The Adventures of Jay1 & Jay2
A Summary of the "2002 Brule Descent"
May 24, 2002 through June 4, 2002
by Jay Mackley
Jay1 and Jay2 are Jay Mackley and Jay Doering respectively, next door neighbors in the small river hamlet of Boekel Landing on the York shore two miles below Holtwood Dam. Earlier this year the Jays toyed with the idea of a top to bottom sojourn on the Susquehanna. Once an idea like that has hatched it's very difficult to get it back in the shell so plans firmed and the adventure became reality.
The journey, named after the first European to make the trip, took 11 days and covered the 444 miles from Cooperstown, New York to Havre de Grace, Maryland. While we portaged 15 dams along the way and navigated several challenging rapids, most of the time was spent in hard paddling. We arose at 5:30 each morning and were on the river by 6:30. We would take breaks during the day and wrap it up in the evening at 7:30, spending about 12 hours in actual travel. We averaged 40 miles a day and our best day was 52 miles. The river varied from beautiful, almost wilderness quality, to heavy industrial. At its start it was about 20 yards wide and by the finish a mile. We saw an abundance of wild life including scores of eagles, beaver, turtles, turkey, mink, osprey, and deer. Sometimes the water was crystal clear and at other times a sickly yellow from acidic coalmine drainage. Through much of New York rich farmland added a chocolate hue. Culture also varied along the river. Cooperstown was wealthy and genteel. Binghamton was blue collar, and many of the Pennsylvania towns were of the hardscrabble variety in the upper regions with prosperity increasing as we progressed southward.
Two Sundays were spent on the water. The first, in New York, was a bustle of activity in preparation for a Memorial Day 70-mile canoe race. The second Sunday we were in central Pennsylvania hearing church bells toll along the river. When we could, we stopped at small towns to search out a restaurant or diner. Since our appearance deteriorated rapidly during our odyssey (at one point a look at Jay1 caused a little girl to cry), we often found ourselves seated alone in a far corner. Once we explained ourselves, however, we always received an interested and often warm welcome. People, of course, are people and didn't depart significantly from pure Americana, from central New York to the Chesapeake Bay. When we weren't fortunate enough to find ourselves dining in man-made accommodations, our eating became an irregular experience consisting of tuna or peanut butter sandwiches, granola, power bars, and dried fruit. We drank treated river water throughout the trip. In mid-journey we took a couple of hours off to cook a meal, bathe in the river and rinse our clothes. The few fish we caught along the way were released.
As a river, the Susquehanna is powerful and fickle. While it's the largest U.S. river flowing into the Atlantic, its abundant rocky rapids in the lower stretch have prevented extensive use for commerce. Because of this limitation, the Susquehanna has not provided a strong connection for the peoples living along its banks other than the common interest of exploiting it for a water source, a waste dump, or its power in the steeper sections. The bond of facing a common enemy was also evident. Flooding can be devastating and erosion of farmland is chronic.
Few people run the whole river. Those who supplied assisted portaging at the large hydro dams provided that intelligence. So why did we do it? A little bent for adventure is part of the reason. For Jay1, a life long inhabitant of the river, the journey has been a persistent dream. Jay2 also loves the Susquehanna but his need was to make a clean break from the work place as he begins to disconnect for retirement. Regardless of our motivation, the impact on both of us seems the same, a stronger bond to the river and the Pennsylvania heartland that it drains.
(River Rat's Guide to the Susquehanna)
Friday, May 24, 2002 -- Travel Day
Departed Boekel Landing at 9:30 am in Ford Windstar borrowed from Tim Doering. Kayaks secured to a modified roof rack; Carol Doering, Joanne Knippmeyer, Jay Mackley, and Jay Doering. Stopped very soon for breakfast at Muddy Run Park for breakfast. The concession there is owned and run by friends Carol Byers and Debbie Mellinger. When we told them where we were going and what we were going to do, Carol's husband Dave insisted that we go down to the campground store and pick out a tee shirt. They were our first and only sponsor. We wore the shirts throughout the trip. We rated the Muddy Run snack bar where we ate breakfast as 5 star, for food, friendly service, and beautiful view.
Up in smoke
Jay1 brought an "offering" of buffalo meat, rabbit, goose, venison and corn, which the friendly young squaw cooked on the indoor, open fire. We then shared a peace pipe prior to retiring. I was anticipating warm traveling weather so was slightly unprepared for the cool evening in the long house but otherwise found my stay perfectly delightful. We rated the long house meal 5 star also, for delicious, exotic food and very unusual atmosphere.
Saturday, May 25, 2002 -- Day 1
"THIS MARKER SIGNIFIES THE POINT WHERE THE BEAUTIFUL
SUSQUEHANNA RIVER BEGINS ITS 444 MILE JOURNEY
TO MEET THE CHESAPEAKE BAY"
At 7:00 we sat down to breakfast. The view was lovely up the lake, the food good and the service pleasant, but without the sponsorship or unique atmosphere we couldn't go more than 4 star.
