The Many SusquehannysMay 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
No river belongs to just one place, and many people who know a river well know only one part of it. When it comes to the Susquehanna, the longest river on the East Coast and one of the oldest river systems in the world, there are many personalities. There’s the one that’s nearly a mile wide at Harrisburg; the petroglyph islands at Conestoga; the wild stretch with elk grazing its banks above Renovo; the section with remnants of a boom used for log drives at Williamsport; and the headwaters in Cooperstown, New York, where, in 1779, General James Clinton dammed it to raise the level enough so that—after destroying the dam and flooding the river for miles downstream—his troops could raft down to join General John Sullivan at Tioga, New York.
This river is not just historic, it’s prehistoric—older than the Nile and pre-dating the Appalachians. Flowing 444 miles through New York and Pennsylvania to empty into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the Susquehanna is the longest commercially non-navigable river in North America. Add in the 228 additional miles of the West Branch that flows from Cherry Tree to join the North Branch at Sunbury, and you have 672 miles of paddling fun without worrying about barges or significant rapids. Slide your canoe, kayak, or stand up paddleboard in at one of the public access points. Listen to the sound of your paddle pulling water. Watch for the osprey, herons, and bald eagles who all remind you that more than just humans rely on the river’s bounty.
As a backyard river with a history of flooding, a lot of people still see it as a risk rather than a recreational resource. Several Pennsylvania organizations are working to change that perception, and this year it’s easier than it’s ever been to get on your Susquehanna in your way. West and North Branch Water Trails have been developed with maps, guides, and safety information to help people put their fannies in the Susquehanny.
The North Branch, which runs from Cooperstown to Sunbury, was designated the 2023 Pennsylvania River of the Year, coinciding nicely with the Endless Mountain Heritage Region’s twenty-fifth anniversary. EMHR administers the upper 146 river miles in Pennsylvania, managing the water trail, improving public access, and leading environmental stewardship efforts. Cain Chamberlin, EMHR executive director, is using the $10,000 grant that comes with the 2023 designation to host even more events and conservation programming than usual. “Compare water quality from the sixties and seventies to now, and it’s thankfully much cleaner,” says Cain. “We’d like it to be even cleaner, of course, but we are working with many agencies to keep improving the water quality.” Spring cleanups are a great way for the public to meet other paddlers and anglers.
Summer warmth brings EMHR multi-day guided paddles called Sojourns—including one just for youth. And this fall they’ll host their first Endless Mountains Outdoor Heritage Expo, September 29 to 30 at the Wyoming County Fairgrounds in Meshoppen. Expect vendors, speakers, activities, and educational programming, as well as opportunities to get on the river. EMHR also administers the 444 Club, which recognizes those who have paddled all sections from Cooperstown to Havre de Grace.
The lower thirty-six miles of the North Branch in Pennsylvania and the entire West Branch Water Trail are managed by the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, which works to create a fully connected corridor of parks, trails, conserved lands, and river towns. “The pieces are already there,” says Alana Jajko, SGP director of communications and outreach. “SGP works on connecting them so you can walk, bike, or paddle from town to town along the river.” For the second year they’ll offer an Outdoor Expo on June 3 at Shikellamy State Park in Northumberland County, where you can start summer off with fifty-plus exhibitors, storytelling, wildlife, live music, food trucks, a beer garden, and more. If you want to learn the skills to confidently and safely plan your own paddle trips, SGP is offering several Paddler’s Toolkit Workshops.
For beginners, the best way to get your first taste of the river (that’s a figure of speech—please do not taste the river) is to go with an outfitter. Try a Wine & Cheese paddle with Endless Mountain Outfitters. You’ll meet at their shop in Sugar Run for gear and a five-mile upriver shuttle. Then you’ll paddle leisurely along between Bradford County’s green hills, sidling up to the tasting canoe for snacks and wee drinks. At the end, everyone heads to a local winery, cidery, or restaurant for more fun. Most outfitters also offer shuttle services for those with their own boats and agendas.
The West Branch is home to river towns like Lock Haven, Jersey Shore, and Williamsport, where you can grab food and drink to fill your caloric deficit after a day of paddling. It also has one of the wilder sections, a thirty-four-mile stretch from Karthaus to Renovo that’s best suited for experienced paddlers who love solitude and adventure. No breweries right off the river here, but the wildlife will make up for it. SGP hosts the West Branch Paddle Club, which offers discounts on maps and events for members, as well as patches for those who complete any of the four segments. Currently there are no outfitters on the West Branch, but David Decoteau, of Riverside Adventure Company in Danville, will guide trips if they’re planned in advance, though his main focus is outings on the lower North Branch.
David, who has paddled many miles on the river and hopes to do them all, says many folks still see the Susquehanna as an industrial dumping ground. But to him it’s “dynamic, enticing, and sometimes dangerous. It’s big and small. It gives life...and can take it. To clear your inner noise and let yourself truly experience it is an unequalled opportunity for inspiration, understanding, and joy.”
Join him and others on the river this summer.