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‘Welcome to Princeton, and welcome to the Millstone Watershed:’ Exploring Princeton’s backyard wilderness

A group of canoes on the river filled with young people in life vests. Green trees fill the background.
Photo courtesy of Professor Anne McClintock

Underneath the Princeton Public Library flows a hidden brook. Before Princeton was settled and developed, Harry’s Brook comprised the entirety of Spring Street, where the public library is now situated. Today, it runs via a concrete culvert beneath the streets of town. If someone were to put their ear to the pavement of the library’s parking lot, they might hear the river burbling away beneath. 

But this body of water is not contained underground. It empties out into the Millstone River, which feeds into Lake Carnegie from the other side of Route 1. In total, the river spans a distance of just under 39 miles, incorporating over a dozen tributaries and providing much of central New Jersey’s drinking water. 


The river has a rich history as both a gathering place for central New Jersey’s Munsee Lenape communities and early European colonizers, who formed the Delaware and Raritan (D&R) Canal, which runs alongside and at one point crosses over the Millstone, in 1834 as a direct line of transport between the cities of Philadelphia and New York.  

In 1902, Howard Russel Butler, Class of 1876, asked steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to provide the funds for a lake where the University’s crew team could have more space to practice. Carnegie agreed, and by 1906, a dam had been placed at the confluence of the Millstone and the Stony Brook to form what we now know as Lake Carnegie. Now, some go through Princeton seeing only the lake, completely unaware of the river’s existence. Others, however, have been highly dedicated to exploring the Millstone’s topography, tributaries, history, and role in the Princeton area.

A moon shines over a dark blueish sky with black outlines of trees. A river in the bottom reflects the moonlight.

Anne McClintock

Water and language: members of the Delaware Nation connect with the River

New Jersey’s Munsee Lenape communities have various traditions around the river and their own language to describe the wildlife environment it supports. At the annual Lunaape Language Camp in July 2023, Munsee-speaking language teachers and both Princeton University and Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) faculty and students gathered on Lunaapahkiing, or traditional Lunaape Lands, around Princeton. The experience included a half-day journey on the Millstone led by community members. 

Among the travelers were language keeper and teacher Kristin Jacobs and her son Barry Stonefish of the Eelunaapéewi Lahkeewiit, the Lenape Nation of Moraviantown, Ontario, Canada. They returned to campus in early November for Princeton’s third annual Munsee Language and History Symposium.


Jacobs and Stonefish reflected on their experiences of the river and the importance of water in Lenape culture. “For us, what’s most important is that it always begins with life,” Jacobs explained. “Water is life. It’s what creates life. It’s important to always protect that, so we use water in our ceremonies, and it’s a whole other area of knowledge.” 

As a language teacher, words are especially important for Jacobs in describing natural entities. She noted that in the Lunaape language, some words are considered animate while others are inanimate, and many plants fall in the former category. There are also deep connections between many words and nature. Stonefish’s experience on the river was enhanced by learning the Lunaape names for the wildlife he was encountering as they traveled. “I rode with Nate, who works on the seed farm. The whole time, he was talking about plants, naming all the plants we saw, so it was a lot of fun,” said Stonefish. 

For Jacobs, the whole experience stood out as meaningful. “The river journey was so beautiful,” she said. “Getting over the fear of being in the kayak was tough, but there were a lot of people who were comfortable paddling, and eventually seeing people get in and go across that first little bit made it feel better.” 

To help Princetonians and community members continue engaging with both the river and the Lunaape language, Jacobs suggested putting up signage displaying traditional words for various plants in high-traffic areas along the river. “They could put up signs with traditional words… and where the meaning comes from. I feel like that could be meaningful,” explained Jacobs.

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The river as a watershed: historical and ongoing efforts for environmental protection

As Jacobs noted, the Millstone is a life-giving force, and many are involved in its protection. Since 2005, Jim Waltman ’86 has served as the Executive Director of the Watershed Institute, an organization based in Pennington, NJ with the mission of keeping the water clean and healthy through a combination of conservation, advocacy, science, and education. Waltman has had a life-long relationship with the river. He grew up in Princeton and later attended Princeton University as a biology major, where he joined the track team and often ran alongside Lake Carnegie and the canal. 