This is Memorial Day weekend and is the traditional time for General Clinton Canoe Regatta, a 70-mile marathon canoe race. These weren't traditional canoes. Rather they were carbon fiber lightweights with extreme profiles. They were "manned" (and "womanned") by people who were likewise extreme profiled. Jay1 may have gotten it right when he said they just don't sell those canoes to fat people! The contestants were taking advantage of this Saturday to practice on the racecourse. We enjoyed the company but I doubt they were thrilled with our presence on this narrow stream.
The advantage was the Neptune Diner in mid portage. This would be the only day we ate two bought meals. We "parked" the boats in the parking lot to the delight of passers-by. We did it so we could monitor them while we ate. The Neptune only rated 3 stars. The quality was reasonable but the portions were excessive and the service slow.
About 7:00 pm we began to scan the riverbanks for a place to camp. The terrain we had been passing by was fairly level farmland and the banks frequently had a hedgerow of trees separating river from field. We found a reasonably remote stretch at mile 49 (mile 50 for us considering our start on the lake.) We were just upstream from Otego New York. Since this was our first camp we took a little time to acclimate to the 19ft X 24ft blue plastic tarp we were going to use for a shelter. Before long we arrived at a very practical design only requiring a patch of level ground between two reasonably close spaced trees. The lean-to design was supported on the sides with the painters from our kayaks, which we dragged out of the river and positioned to either side of the shelter. It turned out to be an excellent design which we learned to erect in less than five minutes. We modified it very little during all eight nights we spent in the outdoors. At midnight a train passed surprisingly nearby. We awoke and Jay2 sang a portion of "Midnight Special" without acknowledgement to Johnny Cash. Our muscles were screaming but fatigue carried the day and we slept soundly.
Sunday, May 26, 2002 -- Day 2
Awoke at 5:00 am as would become our habit. The weather was cloudy and pleasant. Broke camp and on the river by 6:30 am. Our goal was to reach, or get close to, the Pennsylvania border. The river makes an initial short trip in PA (17 miles) prior to returning to New York. This would require another 50-mile day and take us beyond the first set of charts we had located for the river, which was comprised of a map for the racecourse. Shortly after our start we encountered a thunderstorm, which we weathered under a bridge. We were able to bypass dam four at Unadilla, NY on a swift flowing but meandering stream. This saved some time and effort.
Leaving the finish line we began a stretch of about 5 miles without a chart. At Afton New York we were again on "charted waters" with a good (but dated) set of charts, a gift from the Ahwaga Canoe Club of Windsor New York. We camped just below Windsor NY, about 5 miles from PA. Similar arrangement to the previous evening. Feasted on a tuna sandwich and collapsed in the bag. Back, arms, and shoulders in serious, if not critical condition! Hands beginning to show the wear!
Monday, May 27, 2002 -- Day 3
Dam day! Before the day was over we would put five more behind us. Hit the river at the "normal" 6:30 am and headed for PA about 5 miles away. Jay2 claims you can see the difference as you approach the Keystone state. Things begin to look a little more prosperous, properties are neater, and there is a greater interest in the use of the river. Maybe he was just home sick! Shortly after crossing the border we approached Starrucca creek. Crossing the creek about one mile from the river and very visible to us was the famous Starrucca viaduct, an exceptionally graceful stone arch railroad bridge. About the same time Jay1 spotted a duck decoy. We tied some fishing line to her (it was female) and towed her behind Jay1's boat. It was a gas! Male ducks, one in particular, took notice. The one with high interest would "leap frog" our track waiting expectantly for us to pass by. He looked like a lovesick teenager!
Our first challenge of the day was the low head power dam at Susquehanna. In preparation for the portage we set Ms. Decoy free. Jay1 led the way slowly along the steep bank, river right. As we got close Jay2 disembarked and looked for a suitable place to pull the boats. Nothing was very good so we just toughed it out pulling them up the bank and carrying them around the power house, sliding them down a treacherous bank to the down river edge. The powerhouse, named Oakland Dam Hydroelectric Plant and owned by the American Hydro Power Company of Bala Cynwyd, PA, was extremely unkempt and slovenly and should be an embarrassment to its owner. In addition they have provided no safe portage around the dam, which along with poor upstream markings, creates a hazardous situation!
On our way again, to our delight we overtook Ms. Decoy who had apparently escaped the severe hydraulic of the dam. Jay1 recovered her, and wrote a message on the bottom that she was traveling down the river to Boekel Landing in Airville, PA. It asked that any one finding her would please speed her on her way. Would you believe it? By the time we got home Jay1 had a letter from a lady who had been canoeing with family and discovered Ms. Decoy and moved her around some bridge construction to allow her to continue her journey. We hope to get more information on her travels in the months to come.
Next event was a stop at the town of Great Bend, PA, just before re-entering New York. Bridge construction resulted in a partial obstruction of river flow producing a helpful "chute" in the center which we would use after lunch to propel us on our way; but first, a visit to McDonald's. The golden arches were poised enticingly near the river's edge. It was too much for the Jays and we gorged on BigMacs, fries and huge milk shakes! Two star meal at best. Afterwards, with a boost from the chute, we were on our way north to Binghamton and other exotic "blue collar" towns. On the way we were joined for a short period by two matronly kayakers from Pittsburgh, PA. After a brief period of conversation we bid adieu since their velocity fell short of our 50 mile a day "super pace."
