Balloons and signs recently decorated the Wissahickon bus stop on Main street, welcoming visitors to the Philadelphia Canoe Club’s annual open house.
The club has existed for 106 years, but its location which is leased from Fairmount Park, is still unknown to many of its neighbors.
Picnic tables were set up along the riverfront, live music played from a balcony in the clubhouse, and visitors were given the opportunity to take a boat out. For many, it was their first time on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River.
Club members volunteered all over the sprawling riverfront picnic. Some were manning the grill, some sold used boating equipment and others gave tours of the historic building. A few members got in their boats to demonstrate complex maneuvers or lead families into the water.
Joe Cunningham, the Fleet Captain, opened the newly built boathouse for the community to try out their paddling skills on the mouth of the Wissahickon Creek.
With cars passing overhead on Main Street, inexperienced canoers and kayakers tried not to flip into the shallow water rushing down a waterfall from the creek, and into the Schuylkill.
Club members glided between the wayward boats, offering advice and preventing the land-loving novices from flipping into the water.
However, many of the club members were more than happy to take the plunge.
Demonstrations on the water
The club leads many whitewater kayaking and canoeing trips, so boaters need to practice the life saving technique of rolling upright when their boat is flipped.
While the band took a break, one club member stood from the balcony and narrated as three kayakers played around in the water, demonstrating different moves.
Todd Zielinski, getting out of his kayak, tells Jacob Bortman from the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood how “rolling is a piece of cake.”
Both he and Bortman, who is planning to soon join the club, are glad to be back in the river after a winter of practicing rolling in the pool at St Joseph’s University.
Bortman finishes his conversation with “nice talking to you. I’m gonna go get wet.”
As a canoe goes by, apparently demonstrating a “modified jay stroke” the announcer instructs the crowd that his fellow member is “demonstrating the form and function of a solo canoe.”
Peggy Bradley, a five year member, screams “and grace and beauty!” to the balcony above.
Pieces of history
Inside the clubhouse, visitors got a peek at the “War Canoe,” a 34 foot canoe built in 1911 that now hangs from the rafters but still hits the water once a year during the club’s June meeting.
The 100-year-old canoe is an Old Town model, and one of the “few remaining canoes of this type in the world” according to a pamphlet about the history of the club.
One pillar inside the main hall is covered with about ten plaques signifying each time the Schuylkill has flooded the building.
The tallest plaque, at almost five feet, showed the highwater mark from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Andrea Bruno, a club member tells visitors “we’ve had pictures of people boating through here.”
Another man informs her that the famed photo is in the men’s bathroom, above a photo of that same kayaker paddling over white water rapids.
Bruno seizes the open house opportunity to take a peek in the tiny bathroom, and sure enough, hanging over the toilet are the two photos.
A resurrected gem
Outside on the dock, Paul Liebman sits with a group recording the times of racers crossing the finish line after their journey up the river.
Liebman remembers discovering the building in 1967, and finding “just old boats, but no one was using them.”
As Commodore from 1969 to 1972 Liebman takes some credit for originating the club, “well, we resurrected it from no paddlers and no activities.”
“It was all canoes, there were no kayaks back then,” he recalls. “We realized it was a gem,” he trails off before stopping to watch as two racers zoom past the dock, neck and neck.
“Photo finish!” he calls out, jokingly.
Open to the public
As a part of Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Canoe Club members feel they have a commitment to the people of the city, and they remain accessible to anyone interested in pursuing paddle sports.
Throughout the day members kept pointing out, “you don’t have to be a member to participate.” Training classes are available to the public, as well as the many boating trips that the club leads to rivers all over the East Coast.
But for a small annual fee, and lots of volunteer hours, anyone can join the club and have access to all the facilities, including the fleet.
Members are expected to pledge volunteer days, which some years can include flood clean up.
“You never realize how much mud is suspended in the Schuylkill River water until you go into the club after a flood,” Charlie Day grins as he staffs the membership information booth.
The Philadelphia Canoe Club is open to anyone near Philadelphia who is interested in boating, and has been available to the public for 106 years.
Peggy Bradley, who joined the club in its 101st year, is still impressed with the role PCC plays in Philadelphia’s park system. “We’re the only club that does what we do and we’re a hundred and something years old!”
For more information about the Philadelphia Canoe Club, including upcoming trips and training sessions, go to philacanoe.org.