For over a dozen years I had the same thoughts every time I traversed across the Betsy Ross bridge on my way into Philadelphia: As I gazed southward towards the city I could see the variety of old structures along the Delaware, literal and metaphorical reflections of the city’s centuries-old industrious roots. Many shuttered, disassembled or non functional, the backdrops they could offer to some great wakeboarding photos would really tell a great visual story about Philadelphia. I always knew something had to be done.
I finally brought it upon myself to make it happen, and then explored the area further, wherein I found some other epic spots to ride. This little stretch of river was really a scenic gold mine for a cool, wakeboarding trip. And nobody had ridden some of these spots before. It was finally time to assemble a crew for a few days of sessioning the Philly scene and capturing it all for the magazine. Massi Piffaretti and Gordon Harrison were tapped for the trip along with the legend Parks Bonifay. The boys linked up with local grom Kira Lewis and sessioned the sickest spots the Philly area had to offer. These are the results of a long held dream finally coming to fruition.
Funny enough, the last place we thought of was the first place we hit to shoot photos, the world renowned skate spot: FDR Park. Known for decades in the skate culture as one of the elite skateparks in the States, this spot is run and maintained by the local Philly skate community. It is in a continual state of growth and expansion with new features always being added to the layout. Respect is mandatory. If you arrive with it you can skate to your heart’s content. Fail to show it and the local skaters make sure your visit is a short and inhospitable one.
“What a great first stop, the legendary FDR skatepark right from the airport. I’d seen it in videos and magazines, but to see it in person, you understand why it is so well-respected. There’s a lot of history, it’s got some grit to it and people just shred there.”
The Boat Graveyard
During our exploration of creative places to shoot we came across what can only be described as a post apocalyptic marina. All the docks, aged through time, are still in place. So too are the boats, some 60 in number, that are still tied into their slips. They share another unique description: every one sits below the waterline, sunken where they’ve been tied up for decades.
“It is one of the more bizarre things I have seen on the water. Every boat is there, every slip filled. And it looks like they’ve been there for 40 years, like it was put on quarantine or just left to rot away. Just rotted wood and jagged metal everywhere with no signs of life.”
The Abandoned Cruise Ship
Once deemed the “Fastest Cruise Ship” of its time, the SS United States has sat mothballed in port for 20 years. Aged and decrepit, its usefulness has long gone past until Massi got the idea for a cool shot angle.
“It was crazy being next a ship that big, intimidating and scary. And it was all about the proper timing in that narrow canal. We only had one chance to get the shot before the water was ruined.”
The Secret Spot
Seclusion can be a wakeboarder’s best friend, and having a riding spot all your own is what we covet as riders. Kira and I have just that sort of spot tucked away on the Jersey side of the river, a meandering waterway with plenty of good riding (should you know where to look) and, equally as important, very little boat traffic. With few of these spots existing in our area, we are hesitant to share its location because of our own selfish riding interests.
“We’ll see another wakeboarding boat maybe two or three times a season, but that’s it,” noted Kira about this hidden gem. But sharing it with our guests was something we were happy to do, and some great moments came from it. “My favorite part of their visit was being at our riding spot, getting off under the bridge and being with Bear while he shot Gordon doing huge double ups under the bridge. “
Shredding the Schkuyll
Hiding in plain sight is the Schkuyll (pronounced skoo-kill) river, a meandering waterway that goes from the northernmost point of the city and runs 30 miles through downtown and eventually flows into the Delaware. Every seven miles are dams that partition the river into separate compartments. The section we sessioned over two days offered some amazing and dynamic backdrops starting with shredding through oil refineries and their elongated stacks belching steam nonstop. Moments later you’re in a quiet, treelined channel going underneath a train trestle long abandoned and emblazoned with graffiti. Before long you’re cruising straight through downtown Philly with skyscrapers and congested expressways flanking either side of the river.
“The changing of the scenery in such a short time was just amazing,” commented Gordon Harrison. “I was out there riding and there was something new around every corner. I was completely gassed from riding so long, but I just couldn’t stop. I knew we were getting epic shot after epic shot and everything looked different.”
This stretch of the river ended at a waterfall, where the highlight of the trip ultimately went down.
“Man, this place looks like something out of ‘Game of Thrones’ for real,” said Parks as he soaked in the scenery surrounding the cove. The far side was marked by a rocky ledge leading to a treefilled hillside. The near shore was a slow rising hillside, historical buildings along the waters edge while in the background stands the massive Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose Roman-inspired beige stoneface structure dates back to 1876. Separating the shorelines stands a 10-foot tall waterfall we approximated to be a thousand feet long. The original concept was to use the cove for some double up’s, but the boys devised alternative ways to use the terrain.
We tied a few lines together giving us 160 feet to work with and Massi was the first to session the waterfall. “I wanted to jib a branch that was sticking out over the edge, but we had to figure out how to get into that tight of a spot,” said Massi. “We finally figured out the angle and I hit it a few times and was stoked. But definitely the highlight of the whole trip was Parks wall-riding the waterfall.”
Bonifay knew he was on to something special when he first laid eyes on it.
“When I saw it I thought this would be a cool place to do a big whip around and take a good shot at going up the waterfall. After taking a good look I thought you might be able to get to the top, if you got whipped in just right. We just worked on which boat angle would be best to approach it. The whole thing was just a weird setup but we knew if everything came together we could get something cool. So on my last attempt I came in and took an extra hard dig at it and was able to get all the way to the top. I did a bunch of carves up on the lip of the waterfall for 500 feet and then jibbed a log and dropped back down the waterfall just as the boat turned before hitting the rocks on shore. It was sketchy and epic!”
“I love having those experiences, getting to session something that was unexpected. Usually that’s when you get the best stuff, when you make something come together. We never anticipated doing that, but we just showed up, tied the ropes together and rolled with the punches. Those are the best things that happen on a trip, when you just show up and wing it.”
Like coffee to Seattle or deep dish pizza to Chicago, Philadelphia is known for a local delicacy: the Philly cheesesteak. They start with shaved beef grilled and served on Italian bread, with cheese and fried onions as staple items. But from there they widely vary from place to place, and Parks set some lofty cheesesteak goals for his visit.
“Well, first of all I knew I was going to have a lot of them while I was there. I’ve had Philly cheesesteaks before, and I know they differ from cheesesteak place to cheesesteak place. So I wanted to hit up some of the more notable places to see how they differentiate their steaks. I wasn’t looking for the best one, I just wanted to see how many different types I could have. I had some with cheese whiz. I had some with provolone. Some with fried onions some without. All different ways. My goal was seven cheesesteaks in 4 days. I only got six, but I still chalk it up as a win. I feel I did good about my effort.”