It was day 3 now and the strength of our arms and shoulders was beginning to catch up with the task at hand. Two "dam" dams lay ahead and two pipe lines which also created dams. We approached the first dam in downtown Binghamton, recalling horror stories of friend Ryan Hill about several people losing their lives in the hydraulic the previous year. Our information suggested a river right portage. We slowly approached the dam while hugging the bank, a very successful style we used throughout our journey. The land around the dam was park-like and the portage easy. As we pushed off we could look back over our shoulder and see the dam close up. Indeed, the design of this relatively low head dam produced an unusually treacherous looking hydraulic and boil.
Next we encountered the first pipe dam immediately before the Chenango river joined the Susquehanna. Jay1 assessed it from upstream then ran it with no effort at all. Jay2 followed. A mile later was another pipe dam but this one had a hydraulic and, since we were committed to playing it safe, we walked the shoreline and dragged the boats across, river left. Forty-five minutes later we manhandled the boats over the breast of a low head dam, which was backing up water for a power plant. With this obstacle behind us we had three days of dam free river (or so we thought) to look forward to. What a relief! We continued on, hoping to outdistance Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott and find some rural space for camping.
Unfortunately we were running out of daylight faster than asphalt. About sunset we found a spot of neatly kept woods sandwiched between the river and "Tri-cities Airport" on river right. It was protected from any but the most aggressive Kayak-campers by a steep slippery bank. Undaunted we pulled the boats, erected the shelter and collapsed in exhaustion. It had been a tiring but great day. A lot of wild life had been spotted including swans, turtles, muskrat, and beaver. What should have been a restful night was greatly disturbed by heavy traffic noise from an interstate across on the opposite side of the still small river, and also unreasoned fears that airport security would discover us and we would be arrested. However, by about 4:00 am the prospect of a jail cell seemed pretty attractive!
Tuesday, May 28, 2002 -- Day 4
Broke camp at 6:30 am . . . very hungry! About two miles down stream we spotted the "Blue Dolphin" diner. It looked heavenly! The only problem was what to do with our boats in the populated environment. The problem was further complicated by the fact we were separated from the object of our desires by the very same interstate that was our nemesis the previous evening. Walla . . . The answer was soon revealed. We spotted the mouth of the Apalachin Creek, which passed under the offending highway in a large culvert. We paddled a short distance up the uninviting stream then disembarked. Unfortunately for Jay2 it was into hip deep mud. That's normally no problem, but when you are planning some fine dining it raises an appearance issue. Actually, it only compounded it since, with four days growth, no bathing, clothes unchanged and at least one member of the expedition sans comb; appearance had already suffered serious deterioration.
It was a 4 star breakfast, due in large part to the friendly waitress. Finishing up and again underway, we avoided a thunderstorm by lingering under a bridge on our long paddle to the PA border. Before reaching Nirvana, however, we were first in for a little surprise! Warned ahead of time by Mike Carter, the solo canoeist who had braved floodwaters in a river run a week before to raise money for charity, we cautiously approached a bridge construction site at Owego, NY. The river had been dammed with crushed stone, penetrated by large pipes to accommodate flow, in order to permit the placement of piers. During the floods in the previous weeks the center of the dam had washed out creating a huge, and probably (for us) deadly chute. Jay1 approached the remaining wing of the dam on river left. Jay2 followed. As he did he noticed vicious little whirlpools adjacent to the breast. Avoiding them with some aggressive paddling he made for a quiet spot to exit and pull the boat for portaging. It was then that Jay1 asked for some help. It turned out that his kayak was being held fast by a vortex, which as it turned out, were formed as the river flow found its way from the surface to the pipes below. We removed his paddle which was in danger of being lost to the hole in the river, then we pulled the boat free. In addition to the hydraulic worries, it was a very busy construction site. Avoiding heavy equipment, we lowered our boats over the large jagged stone face of the dam and re-embarked in safety on the turbulent down stream side.
After Owego we again faced uncharted waters (for us, that is) for about twenty miles to the border at Sayre, PA. We made good time and after about four hours we were able to match the scenes around us with their representation on the relatively crude maps from a guidebook to the rivers and streams of Pennsylvania. We set a late afternoon goal of reaching Towanda, PA. Dodging thunderstorms and paddling hard we made our objective. Bases on some information that he received from Mike Carter, Jay1 felt certain that there was a place called "Cozy Cabins" near the river where we could find a real bed and get a shower. We paused at a crude river landing in Towanda while Jay1 reconnoitered for the cabins. He failed to find the promised comfort but did return with pizza, which we consumed while sitting on a park bench overlooking the river. Dusk was upon us when we got into our boats and crossed to river left to camp at a small town park with several athletic fields. We rigged the shelter to spend the night. Some hecklers persisted to bother us for about an hour by driving around and launching fireworks. However, they tired of the sport and we were able to get an excellent night's sleep.
