2020. The year of COVID-19. Should we risk being together for a few days? Can we expect to go into restaurants and stores along the way? Can we stand NOT to paddle for a year? These are some of the questions that came to mind as we started thinking about our 2020 paddle on the Susquehanna River in late winter. We were so excited to start a new river last year. In one day, we had paddled about 20 miles from Lake Otsego (Cooperstown, NY) into the then narrow river, and we were off on another adventure. Later in the year, we did an overnight trip and made it to Bainbridge, NY. John and Maggie lived in Bainbridge 35 years ago and still have friends there, Ed and Lea Ray. We spent the night at their house and they helped get us in the river upstream from Bainbridge and met us at General Clinton Park in Bainbridge a couple of days later. The park is the finish line for the General Clinton Canoe Regatta, something that was going on when Maggie and John lived there and continues to this day…except for this year. It is a 70 miles endurance race from Cooperstown. We dream of doing that someday but imagine it is only a dream. We are really not the racing types. We did enter another kind of race this year. The Ohio River Paddlefest was something we had hoped to participate in years ago but the year we were to paddle through Cincinnati, the waters were at flood level. We paddled on but the race was postponed. This year, the race was cancelled due to the virus but they did a virtual race. Folks from everywhere and anywhere were encouraged to kayak or canoe in a river or lake and clock their miles. We entered at $25/person in order to be part of this adventure and support the causes the race supports: an organization encouraging inner city youth to participate in outdoor sports and a local food bank.
So, in 2019, we were 62 miles into it at that point and excited to go out again this year. But then came The ‘Rona. We knew it was a risk but as infections in Western New York where Karen lives in in Vermont where Maggie lives had plateaued, we decided to jump into the window of opportunity before it got worse again…predictions all around. Ed and Lea were willing to be our transport again this year but we neither hugged them nor stayed in their home. We kept our distance but were still grateful to get to see them and grateful for their driving 3 hours round trip to bring Karen’s car to us so that we could return to Bainbridge to get Maggie’s car. Thank you, Lea and Ed!
The 2020 adventure brought another change to our routine. In the canoe we remain 16 feet apart. In the tent we usually share, not so much. So Maggie bought a backpacking tent for herself. Karen happened also to purchase a new tent which was larger than the old one and able to accommodate her and our gear…keeping it clean and dry.
Day 1: June 26 Ten miles.
Shoving off from General Clinton Park in Bainbridge, NY
After dropping Maggie’s with Ed and Lea, we headed to the park. Later, Ed and Lea picked up Karen’s car at the park and took it back to their house for safekeeping. Some storm clouds gathered but then dissipated, leaving us a beautiful few hours in the afternoon to get some miles under our paddles. There had not been much rain for some time, so the water was low for this time of the year but there was enough that we did not have to drag the canoe too many times over the gravel. Throughout the afternoon, we had our usual sightings of mature and juvenile bald eagles, deer with fawns, killdeer, sucks, a muskrat, and crayfish.
The first day out is always an adjustment. It is an adjustment to be with a friend you haven’t seen for a year. It is an adjustment to have life go by slowly in a canoe after scurrying around finishing up work projects and preparing gear. We have learned to let that adjustment day do its thing. At the end of the day we found a perfect camping site (in fact, throughout the week, we found perfect camping sites). We were somewhere between Afton and Nineveh. However, the deer that was used to enjoying our spot was leery of our presence!
Day 2; June 27 22 miles
We awoke around 5 am and left camp at 6 am, having learned many years ago that getting started before we ate breakfast gave us a good jump on the day. The river was very foggy and we could only see about 50 yards ahead. The river was calm, though we had a little excitement around some drops in elevation and rocky shoals. Our camp was right before a series of islands and it was fun to paddle out into the channels in the mist-erious fog.
At about 7:30 am, it started to rain and as it picked up we planned to find some shelter under a highway bridge as we had in the past. We don’t mind paddling in a little rain, but as it got heavier, we noticed a little fishing cabin with a covered front porch and decided that the absent owners would not mind us whiling away some time in the protection of their porch. It had been chilly the night before which may have led to us both being pretty chilled by then. We ended up pulling out our sleeping bags and preparing a dehydrated meal of beef stroganoff at around 9 am just to stay warm. We hadn’t slept well the night before…another reality of the first day and night on the river…so we ended up napping there as well.
Six hours later, the rains had passed enough that we could head back out. Thank you to the anonymous owner of that cabin who also had a functioning electrical outlet outside with which we charged our phones. We left a thank you note and $5 in the door!
Just after we got back on the river, we went under the Harpursville bridge, approached an island, and chose the far left passage…a big mistake! We heard what we thought were riffles up head but the riffles ruffled us when we realized it was a DAM. An unmarked dam. No warning at all. We managed to back paddle quickly, about 60 feet from the dam, and get the canoe turned around and back to the end of the island where we went down another channel successfully. The dam was about 2 feet high and while we likely wouldn’t have been hurt, our canoe for sure would have been swamped and our gear dispersed. So, for any reading this who may want to paddle the Susquehanna…not all dams are marked!
