♪ ♪ (sound of cars) [DON BAUGH] Above us, we hear the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike in Camden, New Jersey.
Every day, 800,000 vehicles cross the river on 21 bridges; with no idea of what's below them.
We didn't either.
So, we invited four young explorers to join us on an historic expedition to discover the secrets of this river, the Cooper River.
We'll kayak, hike, and bushwhack along the river all the way to its source, somewhere 17 miles upstream.
We're not exactly sure where the source is, but we hope to find it.
An expedition like this has never been done before.
I'm not sure we're all going to make it, but we're sure going to try.
(slow and majestic sounding orchestral music) ♪ ♪ [MAGGIE MCCANN JOHNS] My vision for the Cooper River is a river that's for everyone and everything.
Something that people of all abilities can enjoy.
And that the things that have called the river home for many years before humans were ever here... have the ability to thrive and enjoy it, too.
(music sting over map) So, we started sorta at the nexus of some pretty interesting places.
The Kramer Hill Waterfront Park that used to be a landfill and Petty's Island.
♪ ♪ [ANDREW] We paddled out to the island where we did some seining.
It was amazing to see the biodiversity of the river.
(group Chatter) [ANDREW] We caught around six different species of fish from this.... little ones this big to a catfish this big.
[DON] Look at that.
I think we're going to have to let him back.
[JERMAINE] That's a good eating catfish.
[DON] That is good eating catfish.
[MAGGIE] One of the things that we're hoping that our young leaders discover is that there's an abundance of life in the river, especially in the urban area.
And for them to share that discovery with everyone, so they can learn to protect, preserve, and love this resource.
[ANAND VARMA] I collect some of the specimens, some of the animals and plants that we see along the way.
Uh, I capture them temporarily to photograph them back at camp.
(camera clicks) [ANAND] What I'm trying to do with these kind of close up macro shots is to show these very familiar creatures in new ways.
They're not new species.
(Anand holding flower) I mean, this is one of the most stunning flowers I've seen on the East Coast.
But I'm trying to show them in a way that uh, helps people appreciate the beauty and complexity that's here.
I mean, I think that's one of the core, uh, missions of this expedition is to take this river and open people's eyes to what's here and the beauty that may have gone unnoticed.
[MAGGIE] So, we started the expedition at a little spit of land that right now is a boat graveyard but we're hoping to turn it into something fabulous and become part of the bigger system.
I want to buy this, and I want to buy the property that this sits on and turn this into a café, and then make the property that is adjacent to it part of Pyne Poynt Park.
♪ ♪ We're going to head that way around the corner and up the river.
If you see anything cool, holler.
(lively music builds) ♪ ♪ [JERMAINE] The hardest part was going against the current because the tide was going out, and we were going against it, (chuckles) so it was pretty, pretty hard.
[ANDREW] The only complaint I have is I think I'm getting a blister on my thumb.
[MAGGIE] Our hope is that this whole shoreline, is going to become greenway, is going to become parkland.
The idea, too, is to have that trail that goes all along the waterfront that people will be able to use.
[JERMAINE] Look at that!
[MAGGIE] Day two of our expedition.
And we're now in the nontidal Cooper River.
So, levels in this side of the lake are really uh, determined by rainfall (chuckles).
[ANDREW] It started with a little drizzle.
And then as we paddled into the Cooper Lake under a bridge, it just started to absolutely pour on us.
[JERMAINE] The rain came down hard.
Um, it poured.
(chuckles) Pretty much every part of my body was wet... [BELLA] It got really heavy, halfway.
And it was... Like, there was a breeze coming in and it was already super cold.
I was covered in like three different layers of clothing, but I was still freezing, and my fingers started to change color and turn purple.
[ANDREW] Uh, eventually, we ended up paddling to the, ah, sewage pump station ah, where we stopped for lunch.
[SCOTT SCHREIBER] ...streams and tributaries.
[ANDREW] The guy from the sewage plant station told us about what they were doing to improve the water quality and what has been done already.
[SCOTT] ...we're really removing about 95 percent or better of the solids uh, that are coming to us.
So, huge difference.
[ANDREW] I didn't really know how centralized all the waste management was.
How they got all the different towns and put them all into one station then moved them off to the uh, Camden site.
(group chatter) [JERMAINE] Getting in the canoe and getting out was pretty rough.
(More group chatter) (orchestral music) [JERMAINE] And then at the end, the sun came out... ...we went over a couple of dams.
