The first time Hadley fell out of a canoe, she was reaching to pet an imaginary bass with that carefree disregard of consequences common to newly mobile toddlers. Fortunately, I reacted quickly, so my daughter's first swim in the Delaware River barely wet her personal flotation device. The second plunge was a leap born of surprise. A burst from the treetops startled us into next week and sent her into the drink again. It was a bald eagle diving to pluck dinner from the shallows beside our canoe. The big bird hit the river in a watery explosion, then lifted off with a fish in its talons. As it sailed out of sight, the water calmed, but our child's excitement stayed.
The typical Delaware River float trip may not offer the excitement of small children falling overboard, but if you paddle it in the winter off-season, you're likely to spy more bald eagles than people. The 40-mile stretch of protected waterway in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is one of the few wintering sites in the East and the temporary home to numerous balds that spend 4 to 6 months here. They're most active in the morning and late afternoon, soaring and swooping over the shallows where they fish.
Several dozen comfortable camping sites dot the high banks and islands. If you prefer hiking, 25 miles of the Appalachian Trail traverse the Water Gap and nearby Kittatiny Mountain.
For a relaxed, 3-day float, put in at Dingman's Ferry (8 miles south of Milford on PA 209) and take out at Kittatiny Point Visitor Center, where I-80 crosses the Delaware (100 miles north of Philadelphia).
December through March is best for spotting eagles. Contact the Water Gap for the location of current wintering sites.
Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year: A Month by Month Guide to Natural Events (mid-Atlantic states), by Scott Weidensaul (Fulcrum Publishing, 800-992-2908; $16.95).
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, (570) 588-2451; www.nps.gov/dewa.