That night we found a gravel shoal to camp on. Leery that it would be uncomfortable, we discovered that our sleeping pads really do their jobs and we slept quite comfortably. And sleeping on shoals, always assures us that we are not technically on anyone’s private land. All rains had passed and we enjoyed a second night without rain.
There was also a clear running stream by our site that we could use to bath in. That is always a nice treat…and one we seldom had on the Ohio River.
Bathing stream in the background.
That day we saw more bald eagles. We saw two mature eagles in a tree on the river left. As we approached, one flew across the river into a tall pine in which was perched a juvenile right next to a nest! We saw numerous other eagles and a couple of beavers, one seeming to be on an aimless afternoon swim! We saw several deer as well. They are beautiful along the shoreline as the stand at attention silhouetted against the tree line watching us pass by.
Day 3; June 28 24 miles in canoe. 1.5 miles by foot as we looked for the best place to portage!?
We were up around 5 am again and on the river by 6 am. It was warmer and less foggy but still a mist hung in the air. The water was calm to start with but we also had lots of fun riffles. For those who don’t know what a riffle is, imagine a tiny patch of white water. It is where the river is more shallow and the rocks create the white water. We became more and more proficient over the week at reading the river and managing the riffles as the rocks gave way to boulders and the drops in elevation were higher and thus the river moving faster. One set of riffles created white caps deep enough to soak Maggie who sits in the bow.
Beautiful old train depot in Susquehanna, PA.
As we approached our first EXPECTED dam at Susquehanna, PA, we were uncertain of our course of action. Fast water around the curves made us cautious. We got out at one point 1/2 mile above the dam and found the longer portage trail that was marked on the map. There was a new park being developed that the trail went through with a beautiful old train station next to it. It seemed like too long of a portage for us and there was the option of going further down river (as long as the water was not too high, which it was not) and picking up a shorter portage there so we headed out to find it. We stopped about 40 yards from the dam. This was what they call a breached dam…it was no longer functioning as a hydroelectric plant and part of the concrete of the dam had been dislodged, intentionally or not, we do not know. But we suspect it was part of the plan when the plant went out of commission. As we approached this dam, we watched a kayaker actually go through the breached part of the dam and come out the other side.
We think he had done that before!
We searched the shoreline for quite a while trying to find the portage trail. Maggie missed the sign in her search and it took Karen wandering around a bit in the underbrush to find it. This was our chance to use another addition to our gear: a canoe dolly. We lashed the canoe to the two-wheeled dolly after removing the heaviest of our gear. And then we pushed and pulled it across shore to the trail. We pushed it up the
The ground was uneven but the dolly helped to get it up into the trees from where we carried over the culvert to the other side.
brushy and muddy trail as far as we could before removing the rest of the gear and hoisting it over a concrete culvert and back down the other side of the muddy path to the dam. We fetched all the gear and pushed off once again. It had been quite a challenging portage. Imagine an obstacle course. A 65 pound canoe and about 200 pounds of gear.
Coming back down the other side
We had planned to take a break after that at one of the PA Fish and Boating Commission (PFBC) ramps but there was a group there so we paddled on. Eventually they paddled past the spot where we stopped for lunch. Once in the water again, we caught up with them and chatted a bit. We seldom have seen other recreational paddlers in any of the rivers we have been on. This was a family, grandparents, children, and a grandchild, enjoying a day of paddling together. Very nice.
Shortly after that, we heard thunder and headed to the shore where we waited out a quick storm for about 1/2 hour. We paddled on to the PFBC launch at Hampstead, PA, where the other paddlers were already loading their boats back on their cars. One of the men offered to drive us over the bridge to a store for ice. We accepted. It was there that we first saw other on land and realized that COVID 19 really is everywhere. Masks and social distancing were the norm. There was something striking about being out of our home areas for the first time and seeing what we had only seen on the news: No place is exempt from the virus!
We bought our ice and cold drinks and walked back across the river to our canoe and headed out. After Hempstead, we realized our electronic support systems were getting low on juice. In past years, we had found park pavilions where we could plug into power. We found a big town park in Kirkwood, PA, and hoped to find the same there. But, apparently, they are either more conservative or COVID 19 meant they didn’t electrify the pavilions. Either way, no juice and no public facilities. We saw in several places that the public bathrooms were still shut own and port-a-potties had been placed in the parks.
We paddled on and back into NY. The Susquehanna starts in NY, dips into PA east of Binghamton, and then goes north again into NY until it get close to Sayre, PA, where it continues in PA. Oddly, the NY part of the river is not officially mapped but we did have river maps of the PA parts of the river thanks to an outfitter in PA who sent them to us.
Along this part of the river, we had I 81 running alongside of us and it was very noisy but we still found a decent camping space on a gravel point, made a campfire and enjoyed a half moon rising and the sun setting.
