it was really worth seeing, both of which realizations hit me hard after I read this book.

Venturing out on Old Jolyon’s behalf — which is how I thought of it — got easier to do when I moved to Mount Airy two years ago and got a car. Aside from frequent trips to the Wissahickon, I started taking day trips to state and city parks and arboreta. I found all kinds of places I would never have imagined were so close to Philly. Did you know, for instance, that tucked into a hillside in Gladwyne there’s a large, beautiful park with stone ruins, rolling hills and a burbling creek? I had no idea.

My explorations weren’t all motivated by over-identification with a dead old man in a middlebrow book. They were also motivated by the fact that I’ve been taking medication for depression for more than two decades, yet I still struggle with it every day. I had to find ways to feel better that didn’t involve more pills or talking about my “problems” to a shrink on Rittenhouse Square. It had never occurred to me to turn to nature for some kind of holistic cure, but I couldn’t help noticing that the hush of a shaded trail seemed to quiet the voices in my head. Depression and psychosis would recede, even just temporarily, after a walk in the woods (or its moral equivalent). Now there are some days when the only thing that keeps me going is knowing I might see a woodpecker bang its head against a tree.

WHEN WILLIAM PENN arrived here in 1682, the area was so verdant that he thought it a natural place for a “greene countrie towne,” and indeed, the city is replete with parks and gardens. So why is it that when we think about cities with access to nature, where people hike and wear fleece to dinner, we think of Boulder and Portland? “Philly” and “nature” isn’t an inevitable pairing, which I think does us a disservice.

Philadelphia proper has a total park acreage of 10,830 acres. Thirteen point one percent of the city is parkland — more than in Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Colorado Springs — and 93 percent of the city’s population lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. It’s also a city of rivers; Fairmount Park was created, in fact, to protect the watershed. Pennsylvania has 13 designated “Scenic Rivers,” many of which are nearby.

But the city’s crown jewel, nature-wise, is the Wissahickon. I’m ashamed to say that until I moved to Mount Airy, I hadn’t spent much time there. I went a few times with my ex, but it was hard to enjoy. We were together for almost a decade, and at some point, one of those awful couple dichotomies had calcified: He was the active one, the nature guy, the life-loving Italian. I was the indolent one, the air-conditioner devotee, the Jewish princess. When a relationship is young, such roles get elaborated upon with mutual enjoyment. But as time goes on, the same roles can feel like a straitjacket. Our trips to the Wissahickon often seemed like a battle of the wills.

Now that I’ve had the chance to get to know the park a little on my own, I’m stunned by what an incredible asset it is. The fact that it’s part of the city that I love, and that has defined me in so many ways, makes it all the better. The city’s history is encoded in every step: I’m walking on top of rocks that have been here for thousands of years, over roots of trees that are hundreds of years old. When I see people on horseback, I close my eyes and imagine a pre-industrial Philadelphia, before cars, or pre-Colonial, even, when the berries and mushrooms I’m snapping photos of with my phone were picked as subsistence food. I hike over to Devil’s Pool and know that generations of people have stood exactly where I’m standing now, maybe thinking the same dumb clichés about the majesty of the natural world. All of this time travel, this distance from my own life, reliably puts my problems into what I consider to be proper perspective.

Being in the woods always makes me think, Nothing matters except this. I don’t know how it works, but it makes me absolutely sure that 99 percent of the agita I experience is ridiculous. We humans suffer so much (especially in our minds), yet we live for such a short time. I’d rather be a tree. A tree would be entitled to a mood disorder.

THE ROAD TO INNER PEACE isn’t always smooth, so it didn’t really surprise me that my Schuylkill Sojourn wasn’t perfect. I did it because I wanted to see more of Pennsylvania’s natural beauty from an unfamiliar vantage point. This seemed especially important to do on the Schuylkill River, which people in Philly deride as gross or take for granted but which is actually an incredible waterway with stunning natural diversity. I always feel when I’m hiking that I can’t quite get close enough to nature, even if I touch all the trees, take my shoes off and walk in the creek. What could be more immersive than going down the river in a kayak?

I didn’t account for the trouble I’d have keeping up with everyone, or the shame I’d increasingly feel over my inability to paddle gracefully. I was trying not to think about how much splashing and flailing I was doing — after all, I was having a good time, enjoying the view, so who cared if I looked a little silly? — but no fewer than five people stopped me to give me “tips,” many of them contradictory.

When one of the guides told me she once had to tow a Sojourner who was going too slow to keep up with the group, I said, “Oh my God, that’s so humiliating.” Ten minutes later, she was towing me, though she unhooked me (bless her) when we reached the crowd.

Despite that little setback, I did paddle the whole 15-plus miles that day, and even helped others carry their kayaks when we landed. Riding the school bus back to the parking lot with other participants, sitting in wet clothes and squishy sneakers, I sent text messages to several people — including my ex — to tell them I’d survived the adventure. It dawned on me then that I was feeling proud and happy, two emotions that don’t come easily to me. When I got home that night, I started pricing kayaks on Craigslist. I never imagined I might own something whose sole purpose relates to the outdoors, but I kind of like the idea. Maybe I’ll even buy a tent.

Published as “The Spikol Chronicles” in the August 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.