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A float down PA's River of the Year

A group guided by Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, Pennsylvania Master Naturalist and Susquehanna Kayak & Canoe paddle down a portion of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River.
Kat Bolus
A group guided by Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, Pennsylvania Master Naturalist and Susquehanna Kayak & Canoe paddle down a portion of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River.

A fellow paddler yelled out to our fleet that there was a baby bear on the shore of the Susquehanna River.

Convinced I too saw the cute cub, I floated closer to the shore in my blue kayak only to realize what I saw was a pile of brown sticks.

On May 20, I joined the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (SGP), Pennsylvania Master Naturalist and Susquehanna Kayak & Canoe for a Paddler's Toolkit Workshop followed by a float down a portion of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River.

The North Branch was awarded PA’s 2023 River of the Year. It runs from the New York Border to Sunbury. Of its 181 miles, we paddled five of them. 

My first ever paddle was down the Susquehanna River around 2012 in a borrowed kayak. Days later, I convinced my dad to go dutch on a kayak and a yellow paddle that only I would use. Last month, I dragged it out of the back of my family truck at Riverside Park in Tunkhannock. The guides, including Susquehanna Kayak & Canoe owner Art Coolbaugh, loaded it onto a trailer and our crew of around 18 paddlers got into two 16-passenger vans. 

We launched out of Wyoming County’s first state park, Vosburg Neck. It's also one of the commonwealth’s newest state parks. We had to move quickly and quietly once there. There was a wedding.

Before we got out onto the open water under an overcast sky, the day started inside at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock. Poppy Breining, SGP's program manager for trails and recreation, led the group through the workshop, starting with the do's and don'ts of kayaking. Pennsylvania Master Naturalists Lucy Heggenstaller and Michele Richards, president/director, discussed the geology of the river, the flora, fauna and wildlife that live and thrive in and along the Susquehanna.

Breining first went over the gear you should have in your boat, including personal floatation devices or life jackets. 

"One thing you just want to make sure is that it stays," she said. "So you want to pull up on it and make sure that it's snug enough to not ride up ... If you're floating and it's not tight enough your heads going to be under the water anyway, it's not going to do you a whole lot of good."

She said to create a float plan. Let someone know where you are starting and ending and check the water conditions, including the water’s class. 

"Generally, the Susquehanna, you're not going to see anything more than class one, class two," Breining said. "Although there are a few class three rapids." 

Breining says to also bring a whistle, drinking water, a basic first aid kit, sunscreen, waterproof cell phone protection, bug spray and a big bulky sponge to soak up water in your boat. She also suggests wearing closed toe shoes. Breining told the group to dress for the water temperature combined with the air temperature. I was underdressed for the air conditioning in the theater.  

Up next was Richards and Heggenstaller .

The roots of emergent plants like the corn dog looking cattails are often submerged in water, Heggenstaller said. They provide a habitat and food for wildlife. Invasive species like knotweed grow along the river’s edges, often taking over and blocking out sunlight and nutrients for the native plants.

Heggenstaller has kayaked the entire main stem — or 444 miles — of the river.

"I get excited when I see eagles," she said. "Eagles are far more common than they were when I was a young person."

Me too. Eagles perched in a tree right across from where we entered the water. A great egret chilled out on a rock as we launched onto the calm river. 

The trip was my first time paddling along with a large group. At first, I found myself panicking as the current pulled me towards the other boats. But I quickly found my river legs.

As the group of mostly blue, green and yellow kayaks and one red canoe meandered down the river at a slow but steady pace, an osprey flew overhead. The birds don’t live in Northeast PA year round, Heggenstaller said during her presentation. 

“But they can be here during breeding season," she said. "They're good, very good fishing birds.”

Mallards floated near the shore as the crew either went left or right around one of the Susquehanna’s many islands, close to Tunkhannock. 

I found moments of solitude on the river, disrupted by the overwhelming fear that that baby bear was going to jump into my kayak and dump all my audio equipment into the water.

About an hour and a half after we launched, our crew made its way to shore. 

Map of a five-mile paddle down the Susquehanna River from Vosburg Neck State Park to Riverside Park in Tunkhannock.
Kat Bolus
Map of a five-mile paddle down the Susquehanna River from Vosburg Neck State Park to Riverside Park in Tunkhannock.

The main stem of the river is 444 miles long from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre De Grace, Maryland. It’s the longest river on the East Coast to drain into the Atlantic Ocean, said Richards. And the longest commercially non-navigable river in North America. The Susquehanna is the most flood-prone watershed in the nation.

Over 20 years ago, a mandate came from then-Governor Ed Rendell to embrace the Susquehanna River as a valuable resource in the commonwealth, says Breining. 

The Susquehanna Greenway is considered about one to three miles on land around the water. It’s made up of over 500 miles of river towns, riverfront parks, walking trails, biking trails and water trail access in the Susquehanna’s watershed. The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership is dedicated to advancing the mission of the river’s greenway.

“We envisioned a greenway that builds connections along the Susquehanna River, inspires people to engage with the outdoors and transform communities into places where people want to live, work and explore," said Breining.

The partnership helps communities make deliberate connections and celebrate their location along the river.

“Rather than just exist alongside of it,” she said.

To celebrate the North Branch’s River of the Year, Susquehanna Greenway Partnership and the Endless Mountains Heritage Region (EMHR), who help manage the branch, have a series of events planned, including:

  • EMHR's 25th anniversary and PA River of the Year Sojourn from Sayre to Shickshinny wraps up on Saturday.
  • EMHR's Youth Heritage Sojourn from Laceyville to West Falls, June 15-17.
  • Riverside Adventure Company's Friday Night Flight Paddle Series: June 30, July 7 and July 14.
  • EMHR's Summer Heritage Benefit Paddle for the Wyoming County Historical Society, July 15
  • Susquehanna Greenway Partnership Susquehanna Sojourn from Berwick to Bloomsburg, Aug. 5
  • EMHR's Endless Mountains Outdoor Expo, Wyoming County Fairgrounds, Sept. 29 to 30
  • EMHR and Endless Mountains Outfitters Fall Heritage Benefit Paddle for the Bradford County Parks System, Oct. 7

SGP is also hosting two more Paddler's Toolkit Workshops on June 24 at the Montour Preserve and July 8 in Columbia. For more details, visit susquehannagreenway.org/events/.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.