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The Lehigh River: Fascinating and Timeless
Tom Gettings
Wildlands Conservancy
Feb 11, 2004
A river has been flowing through the Lehigh Valley for millennia. Until the 19th century it was called the West Branch of the Delaware River. Only after the river acquired its own individuality as a transportation base in the early 1800's did we begin to use the anglicized version, "Lehigh", of the word the Native American Lenni Lenape called the river "Lechewuekink." This tongue twisting word means, "where there are forks", and refers to various paths going north and west that branched off a major trail along the river at present day Bethlehem.

The Lehigh River has gone through dramatic changes during its recorded history. The Lenni Lenape nation lived along its shores 10,000 years ago. The first European immigrants in the 18th century used its water and the creatures living in it as the basis for their New World settlements. The great American Industrial Revolution in the 19th century was born on its riverbanks. Using the force of its water to fuel power sources and provide transportation for raw materials and manufactured goods on its canal, built in the 1820's by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, the Lehigh was at the center of America's development into an industrial giant in the 20th century. Today as we enter the 21st century the role the Lehigh will play in the future has yet to be determined.

What we do know is that the Lehigh's water hasn't been as clean as it is now since the first Europeans settled on its shores. At one point in the early 1900's the Lehigh's water was so polluted by coal, sewage and manufacturing waste it was described as "black flowing lava." We also know that from the Lehigh Gorge State Park, in the upper reaches, to its confluence with the Delaware River at Easton, the river is being rafted, canoed and fished more than anytime in the last 200 years. The Lehigh has been discovered as a recreational resource as the 21st century begins.

Being close to any river is a mesmerizing experience. The sound, the current, the very texture and atmosphere created by moving water makes a statement that transcends time, place and history. Today if you launch a canoe onto the Lehigh you can join all those who have done so for thousands of years. John James Audubon, the great American painter and naturalist, sojourned along the upper Lehigh painting bird species for six weeks in 1829. The reasons for a canoe trip back then was for exploration and primary transportation. Today we launch our canoes for education and recreation purposes. Our reasons for paddling the Lehigh may have changed over time but the fascination of being on the river has not.

Flocks of Canada Geese lift off as we approach, noisily heading toward the next stop on their migration. Great Blue Herons warily watch as we quietly slip toward their hunting positions. Frantic Mallards and Mergansers beat their wings to get airborne as they sense danger in our approach. The beaver slaps its tail and heads for the safety of the tree-lined bank and its lodge beneath the rocks. Deer are startled as they drink from a spot that is rarely visited by others and an Osprey flies overhead with a newly caught fish in its talons. The hawk hovering overhead is usually a Red-tail but sometimes it's a Cooper or a Sharp-shinned or another seldom seen raptor. An River Otter scurries up onto the bank as we approach interrupting its play and that mating pair of Bald Eagles once again swoops low overhead almost as if they are trying to get a closer look at us as we float by.

The riverbank is ever changing. Giant Sycamores, Catalpa and Maple trees line the riverbanks and collapse with age into the water creating ideal aquatic habitat. High water events reduce and remove the dead wood insuring that the pattern of natural change remains constant over the span of time. Maps that date back to the first European settlers indicate islands and sets of rapids that are in exactly the same locations today as they were hundreds of years ago. Old foundations and ruins of canal era buildings used from the 1820's to 1930's can be glimpsed along the tree-lined riverbanks.

Today the Lehigh River is no longer the industrial river it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is no longer the settlers' river of the 18th century and it certainly is not the river of the first Native Americans that hunted and settled on its banks 10,000 years ago. But it is still our river and it still speaks to us. If we listen well we can hear of the times gone by, but we can also perceive the opportunities that lie ahead. The wise old saying," You never step into the same river twice", reminds us that all rivers change every second of every day never to be exactly the same again. It is up to each generation to listen to our river, join the flow of life that it creates and determine what role it will play in our future.

Go to the Lehigh and touch the river. Canoe on its water, skip stones on its surface, listen to its flow, reflect on its exceptional history and then help decide its future.

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