Wednesday, May 29, 2002 -- Day 5
We started early to avoid any further scrutiny of our very public campsite. We were able to drag our craft to the down river end of the park and enter the river just below the Towanda bridge which had a pretty hefty set of rapids under its span. Not that we were into avoiding rapids. On day 2 in New York we gave up our novice status by plunging through a short stretch of substantial white water. It could have been avoided but Jay1, overcome with a desire to get wet, led us through with a hearty "Hi-Ho." He wasn't disappointed. Our boats half swamped. Actually, it was a good thing and probably premeditated by J1 to begin to prepare us for later stretches of the river. At this point it might be helpful to understand that J1 (Jay1) had been banking on 444 miles of white water where paddling would be unnecessary for purposes other than guiding the craft. He persisted with that belief for most of the eleven days on the river even as our arms ached and hands bled from long hard paddling.
The day began slightly on the gray side giving way to sun later. We were in a wildlife paradise. The first thing one notices on this stretch of the river is the scent of hemlocks. For ex-kids who had summer camped in the hillier regions of Pennsylvania it produced a powerful wave of nostalgia. Deer were easily spotted on the banks. J2 (Jay2) drifted up within yards of a spike buck drinking from the river. The river was moving along with satisfying speed punctuated by many riffles and some white water. One (of many) bald eagle followed us down river for a while; perhaps we were beginning to resemble carrion.
The day ended on a posted island above Tunkhannock. My apologies to the landowner. On the other hand, the idea of signs threatening the arrest of weary river travelers desiring to bed down on a tree covered mud flat in upstate Pennsylvania seems a bit excessive. Perhaps the island was the private "hunting preserve" of its Tunkhanite owner because there was a considerable deer population. Through out the night they reminded us of their presence with a chorus of snorts protesting our presence. We knew what the sounds were as the result of careful research begun at "stealth camp 1" where this guttural sound was disturbing the sleep of J1 who, in turn disturbed the sleep of J2. The sound was seriously misidentified as possibly coming from some sort of wild cat. Night sounds do that to people. J2 didn't care if it was the Loch Ness monster and rolled over to resume the serious business for which nighttime is intended. The mystery revealed itself when the river edge spike buck surprised by J2 gave off an identical sound.
This wasn't the only incident involving our expedition's nocturnal naturalist. At "stealth camp 2" J2 was again awakened to have a nearby tree pointed out to him. The desired response was intended to be agreement that it was the largest swamp maple on the banks of the Susquehanna. The actual retort from the victim of 50 miles of hand, arm, shoulder, and back abuse was, "Yea, it is a pretty scary looking tree." The fuming "that's not what I meant" was unnoticed as he slipped back into a coma.
Thursday, May 30, 2002 -- Day 6
After awaking from a nervous night sleeping beneath the threatening postings, we learned that there are other ways to guard your land than wild dogs. Our island hostelry turned out to be the slug capital of the world! They were everywhere leaving their slime trails behind. We lost valuable time picking the repulsive pests off of every thing we owned and off of our person. We had paid for our crime!
Today was another stretch of lovely river repeating the wildlife sightings and adding a flock of seven turkeys. At mid-morning we stopped on a stony beach, river left, to care for personal needs. J2 started a cooking fire on which he prepared the expedition's only camp cooked meal. We had hot biscuits prepared in an improvised dutch oven, chicken noodle soup and hot coffee. Nice break made possible by the presence of "beaches" vise the mud banks of New York. We did laundry and took mid-cruise baths in the "cool" river. Refreshed and well fed, we resumed our travel, kayaks modified to allow for the drying of wet laundry.
In early afternoon we approached Pittston passing the mouth of the Lackawanna River as we did. It was a disturbing sight. The "dead" Lackawanna is heavily polluted by acid drainage from the abandoned anthracite mines leaving the banks a grim orange color. This corruption is soon shared with the beautiful Susquehanna along the left bank all the way past Wilkes-Barre. For miles if you paddle river right you remain in the clear water cleansed by the upper stretch in PA. Moving to river left places you in the acid bath. Our habit of occasionally dipping our hands in the water for temporary refreshment produced an orange stain that lasted for days after returning home.
Between Pittston and Wilkes-Barre we came across the site of the 1959 Knox coalmine disaster created when greed or carelessness brought a mine tunnel too close to the bottom of the river. The resultant roof collapse resulted in a huge whirlpool as the Susquehanna flooded the surrounding interconnected mines wiping out the already diminishing hard coal industry. The evidence that we were passing the site was the carcass of a rail car recalling the effort to plug the hole from a diverted rail line by pushing large amounts of rolling stock into the vortex . . . to no avail.
Wilkes-Barre was marked by huge levees. Like Pittston, it was hard to see the city from river level but what could be seen was agreeable enough. A handsome concrete bridge graced by entry columns capped with eagles added to the interest of the area. By this time we were facing a tough head wind, which would plague us until evening and again the next day. River flow assisted, however, and by 5:00 pm we were above Nanticoke Falls, the most challenging rapids we faced on the trip. We stopped and prepared by putting our spray skirts in place. As we launched again J1 heard a little girl cry out to her mother "Mommy, tell Granddad to get his camera, two guys are headed for the falls" That didn't help! As it turned out the falls were a kick. The key was the spray skirts keeping us from swamping. By this time we had become reasonably adept at handling the boats in white water. The progression of the Susquehanna River seems almost designed to be constantly training you for the more difficult challenges ahead.
