It may not match the fabled searches for the source of the Nile in the 19th century, but a proposed expedition to explore all 16 miles of the Cooper River in Camden County can claim some lofty goals.

By kayaking, hiking and bushwhacking their way from the Cooper’s confluence with the Delaware River at the city of Camden to its source at Gibbsboro to the south, participants hope to draw attention to a neglected natural gem that has been obscured by a gritty urban landscape, and to turn it into the recreational asset they believe it should be.

Although Cooper River Lake near the river’s northern end has become a popular attraction for water sports including national rowing competitions, most of the river is an obscure, meandering stream that’s navigable by kayak for some of the way but sometimes blocked by fallen trees and piles of trash.

Credit: (Upstream Allliance)
The course of the Cooper River

The event, titled “Search for the Cooper River,” is being headed by Don Baugh, president of Upstream Alliance, a nonprofit that works to connect people with nature and create recreational opportunities in natural areas such as the Delaware River basin. He hopes to stage the expedition in September or October, depending on the availability of funding.

Contributing to ‘Camden Rising’

Baugh hopes to set a national precedent by opening up the river, and showing that it can have recreational value for all, especially for environmental justice communities in historically impoverished and crime-ridden cities like Camden. A revitalized river could play a part in the “Camden Rising” movement that is attracting more investment and helping push the crime rate — which once gave Camden the unenviable reputation of being America’s most dangerous city — to its lowest in decades.

But even if the expedition stimulates public interest in the river, Baugh wants it to become an asset for local people rather than a gentrified attraction.

“We hope it’s not just another waterfront paradise, that it’s a waterfront that becomes accessible for the people that live there, and enriches their lives,” he said.

He argues that increased use would create pressure to complete the cleanup of the Cooper and other urban rivers — a process that began with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 but which remains unfinished because of continued discharges from wastewater plants, and contaminated runoff from roads, farms and lawns, depleting oxygen for aquatic life.

“Because of the Clean Water Act, many of our urban rivers are in the same condition. They have improved but they still have the cultural mindset of being sewers and backwaters, and areas that are not fit for human habitation,” Baugh said.

“So we see this as potentially a model for other urban rivers; they are often hidden and not identified, and don’t have recreational opportunities. They often, like this river, are the most valuable open space but they are just not accessible.”

Who’s in the expedition party?

The expedition will include up to four youth leaders from Camden County communities; the director of the county’s park system, Maggie McCann; a professional videographer, and researchers from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, who will test for water quality, collect fish and other aquatic life, and monitor wildlife.

In all, the expedition party will number fewer than 10, and plan to take six days to navigate the full length of the river, Baugh said. Progress is expected to be slow partly because of a large number of fallen trees, as some sections that are impassable in a kayak will have to be traveled on foot. The final goal will be a spring that is believed to be the source of the river at Gibbsboro.

After trees are climbed over or cut away, and debris is avoided, the expedition will also build in time to speak with local residents about how or whether they use the river, and whether they would use it more if access were improved.

Each night, the group will camp near the river, a prospect that Baugh conceded will be “challenging” because they will need to find areas where tents can be pitched, and where any private landowners will allow the party to stay.

‘Once you’re in there, you feel like you’re out West in some wilderness, frankly. You have no idea that you are in the most densely populated state in the union.’

Participants will need to be physically fit, and to expect a rigorous expedition, he said, recalling a kayak trip he made up part of the river last October. “You’re crawling over stuff, you’re on your hands and knees, you’re pulling up boats — it’s exhausting,” Baugh said.

But he predicted that participants will have a wilderness-like experience amid a dense urban landscape.

“Once you’re in there, you feel like you’re out West in some wilderness, frankly. You have no idea that you are in the most densely populated state in the union. All you know is that you are surrounded by nature,” he said.

Still tainted by contaminated runoff

McCann of Camden County Parks said the river’s water quality is safe for boating on most days but it is tainted by contaminated runoff during rainstorms, and, in its tidal section north of Kaighns Avenue, by discharges from a combined sewer overflow.

Still, she hopes the expedition will open up the Cooper River as a recreational asset, and help people understand that there is a natural environment in their midst that they might not have expected.

“We’ve taken groups on the river, and people often say, ‘I can’t believe I’m in Camden,’” she said. “You expect to go to other places like the Delaware Water Gap or Vermont to experience this kind of recreation.

“My hope is that in 10 years, people aren’t surprised by that; that they know that this is Camden County and we have these amazing natural resources, and you don’t have to go up in the mountains or down the Shore to get these beautiful recreational opportunities.”

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