Explore the Middle Susquehanna Water Trail with this video from WVIA's Green Life PA.
Civilization is never far from the middle of the Susquehanna River. But for boaters sitting amidst the placid water, and surrounded by wooded islands, the modern world seems, at best, far away. Indeed, it’s that sense of remoteness and adventure that continues to draw Brook Lenker to the Susquehanna during summer. What Lenker and countless other boaters have found is that the Susquehanna and its many islands create a water-oriented recreation destination far from the crowds.
Since the creation of the Susquehanna River Trail Association, thousands of boaters have paddled the river and spent the night nestled on one of the islands that dot the river. Those forested islands, anchors of land in the middle of the massive river, become destinations themselves, places to camp, to fish, to hunt and even to farm.
“There’s a lot of interesting history to these islands,” said Lenker, who is technical advisor for SRTA.
Network of trails
Launched in 1988, the SRTA worked to improve access to the Susquehanna River islands, and improve the recreational experience on the river. Initially, the river trail opened with several campsites in 1988, extending from Halifax to Harrisburg. Then, in 2001, the SRTA worked with the state to extend the trail to Sunbury.
During the creation of the river trail, the SRTA attempted to research the ownership of every island, Lenker said. There are roughly 500 islands in the 52-mile stretch between Sunbury and Harrisburg. Many are state-owned, or have no discernable ownership history, Lenker said. They vary in size from the massive City Island in Harrisburg, which boasts a baseball stadium, to a string of tiny rock islands known as the archipelagos north of the capital.
SRTA volunteers built 23 campsites on the state-owned islands between Sunbury and Harrisburg for use by the boating public. Group volunteers maintain the sites through an agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Lenker, who works for the department.
Island camping sites are rustic, and big enough for a few tents. There’s a fire ring and a log book for boaters to record their visits. What those log books show is that more and more people are using the islands. SRTA volunteers have also posted instructions on how to “Leave No Trace,” the outdoor ethic which suggests that visitors keep the area pristine and minimize impacts on the environment. The larger islands are occupied almost every summer weekend.
“We’ve seen a heightened interest in people taking multi-week trips on the river,” Lenker said. “There is interest in that unique experience. The river trail provides that.”
Islands in the Susquehanna are an important recreational resource, one that adds an extra element to a boater’s experience, said Mary Gibson, manager of Blue Mountain Outfitters in Marysville. Most boaters spend just a day on the river, however island camping is growing in popularity, particularly among people out of state, Gibson said. Many are surprised to learn that the islands are open for camping.
However, Blue Mountain operates its summer outfitting trips to ensure that the river and the islands are not overloaded with visitors.
“We self-regulate regarding how many people we put out there,” she said. “We don’t encourage huge trips to one island because of the impact.”
Paddling the river, even just day trips or weeknight excursions, has grown significantly in popularity, said Ryan Walt, outreach and education coordinator for the Pennsylvania Fish and boat Commission. Fortunately, for those living in Central Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River has numerous public boat launches. One of the most popular boating trips is to paddle from Duncannon down a stretch of the river known as The Narrows, all the way to Marysville, Walt said.
“Paddling has exploded in interest,” he said. “People are looking for intro to paddling courses. It has become a booming activity.”
In researching the background of the islands, Lenker and members of the SRTA found a rich history of their use. Many of the larger ones were used for farming, and a few near Dalmatia still have corn and soybeans growing on them. Farmers use barges to float equipment out in the beginning of the season and retrieve them before the ice sets in.
Several islands are off limits for human use, and are used as wildlife propagation areas, Lenker said. One near Harrisburg, Wade Island, is a rookery, with more than 200 nests of egrets during the summer months. Boaters paddling past the islands often see deer, great blue herons and the occasional beaver.
What you’ll see
Wildlife and scenery abound on the river, and that is perhaps one of the reasons that boating continues to attract a devoted following. Boaters coming south on the river above Harrisburg are treated to a special display of scenery. The river passes through five water gaps, where the mountains are broken by the river. “That is a unique geographic phenomenon,” Lenker said.
And even though Route 15 and other roads parallel the river, there are areas on the Susquehanna where paddlers can’t hear highway noise. That is what makes the Susquehanna River so special. It is a semi-wilderness experience,” Lenker said. “It has a primitive quality.”
Get down to the river
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission operates dozens of boat launches along the main branch of the Susquehanna River. There are three formal trailhead launch points for the Susquehanna River Trail. They are located at Halifax, Amity Hall and Fort Hunter. The river trail ends a City Island in Harrisburg. For those looking to do more than simply paddle on the river, the Susquehanna River Trail Association is always looking for volunteer Island Stewards to help keep campsites clean and open. To learn more about the organization, and ways to volunteer, visit: susquehannarivertrail.org. For more information about boating in Pennsylvania visit fishandboat.com.