Exhilarated and somewhat relieved with the Falls behind us we focused on finding a campsite for the evening. The Retreat State (mental) Hospital grounds, river left a few miles upstream of Shickshinny, was perfect. It also provided an escape from the threat of being caught out on the river by thunderstorms that had been missing us narrowly in the latter half of the day. We didn't attach any significance to the location but J2's secretary with whom we were occasionally in contact via voice mail, who in turn was publishing e-mail progress reports, commented on the fitting association between the facility and the sojourners. Thanks, Janet!
Friday, May 31, 2002 -- Day 7
Escaped from the State Hospital in the early morning fog. We speculated that the disorienting mist was the product of Nanticoke Falls during the still night, moisturizing and propelling the air down stream. Mike Carter had experienced the same condition a week before. Around 9:00 am the cursed head wind that would challenge us all day sprang up and cleared the view. Mid-morning and we were passing Susquehanna nuclear power plant, one of three on the river. Down stream was the town of Berwick where we stopped to find a meal. Nervously, we left our boats pulled up on the riverbank above the bridge and found our way into town. The short trek was through an uninviting scrap yard separating the town from the river. This apparent lack of concern for association with the river was later explained by the waitress at D & B's Country Kitchen in downtown. "We hate the river in Berwick. It just takes away. Football's our thing." As further support of her position she stated, "They still haven't found the body of that girl who jumped off the bridge seven days ago" SWELL! While the balance our dinning experience at D & B's was pleasant earning a 4 star rating based largely on friendliness, the commentary on the body caused a major distraction for the rest of the day as two pairs of eyes constantly swept the banks of the still swollen river for human remains.
Late in the afternoon the river opened up to almost lake proportions. Heavy use as a vacation area was evident. We had been dodging thunderstorms since leaving Berwick but it became obvious that one was building that we weren't going to miss. As it closed in on us fast, we made for the shore on river right. Quickly exiting our boats and dragging them up on the lawn of a summer cottage, we ran for the cover of a porch. No permission was required since no one was home. The storm, which was particularly violent, lasted about a half hour. At one point, severe wind shear produced tornado-like winds which threatened to blow our boats into the river. We hoped that when the storm abated the strong headwind would be gone; wishful thinking! Determined to make Sunbury by evening, we plowed on with great effort . . . too much effort. At 52 miles it was our hardest day taking a physical toll from which we wouldn't recover until well after journey's end.
We finally reached the island that occupies the mouth of North Branch where it joins the West Branch. On the tip of the island was a Shikellamy State Park with its commanding view of the confluence. Because of the park's "day use only" restriction, we quickly pulled our boats up the riprap on the upriver bank and hid them in tall grass, retiring to a small snack restaurant across the street. Our plan was to linger over a sandwich until the sun had set and the police had made their last inspections. Shortly after entering the restaurant a little girl looked up at J1 and immediately began to cry hysterically, clinging to her mother. It had come to that!
Our plan worked well and we spent a comfortable, albeit not very restful night. The park had been artfully folded into and around a rail yard which produced enough noise through the night to weary even a die-hard rail fan!
Saturday, June 1, 2002 -- Day 8
Within a few miles we encountered a number of warnings for a dam that didn't show on our charts. We proceeded slowly since low head dams are very difficult to see from above. As it turned out there was a very low head dam for diverting water to a power plant, and, since river levels were still considerably elevated, it was basically beneath the surfaced so we just paddled across it. We saw our first egret on day 8 and also got a surprise when we saw a loon at work fishing for dinner. The river began to take on a different character as it widened to the point that, in combination with dozens of large islands, it was no longer obvious in which direction to travel. The current got lost in the vastness so we simply did the best we could just heading in a southward direction. As we neared one very large island we noticed a stream proceeding into its interior, which we followed for a diversion. What followed was an amazing experience, which I will unashamedly liken to a Disney jungle tour (without mechanized creatures.) The stream, which became streams, took on a thoroughly jungle like appearance including large bushy vines hanging from tall, canopy-like trees. The water had an opaque quality adding to the similarity. Bird sounds were evident to add to the atmosphere. A steady current gave us direction and several opportunities to choose different branches added interest. It was towards noon so and the sun overhead was producing a steamy feeling even under the tree cover. The "jungle ride" lasted for what seemed to be fifteen to twenty minutes and was a great addition to the day.
Approaching Millersburg we watched as the river's only remaining ferryboat crossed in front of us. Equipped with a stern paddle wheel, it provided a most unusual scene. A little further along we found our selves in some white water, which surprised us with a small waterfall towards the end. Unprepared with skirts the boats half swamped but we were able to maintain control until we could reach sufficiently quiet water to empty them. After that J1 became the official photographer until J2 could get a replacement camera at Wrightsville. (Should have kept it wrapped in that plastic bag!) Passing Clarks Ferry late in the afternoon we began to look for a campsite even though it was only about 6:00 pm. J2 was suffering from total exhaustion as a result of the previous day's effort. We found a spot on an island that passed muster and erected the shelter. Too tired to cook, we ate our last tuna sandwich (out of bread), and collapsed in our sleeping bags. Soon we discovered we were not alone. Other campers on the island were setting off firecrackers nearby to chase the noisy cormorants out of the trees. We also found that we were to be kept company by an overwhelming toad population as they kept jumping into the shelter. One joined J2 in his sleeping bag.
