Home / Blogs / Down the Winding Current: Paddling the Susquehanna River
October 30, 2023
Local legend claims that the name of the Susquehanna river comes from an Indian phrase meaning “mile wide, foot deep,” referring to the Susquehanna’s unusual dimensions. The word is Algonquian, and it simply means “muddy current” or “winding current”. Last September, I completed the fourth and final leg of my 444-mile kayaking journey, from North Branch of the Susquehanna from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre de Grace, Maryland with my dad.
My dad, Mark Todd (left), paddles ahead of me on the Susquehanna River in southern New York, with a great view of a duck-shaped cloud in the distance.
The Susquehanna is the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, typically outflowing 18 million gallons per minute at Havre de Grace. It is also one of the oldest river systems in the world, estimated to have been formed around 300 million years ago. It has been incredible to see the river and the landscape gradually change mile by mile, throughout the journey. Starting as a narrow, winding, crystal clear channel from Otsego Lake, the Susquehanna quickly widens and passes through farmland and cities in Upstate New York. Then, the landscape rises up along the water as you enter the Endless Mountains region of Pennsylvania. Ever-widening, the softer river bottom turns rockier, as boulders rise up from below. Some cities and towns have fortified themselves to withstand times of major flooding through levees or seawalls. Others harness the river’s flow through hydroelectric dams. As the river slows as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay, green tendrils of submerged aquatic vegetation dance just below the surface.
My dad and I wanted to take our time on this journey, splitting the 444-mile-long expedition into four separate trips over fifteen months. You can read more about each trip here on the Alliance’s Staff Blog. I’ll be honest – some days were tough. We experienced a record-breaking heatwave, paddling against 20+ mile-per-hour winds, and skirting by some near collisions with underwater hazards like boulders and downed trees. But the few difficult days were overshadowed by far more calm and beautiful paddles. I especially enjoyed getting to know the wildlife of the Susquehanna, and experiencing them right from the water.
Up north, quirky families of Common merganser (Mergus merganser) guided us downriver, quickly paddling ahead of us with their strong, webbed feet. As we moved south and were crossing into Pennsylvania, we saw North American beaver (Castor canadensis), muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), and North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) romping along the shoreline or swimming across the water carrying vegetation back to their dens. During our spring paddle earlier last year, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) nursed their week-old fawns by the riverside. All along the journey, juvenile and adult bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) swooped across the landscape or watched us go by, perched high above in snags.
As we paddled farther south, there was one species that was a very unwelcoming sight. Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of Spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) flying across wider sections of the river would fall into the water and float on the surface. Some would manage to crawl onto a fallen leaf or tree branch, hoping to reach land. My dad and I would take hold of our paddles in an attempt to smack or drown as many as we could. These invasive insects came to Pennsylvania from China nearly ten years ago and can cause damage to their host plants, including a number of trees native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. If you see Spotted lanternflies or their egg masses, take care to remove them.
The Chesapeake Bay Restoration effort has accomplished meaningful progress in all of the Bay jurisdictions, and getting to spend so much time on the Susquehanna reminded me of why I, and many others, do this work. At the Alliance, I am a part of our Green Infrastructure team, helping implement restoration projects like living shorelines and wetland creation across Maryland. In all of our work, whether that is Green Infrastructure, or the Alliance’s Agriculture, Forests, and Stewardship and Engagement Program Teams, our collaborative and action-oriented approach delivers on-the-ground solutions, technical assistance, and builds capacity to achieve healthier lands and cleaner water.
I (left) and my dad, Mark Todd (right), hold up some celebratory balloons in Havre de Grace, Maryland, to mark the end of our 444 mile kayaking journey.
It has been an immense privilege to have this experience. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is full of storied landscapes, beautiful rivers and streams, and kind and compassionate people. We are all fortunate to live, work, and play in such a special place. For those of us who already know the magic these lands and waters hold, it is up to us to bring others into the fold and support future generations of stewards!
What’s your waterway? Whether it is a backyard creek, a lake in a state park, or a major river system like the Susquehanna…
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Sharon Begley, Stat, The Boston Globe
Senior Green Infrastructure Projects Manager
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