(sound of rushing water) ♪ ♪ [JERMAINE] But it was fun.
[MAGGIE] Welcome everybody to day three of our expedition.
Welcome to Haddonfield.
And uh, we're here in Evan's Pond.
(voices of group) [JERMAINE] Evan's pond right off the bat is very muddy.
I got out of the kayak maybe about three or four times in a matter of 10 minutes to pull us through the mud.
[MAGGIE] What we're going to find today as we go up river is that the river's going to start to disappear and get smaller, um, but that nature is going to start to take over.
[DAVID KELLER] They don't quite match up.
[ANDREW] That's fine.
The people from the museum brought out electro shock fishing equipment.
I was given pretty specific instructions.
"All right, Andrew, you got to wear these gloves.
You got to go on the waders, and do not touch the water."
They said, "All right, when you hear the machine beeping, do not touch the water or you will get zapped."
[ANDREW] What kind of damage would it do - if I got zapped.
[MAN] Let's not find out.
[ANDREW] They said it doesn't hurt that much, but uh, it can still be pretty nasty.
[ANDREW] They would pulse an electric charge through the river, which would momentarily stun the fish, so we could scoop them up in the net.
It was really interesting to see the biodiversity of the river all just right there when we concentrated it in our tanks.
[DAVID] Put it in there.
Squeeze with this hand.
If he flops just squeeze tighter.
This is an American eel.
It was probably a glass eel in about March.
It could be one year old, too.
It's tough to tell.
But...they don't get much smaller than this.
[MAN] So...it's gonna be 64.1.
[DAVID] We had that small, recently transformed eel that we started with.
And then this is what ends up migrating.... [ANDREW] We were able to see some very large specimens of eels.
[DAVID] It's a native fish.
It's a native catfish.
[ANDREW] And many different species of fish.
[DAVID] So, the swallow tails on the bottom and the spot-tail shiner's on the top.
[JERMAINE] And then, when we got further up river, we kept hitting like down trees and beaver dams, and it was hard to find where deep places were, where the trees was crossing, you didn't know, if there were sticks underneath the water.
(sound of teenagers struggling in water) Um, I fell in quite a few times.
But that's beside the point.
Uh, yeah, (chuckles) and I'm still wet.
[JERMAINE] A couple of times, Bella had to get on my back to get over the logs, and Bella had to stay in the boat and I had to the pull the boat.
It was pretty intense, but I would do it again.
(orchestral music) ♪ ♪ [JERMAINE] Going under the 295 was easy, but when we went under the New Jersey Turnpike, it was pretty rough.
(eerie music) [JAYCEL] So, before going into the tunnel, I was looking at it from a distance crouching down like, "Oh, that's dark."
You had to be like, slanted downwards and like...it was hurting my back a little bit.
[DON] How about it?
Hip, hip, hooray.
[JAYCEL] I didn't expect it to be this tough.
[BELLA] I know, we had to like hike up from under the bridge to the side of the highway.
And there were just a bunch of bushes and thorn bushes.
There was a bunch of poison ivy, too.
[ANDREW] There was a point where we accidentally flipped over the kayak and all our stuff fell in the river.
That was kind of nasty.
But uh, we managed to get over what we were trying get over.
It was, ah, just a lot of pulling the kayak through sand and mud, but uh, it was one of the most fun days...so far.
[JERMAINE] I learned that the Cooper River is very, I would say, diverse.
It has so many different types of land structures.
I just never would've thought: you go from mud to sand to rock, back to mud, back to sand, then like a little small stream to bushwhacking.
Yeah, it was changing dramatically in like, in a matter of minutes.
[MAGGIE] Welcome to Day 4 of our expedition.
[JAYCEL] Our biggest challenge of the day was being underneath the hot sun with the waders.
Oh man, today was like about 92, 90 something degrees.
[JERMAINE] We were in there all day with the waders on.
Ah man, sweaty, hot.
[BELLA] I've never used waders before.
There were some points in the river where the water was like just up to here.
[JERMAINE] We're going to be kayaking with these waders on?
[ANDREW] I did it yesterday.
It was fine.
[JERMAINE] We actually sat in the water.
The water didn't get in our waders, but we felt the cold water through our waders.
(teenagers walking through tall grass) [MAGGIE] The expedition that we're on isn't for everyone.
We are trekking through unknown parts right now.
But the plan is that we're going to make it accessible.