Sunday, June 2, 2002 -- Day 9
J2 awoke refreshed but J1 was beginning to feel the delayed effect of our Herculean effort to reach Sunbury on day 7 just as J2 had the day before. These aren't spring chicks or tri-athletes were talking about here folks! We polished off the last of our tuna fish for breakfast without the aid of bread and packed away a few raisins for the balance of the 43-mile trip to Wrightsville where we knew good food would be waiting. A few miles below Clarks Ferry we saw what appeared to be a white egret rookery. Since sighting of these birds is generally considered special down at Boekel Landing, it was a real treat for the adventurers.
Two dams challenged us today. At Harrisburg a low head dam on the south end of the city provides an exciting bypass on river left for the adventuresome. Our Walden Scout kayaks in conjunction with their unseasoned pilots were considered no match for the swollen flow in the area of the breech. In keeping with our commitment to conservatism, we portaged without trouble. We had a long straight stretch from Harrisburg to Middletown. We picked up a huge, 30 mph+ tail wind by this time and the river became extremely rough. It provided a wonderful opportunity to "surf" towards our destination. Maintaining control was the challenge. At one point J2 took off on a wave ride that almost swamped him when the bow buried and he couldn't get the "brakes" on fast enough. A risky turn across the wave prevented mid-river embarrassment and a difficult trip to the shoreline.
The turn in the river above Three Mile Island is guarded by what is probably the second tallest island on the river (after Mt. Johnson island near the town of Peach Bottom.) Between the island and the west bank, is a narrow passage with delightfully challenging white water. After that it was "surfing" again all the way to the powerhouse at York Haven dam. York Haven is an unusual dam that runs more down river than across. Connecting the west bank of Three Mile Island (of nuclear fame) to the York County shore, the dam is a very old stone structure which follows along a line of ledger rock traversing diagonally across the river. The powerhouse is an equally ancient brick structure. J2 has toured it and related that it has wooden roof trusses in the "turbine hall" and machinery that dates back to very early in the last century. The portage was well marked and proceeded across a grassy playground on the plant property so it was possible to drag the boats which we found to be slightly easier than carrying. Walden Scouts weigh 50 pounds empty and we had doubled the weight with our gear.
More challenging rapids faced us as we moved towards our destination. In particular, just below the Saginaw railroad bridge, is a short, sever stretch of waves. The Saginaw bridge was a stone arch bridge that had most of the center section destroyed by hurricane Agnes in June of 1972, the worst flood in the river's known history. Its not apparent if it was the debris from the fallen arches or ledger rock that created the obstacle but we observed white water sport kayakers using the rapids and they don't usually spend time in the mild stuff. The heavier challenges on the trip were met first by J1 who has a deep intuition for the river. Saginaw was no exception and after he breezed through, J2 followed.
A quiet late afternoon of paddling lay ahead ending with some "pleasant" white water before passing under the Route 30 bridge. Before reaching the next bridge at Wrightsville, (the old Route 30 bridge) we observed the piers of the bridge burned by retreating Union troops leaving Confederate General Jub Early frustrated on the York shore. The Susquehanna was too much of an obstacle for him to cross in pursuit. We paddled leisurely along the shoreline at Long Level weaving in and out of the moored boats. Spotted by the owners of Shanks Mare, a source of much of our paddling equipment, we paddled over to a dock and enjoyed refreshing bottles of a sports drink. A few more minutes and we arrived at the park in front of Shanks Mare to find most of Boekel Landing cheering our arrival. It was emotional! We tanked up on some fruit brought by Mrs. J1 then transported our boats to the rear of Shanks Mare. There we unloaded the camping gear which we would no longer need for the balance of the river and climbed into waiting vehicles for the 30 minute ride to Boekel Landing, a nice shower, quiet dinner, and great night's sleep!
Monday, June 3, 2002-- Day 10 (Homecoming)
The Mrs. J1 & J2 drove the Adventure Duo back to Shanks Mare to make the relatively short (about 20 mile) paddle to Boekel Landing. It was a gorgeous day and we traveled very leisurely. Our boats were much lighter now with camping gear, extra clothes, etc. removed. The day began with a favorable wind producing a mild amount of chop. Shortly we were treated to two eagles flying across the river engaged in a dispute complete with great aerial acrobatics and frequent thrusts of their talons.
First stop would be Safe Harbor dam. We had called ahead for portage transportation which is a requirement of the FERC license of the larger hydro dams. The approach is river left. The portage point was poorly marked and the exit point was a disaster, covered with major amounts of river debris. We were forced to exit against a sea wall which was exposed to the pounding of some substantial wind generated chop coming off the river. The situation was very tricky and a fall into the water at that point problematic. We were able to work it out and get the boats out of the water. Within a few minutes two sociable employees of the dam arrived with a crew cab pick up truck. The task of loading our boats was easy with the lighter weight. We were transported to the Conestoga River just upstream of where it joins the Susquehanna immediately below the dam. The re-entry point was a muddy bank with a steep drop off creating another difficult situation. The personnel and vehicle service were excellent but all other aspects of the portage could stand lots of improvement just to make them safe. Perhaps the low usage of the service, about eight to ten portages per year according to the fellows assisting us, has caused the focus on this commitment to atrophy.