Waltman spent his early career as a field biologist in the Galapagos Islands, but after earning his master’s, he went to Washington, DC for a six month internship where he “fell in love with policy and politics in a way I didn’t ever imagine.” He never returned to Yale for his Ph.D., instead working as a lobbyist who pushed for environmental legislation for 15 years. Waltman later moved back to Princeton and was reunited with the river of his childhood. 

The Watershed Institute, originally called the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, was founded in 1949. Now, the institute is working on a number of initiatives, including trying to restore migratory fish by removing unnecessary dams along the Millstone, monitoring the river’s water quality, and working to combat HAB’s, or Harmful Algal Blooms, a type of cyanobacteria which endangers both wildlife and people. Staff and volunteers take samples of the river, involving local communities in the process of scientific testing and screening for toxins. 

While Lake Carnegie is not dangerously toxic as of now, it’s “certainly not pristine,” according to Waltman. “Like most bodies of water, right after a storm, a lot gets dumped into the water,” he said. In order to prevent this, the organization works with New Jersey’s municipalities to strengthen water regulation, particularly of polluted stormwater. 

Although Waltman characterizes our current times as especially difficult due to the changing climate and distorted water cycles, he is proud of the progress the institute has been able to make over the course of its history. “Looking back, the Watershed has been involved in every major water law and federal doctrine in the state… so it’s quite a legacy,” Waltman explained. Part of this legacy includes encouraging young people to engage with the institute’s programs and inspiring them to become scientists, teachers, and environmental activists. “It’s a great feeling, and a humbling one,” said Waltman. 

Every fall, the Watershed Institute hosts one or more groups of Princeton Community Action and Outdoor Action groups. Waltman said that he always begins his sessions with Princeton students by saying, “Welcome to Princeton, and welcome to the Millstone Watershed.”

During one of his walking tours of the “hidden water of Princeton,” Waltman brought a group of students from the basement of the Princeton Public Library parking garage to Lake Carnegie. Waltman emphasized the importance of “getting those students to see when you walk around any place where the springs and rivers are, whether you’re in hills and valleys, or even if it’s an urban environment, even if it’s underground.”

Muddy flood waters swirl around trees.

Professor Anne McClintock

Princeton professors and students engage with the river

One Princeton professor who has a strong sense of the area’s “hidden water” is professor of Astrophysical Sciences Gaspar Bakos, who has declared himself the only Princetonian to commute to work by kayak, and harbors a dream to one day kayak all the way from the Millstone to the ocean. 

Bakos has thoroughly explored the Millstone, even assigning his own names on Google Maps to its islands and banks. On one island, which he calls “Cormorant Island,” Bakos has found many beaver dams and has observed the beaver population cycles over the years. Bakos has also visited “Binocular Beach,” where his family went freshwater swimming, “Baby Banana Beach”, where he and his sons enjoyed a feast of bananas, and “Tire Beach,” where one can jump from a tire swing into the water. “Of course, it’s super dangerous, with floating debris everywhere. You never know what’s there,” Bakos warned.

In his travels, Bakos has often found himself entangled in thickets of lily pads. At times, he has been unable to proceed due to fallen trees and branches along the river. When he reaches such obstacles, Bakos simply hops out of the boat and hauls the kayak along with him. “My tactic,” Bakos explained, “is that I usually kayak as far as I can, getting totally exhausted, and then I go back. You can probably do about ten miles until it becomes very narrow.” 

When Bakos first started traversing the river, he would bring a machete to clear the path in front of him, but soon had to upgrade to an electric chainsaw. “It felt really weird when I was standing in my kayak with a chainsaw, cutting branches falling all around,” said Bakos. “One day, I actually lost a part of my chainsaw in the water and had to dive in to get it out. And then I realized maybe this was not a good idea.”

As an astrophysicist, Bakos is particularly attuned to the nighttime wildlife of the river. When Bakos went kayaking at night, he noticed that bright lights from the hospital along Route 1 disturb the night environment. “I wish they could change that because this is a prime beaver area, and there are many, many beavers here whose environments are being altered.” 

Bakos also hopes that in the future, there will be more opportunities for students to learn about the Millstone. “I think what’s incredible about [the Millstone] is how little it’s known…There’s no appreciation for this long slender patch of ecological landscape,” said Bakos. 

A great blue heron sits on the bank of a river. The trees across the river are green and full of leaves.