Maybe not the whole 17 miles of the Cooper River, but certainly a big portion of it.
We want to open it up, provide access points and give people some places to just go and enjoy the river.
[BRANDON TYTHER] Yeah, a land trail will be great... uh, going all the way out.
That would be really fun little trail to have, walking through a lot of different areas and you can see a lot of different things through here.
One of the things that I like about being here is the privacy, but that would be one of those things we have to give up for that.
I think it would be worth it.
[DON VAN ARTSDALEN] This was our swimming hole.
You know, we didn't have pools and stuff back when I was little... [ANDREW] We heard from Don, um, that it used to be a large resource for him as a child.
[DON] ...the water was crystal clear.
Back when I was young, I drank out of this creek.
[ANDREW] But then later, they were unable to do that.
[DON] There were sewage plants that actually, dumped into the creek.
Well, the creek ended up, it got so polluted, it was yucky.
I mean, it was a mess.
[ANDREW] The river's been clearing out slowly, but they still need to just try to reduce the runoff water.
(group chatter) [MAGGIE] This grate here is actually a connection to the sewer that's many feet down below us and below the river.
That when they disconnected all the small sewer treatment plants, they built a main line and because the river's the low point, they built it under or right near the river.
So, we should come across several of these on our journey.
(sound of cars driving) [MARY LAMIELLE] They dumped whatever they didn't want to use... [ANDREW] We met one lady, Mary.
When she was a child, she was seeing the river as a multitude of colors from the paint factory up in Gibbsboro.
[MARY] Especially, I remember vividly right at the fence line on this side.
And as the water came um, past our property, that it was multi-colored.
So, I can sort of remember purples and yellows, and just all kinds of colors flowing through or sort of swirled together.
[ANDREW] She had always been told not to go near it as it was polluted.
"Don't swim in the river," is the thing she had been told by her father.
And that was probably uh, a contributing factor into what people today think of the Cooper River as they think that it's still very polluted... (orchestral music) [ANDREW] ...but it's actually been quite improved.
[JERMAINE] And it's kinda devastating, really, that people did that to the river.
But it's better now.
We can walk through it safely-- and I'm still here.
(chuckles) So...we're good.
[ANDREW] It's been the hardest day so far.
Uh, the waders in the sun was brutal, especially since-- we were stopping to get those interviews, getting out of the shade.
Sun just beat down on you.
I was soaked in sweat.
It was...it was pretty rough.
[JERMAINE] There's no like designated way to get down to the river from the road, so uh, we had to bushwhack.
And those Asian knotweed and the weeds and oh, everywhere.
But it was kinda fun.
(sound of bushwhacking) [JAYCEL] The machete, that was a new experience for me.
I actually enjoy swinging it left to right cutting branches down.
And it was really fun.
[JERMAINE] And then, it was kinda sketchy getting down on the river because you had to use the roots from a tree and mud to kinda get down to the river.
Pretty rough, but we got through it.
[BELLA] So, I took the waders off like...near the end where we had maybe a half-mile left, so I was just walking around with boots and shorts.
[JERMAINE] When we were leaving today, uh, we switched from hiking on our feet to kayaking through a very dark, winding tunnel.
It was very, very um, scary 'cause there was a lot of big spiders, and you couldn't see the end of the tunnel until you made a turn.
(teenagers chatter and scream in tunnel) [JERMAINE] And I'd never been so happy to see the end of a tunnel in my life, uh, the scariest tunnel by far ever in my life.
[BELLA] Oh, I'm really going to cry.
[MAGGIE] I'd never experienced something like this, so I'm guessing that they haven't either.
But they tackled each day, even though it's been tough sometimes, with excitement, and then coming out of it you can tell that they're energized.
Even though they're exhausted, uh, that's there's uh, a new-found sense of themselves, um, and the world around them.
[JERMAINE] It's been fun.
It's great to have a great group that we have.
Everybody help each other out.
We guide each other, and we just, you know, stick together.
[DON BAUGH] All hands on deck!
Let's see what we got here.
I think those are baby blue gills.
[DON] Look at those catfish.
[JERMAINE] Look at those catfish!
[DON] Anand got some pictures last night of catfish that will blow your mind.
[STEFANIE KROLL] This is ranatra.
They pierce, um, into their prey and then they suck out all the delicious juices.
Oh, here's another one.
Um, Mayflies can be indicators of really excellent water quality.
[ANAND VARMA] Uh, this is the first time, we've found May flies.