Below the dam and continuing to Holtwood Dam is Lake Aldred. After only a few hundred yards we stopped at a large rock "island" centered in the river. Jay1 was very familiar with this site and the many prehistoric petroglyphs it contained. He brought a booklet documenting many of the glyphs. We used it to identify as many of the fading carvings as possible. We also spent some time fishing off the rock before proceeding. Resuming our trek we spent a pleasant afternoon paddling the length of the lake. The preferred approach to Holtwood Dam is river left to an area behind the powerhouse where an assisted portage can be obtained. That procedure returns the paddler to the river at the Pennsylvania Fish Commission ramp about 2 miles below the Dam. If flow is cresting the dam, which begins at about 20,000 cfs, one can expect spectacular white water. If no flow, ie, all flow is going through the power turbines, then one encounters all rocks below the dam except in the area of the tail race.
Tuesday, June 4, 2002 -- Day 11 (Final Day)
Slightly beyond Peach Bottom the wind picked up from the southeast and strengthening continuously until we were experiencing the strongest head wind of the entire trip. We hadn't brought our spray skirts since we were not anticipating serious rapids but they would have been very handy since we were shipping water over the bow of our boats. Our destination was Glen Cove marina where we were scheduled to be picked up at 10:00 am by workers from Conowingo Dam. Progress was slowed considerably and J2 managed to make a cell phone call to the dam informing them that we expected to be an hour late. As it turned out, despite the head wind we were only 30 minutes late and the plant workers arrived early so the connection worked well. Glen Cove Marina is in a sheltered cove about a half-mile short of the dam on river right. It has a gently sloping boat ramp in very good condition so disembarking could be done with ease. We were transported to an equally good launch site a few hundred yards below the dam where the friendly folks from the dam lifted our boats from the truck and placed them at river's edge. It was by far our best portage experience. The owners of Conowingo Dam take their FERC License commitment very seriously.
And when I asked the name of the river -- and heard that it was called the Susquehanna, the beauty of the name seemed to be part of the land -- That was the name, as no other could be, for that shining river and desirable valley.
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1872
The following are lessons learned and wisdom gained over the trip.
Dams - Dams probably presented the biggest hazard we faced. River flow was ebbing through out our trip following significant flooding. In New York it appeared to be just back within the confines of the banks within the past day or two. Down river the Marietta gauge indicated 60 to 80 thousand cfs and falling slowly. Approaches to dams were not always well marked with warning signs. While some had the portage exits and entries well thought out as well as the path, many did not. The largest risk was disembarking upstream when only a slippery bank was available. The prospect of slipping and falling into the flow above the dam had to be considered in how close an approach to make. The trade off is a longer portage. All three sets of charts we used had instructions on which side of the river to portage the dams and generally it was reliable information.
Rapids - The trickiest water seemed to be on the main stem. The problem is that the challenges are difficult to assess from above but scouting them is probably unrealistic. None were terribly difficult but a few offered opportunity to swim our boats which could be problematic. Skirts virtually eliminate that threat but, when cruising, their use is inconvenient at best.
River Flow - During our sojourn the flow was high but falling after a 200,000 cfs (at Marietta) flood. At Marietta it was about 70,000 cfs and in New York it was just receding to within the banks. This provided greater "drift" down the river but also had to be watched around structures.
Electric Storms - Lightning and severe winds from thunderstorms are a real threat to paddlers. We had two experiences. One was a minor "close encounter" which we weathered under a bridge. The other was very violent and we avoided trouble by pulling the boats out of the river and using the back porch of a person's house for protection from the lightning, wind shear, and driving rain. Hail was not a factor but easily could have been. The key is to pay close attention to the weather and when there are thunderstorms in the area monitor their location. Estimate their distance by timing the delay of the thunder after the lightning: one thousand feet for every second. Figure that you must be under shelter by the time the storm has approached within one mile (five seconds). To be able to do that we would try to plan what we were going to do ahead of time and then travel in such a way as to keep the plan viable. This usually meant sticking close to shore and not proceeding on until a new plan was thought out for the next stretch of river we were entering. A good plan and some good common sense about lightning should keep a paddler safe.
Wild Life Sightings:
Eagles, 31; Great Horned Owls, 2; Deer, 12; Turkey, 7; Mink, 5; Muskrat, a few; Loon, 1; Swans, 5; Turtles, a ton; Osprey, (did not count, eagles tasted better); Beaver, very plentiful; Red Tail Hawks, very plentiful; Mosquitoes, very few and they were easily driven off with repellent!
