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On the River with Susquehanna Through-Paddler Cathy Mumford

There’s no better time than now to make your long-distance kayak trip a reality

Fifty-seven-year-old paddling enthusiast Cathy Mumford proves that when it comes to making a long journey happen, the best boat is the one you own and the right time is now. Mumford first caught our attention in 2010, when the mother of two from Colts Neck, NJ became the first woman to through-paddle the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Paddling solo, she traversed the woods and waters of the northeastern states, from upstate New York to Maine, in a 9.5-foot Perception Sparky recreational kayak.

Last spring, Mumford noticed the passage of time—"it had been awhile since the last [trip]"—and set about planning another adventure, this time on the Susquehanna River. "I was about to get married," Mumford says. "I've learned that with any big life changes, you're best to go off by yourself for awhile. My fiancé called it my 'honeylessmoon' trip."

The Susquehanna originates in New York before bisecting Pennsylvania and draining into Chesapeake Bay. Those who have paddled its entirety become part of the "444 Club," referring to the Susquehanna's 444 paddleable miles. "With the NFCT you see the landscape in a series of snapshots," notes Mumford. "I wanted to make a journey on one big river."

She set off on Mother's Day and completed the expedition in 26 days. The Susquehanna is a river in recovery, Mumford observes. The waterway is slowly rebounding from a legacy of industrial pollution. "It was an interesting mix of wild and remote with heavily populated sections," she says.

Photo courtesy of Cathy Mumford.

En route, Mumford's greatest challenge was finding campsites. "I did a lot of guerrilla camping," she admits. One memorable night was spent in a treehouse at Susquehanna Outdoor Adventures in Bloomsburg, Pa. Mumford was inspired by the friendly support she received from strangers along the way—especially when her kayak and gear was stolen in Marietta, Pa., only 44 miles from her journey's end.

"It was a rainy Monday and my guard was done," recalls Mumford. "I pulled boat up, locked it up with a bike lock, which is really just a rope. My boat is so old I didn't want some to think it was just a piece of river debris." She packed her clothing, wallet and journal and walked into town for a meal and to find a place to spend the night. When she returned, she heard peeling tires and discovered her kayak was gone.

Someone at the local American Legion suggested posting the kayak missing on Facebook. The police and an outfitter came to Mumford's assistance, along with local residents. She received a free night's stay in town. The next morning, someone posted that they'd found Mumford's kayak. "So many people helped out," says Mumford. "When I got my kayak back I gave the people a reward and got ready to get back on the water. They did the right thing. It was a 'no questions asked' type of scenario. In the end I was only delayed by a day."

Mumford says she hopes her journey will inspire other women to realize the rewards of kayak touring. "People talk about being in the moment," she says. "When you're out there on the water, you have to be. Your phone is turned off and you tune in to what's going on around you. When you're out for more than a week you feel totally immersed in nature. That's spiritual for me."

Her best advice is to just go, but to bring along a healthy respect for water. "If you're waiting for the perfect equipment, the right time and a partner, those are all trip killers," she says. "They say my boat is too small but it fits all my gear. It's a cheap plastic kayak that's tough, not prissy. It's manageable for me."

Mumford has no intention to wait another seven years to make her next journey. She's making plans to paddle the Hudson River next summer. "I really like this whole river thing," she says. "Rivers are America's first roadways. It's about seeing the big picture."


— Read more about the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, including a profile of through-paddler Eric McIntyre and expert tips for packing smart.