[MAGGIE] We're going to go exploring upstream.
(bright and adventurous music) ♪ ♪ [DON] The plan now is we're going to go up to this beaver dam.
We're going to get out.
I'll go first and we're going to leave the boats in the water.
Take all your gear with you.
Paddles and life jackets will disappear.
Thankfully, they will reappear because we'll need them again.
One more lake.
We start to hoof it.
The hoofing's going to be easy hoofing for starters, okay.
[MAGGIE] So...there's actually 21 of these crossings that the Cooper River goes under that most people don't know the river's there.
♪ ♪ [ANAND] The highlight of today was we were getting ready to load the kayaks into Linden Pond and uh, a stranger drives by and she stops.
[JERMAINE] She says, "Are you the guys who's trying to discover the Cooper River?"
And I was glued.
I could not stop...because you don't see this every day.
[JERMAINE] She was like, "I saw you all in the news."
[MAXINE] We need you guys to show more of what it is that everybody else ought to be doing.
[JERMAINE] She was amazing.
She sent us words of encouragement, and we wind up doing an hour and fifteen minutes more than we were supposed to, and that's 'cause we all were really just amazed and happy about what she said.
[MAXINE] I just want to encourage you and let you know that this only just begun, this is just your beginning.
(crowd cheers and claps) (traffic noise) [JAYCEL] So how long...is this right here?
[DON] Uh, paddle will be about 40 minutes.
It's not far.
And the hike will be probably an hour and a half.
[MAGGIE] Today, we're really talking about what things used to be like before people came and changed the environment.
We're going to be walking through the sponge, where things are filtered through, and where even if there is pollution, it can be dealt with in a natural way.
[ANDREW] Today, it was particularly rough because I think the team just started struggling with the cohesion.
We were all getting fed up and mad at each other, and the conditions on the trail weren't helping either.
(sound of squelching mud) (mysterious music) [ANAND] Only about half of this is coming off.
[BELLA] I was just over it at that point, because the mud...it was way above my ankle at that point.
[MAGGIE] After we crossed over Gibbsboro Road, we can tell that the topography changed.
And the vegetation changed, so we're seeing low bush blueberry now, mountain laurel, oaks, and we're in a different micro environment.
[ANAND] I would say the first half of the expedition felt fairly familiar, or it didn't stray far from my expectations of like, ah, this is a polluted river, this is an urban river.
It's a little bit smelly after the rains.
You know, there's a lot of invasive species kinda along the banks.
There's a lot of road noise and culverts, and...
These are all things I'm used to seeing from exploring the rivers around Atlanta.
But really, the last couple of days has been where it has shocked me.
Where how many different little microbiomes there have been.
Especially today, just carpets of ferns and mossy banks.
It feels more like, I'm the Smoky Mountains or the Blue Ridge than I am in New Jersey.
(laughs) Urban New Jersey.
[ANDREW] Once, we got through some of the swamp, the river got real narrow, probably only about two feet wide.
It was so beautiful.
It was something I really didn't expect since it was like sandwiched between a few major roads.
[ANAND] You're holding it just right way.
We got into areas that were so rich in animal life.
[JERMAINE] We saw these frogs and toads everywhere.
[ANAND] And so, I had some opportunities to kind of run around and catch a dragonfly and a damselfly and a few frogs that we have now that I'm going to photograph tonight and release back tomorrow morning.
[MAGGIE] Today, we're really trying to figure out where is the source of the Cooper River, and since we still haven't totally figured out the where, thoughts on the why?
[ANDREW] No one knows.
[BELLA] No one's tried.
[MAGGIE] No one's tried.
Do we...have we figured out why no one's tried?
(laughs) [ANDREW] It seemed like a bad idea.
[JERMAINE] The terrain is a little um...battle scarrish.
It's a little challenging.
[JERMAINE] A little challenging.
[DON] Throw a machete back here.
I need a machete.
[MAGGIE] Don't throw it!
[BELLA] There are a lot of thorn bushes.
Like, like everywhere you looked, there was a thorn bush somewhere.
And I counted, I have about like...20 scratches all over my body just from thorn bushes.
[MAGGIE] And any ideas of what...what the source is going to look like?
Is it going to look a lot like this, or what are we feeling?
[ANDREW] It's probably going to be this.
And this swampy bit just stops, and then we just stand in there and be like, yay, we found it.
[MAGGIE] So...once we get to the source, what I'm really looking forward to is the sense of accomplishment for the young people that are with us.