Carry food - The purpose of our adventure was to see the river from beginning to end from a kayak. It was not a camping trip. Camping was a practical necessity. (Every night we were dreaming of coming around a bend and seeing a nice riverside motel. If we had there's no question what we would have done!) Meals fit this category also. We weren't testing our outdoor cooking skills. In planning the trip we planned to cook while camping. We carried the equipment to do so. As it turned out we only used it once. When we would finally make camp at night we were generally extremely exhausted and if we ate any thing it was a tuna (from sealed packs) sandwich and some dried fruit. We would spread our sleeping bags and crash even if it was full daylight. In the morning we would eat a handful of granola and dried fruit then stash a power bar for eating later then hit the river early. If we couldn't find a diner/restaurant we would eat beef jerky for lunch. With a little bit of replenishment along the way this carry food was sufficient for the trip.
Dining out - To add novelty to the Brule Descent (the name we assigned to our expedition. Brule was the first European known to have traveled down the length of the river) the J's rated the eateries to which they gave their business along the way. Muddy Run Park set the standard by not only giving us good quality food with friendly service, put the view was lovely and they sponsored us by donating two Muddy Run tee shirts. The ratings were based on quality of food, view/atmosphere, friendliness, quality of service, with bonus points for "sponsorship."
Virtually all of our water came for the river. We used a PUR backpacking filter which removes all bacteria and some viruses. It was light, stowed easily and was simple to use. Once we passed Binghamton we purified with iodine tablets first then used the filter. This was a precaution because of the greater loading of waste in the water. The water tasted fine and we drank a lot of it. Due to the constant paddling it was necessary to force ourselves to continually drink to avoid dehydration.
Camping was done near the riverbank or on islands. We used a blue plastic 24x19 ft. tarp, which we would fashion, into a shelter with a floor. It had to be erected between two trees which was never a problem. We dragged the kayaks along either side of the shelter and used the painters for tie down lines. It was a simple, comfortable shelter which we could erect and break down in a few minutes. It provided ample protection from the weather which we encountered but in heavy rain we would have expected to get a little wet. We learned to fold it so that the clean side never contacted the dirty part. When folded flat we put it in a trash bag and it slipped nicely in the boat. AND . . . It was cheap!
The weather was warm with the exception of the first night spent in the long house which was cool. For the purposes of minimizing sun exposure long, cotton pants are suggested. The use of suspenders is more comfortable in the extended sitting position than a belt. Tee shirts suffice in the day but a long sleeve shirt for warmth sometimes helped in morning. A soft hat with an "all around" wide brim was sufficient protection and helped in the rain. We didn't use gloves for paddling resulting in very "tough" hands. Paddler's preference. A light weight, well ventilated parka was a must for rain.
Pack all "spare clothing" in a water tight plastic, store in bow.
Choice of Kayaks
Our choice of kayaks for the trip was made easy by virtue of the fact that we each only owned one, and they were Walden Scouts. These are a 13 foot, large opening, garden variety, plastic “knockabout” boats suitable for calm, flat water day tripping. That we used them for a 444 mile trip on a river that had an ample supply of mild white water was as much a reflection on our inexperience as it was our thriftiness. However, in hindsight, they were satisfactory. We were able to cram enough supplies in for nine nights camping, including some deck storage. We did buy skirts and they were useful on the worst of the rapids. After completing this trip we purchased 17 foot fiberglass boats for subsequent salt water trips. We routinely use them on deeper sections of the river, however, negotiating the extensive ledger rock shallows and rapids is problematic since the fiberglass can not take the punishment that plastic can. (and it is unrealistic to think that rocks can always be avoided.) Also, many of our dam portages required re-launching over very rocky bottoms in shallow water. For that reason we would not recommend glass or Kevlar “hard hulls”.
- Cooperstown, NY to Bainbridge, NY: Official General Clinton Canoe Regatta map, Beech Hill Outfitter, 11067 County Hwy. 20, Bainbridge, NY 13733, 607-265-3425
- Afton, NY to Oswego, NY:Your Guide to Broome County Rivers, Write or call: Broome County Department of Parks and Recreation, Box 1766, Binghamton, NY 13902, 607-772-2193
- Sayre, PA to Broad Creek, MD:River Trails of Pennsylvania Shank's Mare, 2092 Long Level Rd, Wrightsville, PA, 717-252-1616
- 15 ft. Kayak with bow and stern painter
- Paddle and extra paddle (shared between boats)
- Spray skirt
- Life Jacket (pfd)
- Watertight "canoe" bag for camera, wallet, etc.
- Fishing rod and minimum amount of gear
- Cell phone with sufficient batteries
- River charts
- 19x24 ft tarp with grommets for use as shelter
- 200 ft of small diameter braided nylon line for shelter erection
- One or two bungee cords for tie downs
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Work shorts
- Tee shirts (2)
- Camp foot wear, eg, sandals or moccasins
- Sox (1 pair)
- Water shoes
- Parka (place it where you can access it in a hurry)
- Long sleeve shirt
- Small coffee pot
- Mini dutch oven
- Small cook pot
- Cooking oil
- Bowl and spoon for eating
- Tuna packs
- Peanut butter
- Dried fruit
- Beef jerky
- "Power" bars
- Bisquik for cooking biscuits
- Dehydrated noodles
- Small first aid kit
- Water filter
- Water purifying tablets
- Insect repellent
- Toilet kit
- Camera and film
- Toilet paper
- Pen and paper -- Keep a journal!
- Cash, at least one hundred dollars
- Credit card