Aaron Serianni

Students have also been encouraged to appreciate the river through Princeton’s Outdoor Action (OA) program, which offers occasional kayaking and canoe trips. OA Program Coordinator Candace Brendler moved to Princeton this past May and got the chance to go canoeing on the river with a class in early fall. “It was a really lovely section of the river that is in a really unique location,” said Brendler, noting the diversity of wildlife in such close proximity to the highway 

Brendler has been paddling and rafting since she was in college and has always had an appreciation for rivers. “If you’re looking at a topographic view of the Earth, [rivers] are just like the veins… they’re the life-source,” she said. Through OA, Brendler hopes that she can “get more people to have positive experiences with the nearest body of water… to get more people to understand the value of rivers and hopefully better care for them.” 

Director of the Program in Visual Arts Jeff Whetstone has created another opportunity for students to engage with the Millstone through a course he co-taught in Spring 2019 entitled “A River Runs Through Us.” Through the course, Whetstone hoped that students would realize “that they live in a hidden, natural and geologically unique environment. It’s perfectly visible, perfectly approachable, but no one knows that there’s a Millstone river running through campus,” said Whetstone, adding, “But all it takes for you to explore it, and it’s so easy to explore.”

Whetstone recounted the story of a day when the class was kayaking on the river and stumbled upon an abandoned beaver dam, which they proceeded to crawl into one by one on their hands and knees. “We just hung out there in the beaver lodge. You could still smell the beavers, and there was beaver hair all over the place,” said Whetstone. He added, “That was transformative for me because I had never done anything like that before.” Whetstone was struck by how comfortable, protective, and communal the lodge felt. “It didn’t feel exotic anymore. It’s almost like crawling into the skin of the beaver to visit their home,” he explained. 

In addition to entering beaver dens, Whetstone has seen wild swans and held a freshly laid Canada goose egg on the Millstone. He also reported seeing “15 snakes an hour” in April. Whetstone emphasized the importance of protecting this nature with which we are so closely linked. He explained, “If we protect this crappy suburban wilderness around us, it’s much easier to have the mindset of protecting some more rare and grand wilderness somewhere else,” adding, “To see the grand wildernesses of the planet may make you think that the wilderness you are in is not important. But the nature that you live in is the most important nature at the present moment.” 

Whetstone believes that students should recognize that the river has many different histories, including an indigenous cultural history, a period of colonial cultural history, and a modern cultural history. “The river runs through all those histories. So there is a cultural thread as well as a natural thread, and we can use it as a kind of skeleton to develop more comprehensive histories of the land.” 

This ties into Whetstone’s idea that landscapes are more than just settings. “I think landscapes should be treated like characters, because they’re always changing, and they’re always influencing us… The Millstone should have a name on Princeton’s campus.” 

Many of Whetstone’s students were deeply influenced by the course and maintained relationships with the river after their time as Princeton undergraduates ended. Maria Fleury ’22 took the course in the Spring of her first year and called it the best class she took. She reflected, “It was very impactful for me. It just completely shifted the way I related to Princeton as a place.”

Having grown up in an urban environment, Fleury was not fully comfortable interacting with animals at the start of the course. “Being on the river helped me engage with other creatures and understand their home,” she said.  

Now completing a High Meadows Environmental Institute Fellowship at a climate science communications non-profit, Fleury still lives in Princeton and continues to appreciate her relationship with the river and the D&R Canal. “To me, rivers are just so powerful and majestic. I’ve had very emotional experiences and cried looking at the river,” said Fleury. 

Amy Amatyah ’21 had a similar experience in the course, recalling how it opened her eyes to parts of Princeton’s campus she had never noticed before. Amatyah was a junior when she took the class and had never visited the towpath before, explaining, “To me, the towpath wasn’t a place I needed to be for school… so I didn’t go. That class was a real awakening to learning to be present in the place where I am.”

Amatyah noted that the specificity of the course’s focus on the Millstone allowed students to talk more broadly about a sense of place. “It was never just about the Millstone or the canal, it was about learning to be alive where you’re standing,” she explained, adding, “There’s a really beautiful New Jersey, and I would say go discover it.”

Raphaela Gold is a staff Features writer at the ‘Prince.’

Please send corrections to corrections[at]

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Millstone River runs under the Princeton Public Library. In fact, Harry’s Brook does. Additionally, the piece inaccurately outlined Waltman’s career path. The ’Prince’ regrets this error.