And for the people seeing this that they understand that we have life right here in Camden County, that we have nature here, and that there's a lot of possibilities that we need to open up because they've just been tucked away by our built environment.
[DON] Okay, where are we in terms of our excitement level.
Are we really excited?
Kind of excited?
One, two, three, go!
Are we going to find the source or not?
One to three, vote!
[ANDREW] We sure as hell will.
[ANDREW] I'm really excited to uh, finally get to the source of the river, because that'll really complete the whole journey and tie everything together.
♪ ♪ [JERMAINE] The river got more narrow and more narrow as we got close to the source.
The surrounding area near the river was very muddy, sometimes to your ankles, sometimes to your knees, maybe a little further than that.
It was actually beautiful.
Yeah, we seen beautiful ferns, frogs, all types of stuff.
Stuff, I never would have expected to see.
Where's my fishing rod when I need it?
We came upon this big open body of water that was bluish, clearish water.
You can see the fish.
[JERMAINE] And we thought, "Oh wow, we've found the source!"
It's not the end, is it?
[JERMAINE] It's pretty close!
(Exciting and lively music) [JERMAINE] Is this, it right here?
[DON] This is the source of the Cooper River.
You can see the water flowing down from this natural spring flowing into this pond, into this river.
[ANDREW] I claim it to be mine now.
I put my stick in the ground... [JERMAINE] No way!
[JAYCEL] I'm walking in it.
[JERMAINE] This little trickle.
It looks kinda soft.
(Jaycel exclaims as he sinks in water) [JERMAINE] It was amazing that we came and we found the source of the Cooper River.
[DON] My father who was 95 when he died about eight years ago, every single day went down to a spring, and uh, this was the only water-- he would drink.
I want to go into the source and filter this water.
(sound of syphoning water; pouring into Andrew's mouth) [JERMAINE] How did it taste?
Does it taste earthy?
[DON] Maggie's going to try it.
[ANDREW] Yeah, it's earthy.
Yeah, you could sell this for like, $70 a jug.
[MAGGIE] It tastes better than that water the other day.
You know what, it's not bad.
(Don pours water for Jaycel) [JERMAINE] It's probably not that bad.
It won't kill me.
It won't hurt me, if I try a little bit.
[DON] See what it tastes like... [JAYCEL] Yeah, a little earthy.
[JERMAINE] All right, can I try it?
That's not bad.
(Bella makes sound of disgust after drinking) (sound of Don drinking from jar) [DON] It's good.
Got a little hydrogen sulfite in it... [JERMAINE] That's what I tasted.
[DON] ...but it's got a nice taste to it otherwise.
[JAYCEL] Um, the mouth of the water of the Cooper River is like, really dirty and gross.
But at the source, the water's clear.
It's clear and there's a lot of fishes.
[JERMAINE] Yeah, it's pretty nice.
I've never seen clear water like this in Jersey.
[BELLA] Yeah, the water is very clean up here than down in Camden.
There's a lot more animals around, too, like in the water.
[ANDREW] It's amazing to see how much it can change.
[MAGGIE] To have the courage to do this was awesome, and that you made it through and not ever did one of you say like, "I'm done.
I'm giving up.
This is over."
And even through some really through some really tough stuff.
It impresses me.
It gives me hope for the future.
And it makes me excited to keep doing what I'm doing to, you know, protect these places.
[ANDREW] It's really something monumental to really find the beginning of something that can really bring communities together.
[JAYCEL] It's worth the experience and seeing new things.
It was difficult...but I would do it again.
[JERMAINE] I would do it again.
Uh, maybe I'd be little more prepared.
Got a little bit of battle scars, but I mean-- that's expected on a hike, an expedition.
[DON] When I first touched this river, you know, in a kayak, in a hurricane, you know-- kinda seen what was here, it just blew my mind away of the resource right here in our backyards.
And I thought about this idea of doing the expedition, and I was never certain in my mind whether or not we could actually do it.
I wasn't certain, if we could get a group that would have the stamina to hold up for so long, because I knew the challenges.
[JERMAINE] Well, we discovered the Cooper River.
We paddled through it.
We hiked through it.
We fell in it.
(laughs) We had it on us.
We even tasted the Cooper River.
And now it's in us.
[ANDREW] I'm in the source of the Cooper River.
(splashing in water) [ANDREW] Yes, it's nice.
It's very nice.
(vocal music over credits) ♪ ♪