Susquehanna: Source to Sea

Passing through downtown Harrisburg, Penn., on the Susquehanna. Photo: Erik Schlimmer


By Erik Schlimmer
Published: February 22, 2011

My dining room table strained under 75 pounds worth of Ramen noodles, cocoa mix, root beer barrels, butter, chocolate chips, bagels, brownies and a six pack of Busch. Totaling 134,000 calories, all bagged and arranged in neat piles, the rations would give two men 3,700 calories a day for eighteen days. This was the duration I estimated it would take my paddling partner, Steve Thomas, and I to travel the 460-mile Susquehanna River. The selection of food would have made a good dentist’s or dietitian’s hair stand on end, but it was a solid cold weather paddling diet: carbohydrates for energy, fats for warmth, and sugars for reward.

Down the hallway, PFD’s, carbon fiber paddles, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads—two of each—were piled among dry bags, fuel canisters, rubber boots and a shelter. Clearly not as neat as the piles of rations, we knew that by bedtime this gear would be packed and ready for an early departure in the morning. Across town at my friend’s house were our boats: two sleek seventeen-foot, 27-pound Hornbeck canoes. After a hearty going away dinner, I lay in bed imagining what paddling nearly 500 miles would be like. My longest canoe trip prior to the Susquehanna was one-tenth that distance.

The Susquehanna expedition was my first step toward canoeing the five longest rivers in the Northeast, each with a different partner. If successful on this maiden voyage, I plan to then slip down the Connecticut, Delaware, Penobscot, and Hudson Rivers, another 1,500 miles of paddling.

November 10, 2010 dawned clear. The inch of snow that fell two days earlier had melted into our river, chilling it to 46 degrees. We put in near Cooperstown, New York, and paddled toward Chesapeake Bay. Mile by mile the river widened, we got our paddling arms, and we lightened our enormous duffel bag of food. And, mile by mile one thing increasingly amazed us. It wasn’t the bald eagles that watched us, the deer that forded and swam the river in front of us, or the warm, sunny weather that was pure luck. It was the garbage.


Ramming speed into wave-piled garbage. Safe Harbor, Penn. Photo: Erik Schlimmer


The enormity was impressive, the diversity ingenious: Over here a coal car, next to a bowling ball, next to a printer and a shopping cart. And over there tractor tires, next to a fifty-gallon drum, automobile, suitcase. Past the trash we fell into our routine: get up at dawn, paddle until lunch, paddle until dusk, set up camp, eat, sleep under the stars. The simplicity and freedom were welcome and when looking above the shoreline trash, the woods were often pretty, even in their dull fall colors.

As days went by, mountains were reduced to hills and wide expanses replaced oxbows until it appeared on November 26: the Bay. After running under 128 bridges, completing fifteen portages and avoiding a dozen dams across three states, we were greeted by double-crested cormorants and the smell of saltwater in Perryville, Maryland. Steve and I pulled into our take out and tested our sea legs. The journey down river number one was complete.

– Erik Schlimmer is an inspirational speaker who serves as faculty at Oneonta State University. More information on his adventures can be found at www.erikschlimmer.com.

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