On the nature side that day we saw lots more eagles, blue herons, tiny, tiny diving ducks (adorable), mergansers, a beaver that slapped its tail for us, a swimming muskrat, and the next morning we noted the tiniest toads around our campsite. One of the funny things that happens as we paddle, is that we see things that are not there, most in the form of driftwood. This day, we thought we saw a raccoon and then realized it was driftwood, but as we got close realized it really was a raccoon! Another time we thought we saw a goose that looked like a stick, then looked like a goose, and turned out to be a stick! We also saw a dead beaver and a dead goose. Real ones.
Day 4; June 29 22-24 miles
We headed out onto the river a little later than the day before. There was a little mist but not much. The day became clear and sunny. Lots of sun and lots of sun screen that day. It was quite hot at times as well but breezy also at times. A few times the winds put up a fight for us but none to compare to some of our days on the Ohio River! The hardest part of the day was the four portages in the Binghamton area.
Dam 1: Rock Bottom Dam. This was a long portage, about 1/4 mile. We put the
wheels back on the canoe and that helped immensely! While longer than the last one, it was relative easy in terms of energy thanks to the wheels. We had to just get it up on grassy incline to the flat area. At this dam we watched a man fishing for bait fish with a net he would throw out. Fascinating.
Dam 2: The dam was breached and we were able to pull the canoe through the water and over the river left side of the breach. Easy.
Dam 3: There was a big, round concrete culvert we had to get over in order to get around the dam. We unloaded everything and carried it over and then carried the canoe over, had a snack and were on our way again. That may have been a snickers snack that day. We do that once a day. Doctor’s orders!
Dam 4: This one was west of Binghamton at Johnson City. We kept looking for the sign that we had seen in someone else’s blog. We never found it but we did spot the dam and got out and walked the canoe to a concrete esplanade and hoisting our gear over and then the canoe. Then we saw the sign. A little late to put a warning sign up right at the dam! Once again it was not a hard portage but at this point we had worked pretty hard all day toting things in and out of the canoe!
We have quite the appetites!
Blue Dolphin Diner
But our adventures for the day were not over. When Maggie, who grew up in Elmira, NY, not far from this area, realized we were near the Blue Dolphin Diner in Apalachin, we decided to try to have our first meal out. One problem: I 86 was between us and the diner! A more careful look at the map indicated a creek coming into the river which meant that the highway maybe went over the creek and we could go under the
This looks easier than it was. The rocks were on quite a slant and we had our phones and money in our pockets and didn’t want to slip into a few feet of water.
highway. That we did but not easily as the water got too deep and we had to do a bit of rock climbing to get beyond the deep water. But we were successful. We had our first COVID 19 dining experience: every other table blocked off and masks on unless we were seated. The food wasn’t great but it was an adventure we needed at the end of of trying day!
We paddled on a bit and found a campsite on the gravel. Near the highway and trains but it was home for the night!
We continued to see lots of deer and eagles! If anyone doubts the power of Mother Nature to recover from what humans can do, just look at the bald eagle. In our childhoods, they were nearly extinct. Now we see them around the rivers all the time. And multiplying!
Day 4; June 30 30 miles
We got a later start this morning. Karen washed up in the river and Maggie swam a bit in the river and washed up. Very refreshing. The current was strong and Maggie who is otherwise a strong swimmer, swam to shore quickly when she realized the speed. But for canoeing the speed is welcomed. We had hot beverages and enjoyed a few peaceful moments by the river before heading out. As we stood there we saw what we thought was a small beaver or muskrat swim toward our shore. We quietly watched and were soon surprised to see that it was a squirrel! What possesses a squirrel to swim across a river? And does it know to swim back or is it like the westward expansion…it just keeps on going…?
We had lots of fun riffles this morning and feel like we are getting better at reading the river. Karen seems especially proficient at it now. We also had some long still pools, creating slower paddling. More deer and eagles, and also a mud bank of swallows flying in and out of the holes they had created like the cliff dwellers of the Southwest had created.
8 miles into to the day, a really cup of coffee and a promise of fresh bagels took us out of the river in Owego, NY. We walked to the Owego Kitchen, a fine cafe just a few blocks away. Karen got a breakfast sandwich with maple syrup. Maggie got a bagel with cream cheese. We picked up some baked goods for later and headed back to the canoe. At this point we had been in stores in PA and NY and we were struck at how the rules for masks were very different in each state. We, however, kept out masks on regardless of the rules. Of course, the fact that we had matching Wonder Women masks made that more appealing!
Waiting out some rain.
After another 11 miles, we took another break on the river bank and noted the rains may be on their way. The rains did come about 5:15 pm just as we approached another PFBC launch site so we knew we had entered PA once again. That had been Karen’s goal…to at least get that far. Mission accomplished. We waited out the rains under a tree. Heading out again, we got caught in a bit more rain but kept paddling this time. At the ramp, we had seen a map showing an official primitive campsite on an island downstream and decided to head there for the night.
People ask where we stay at night. Usually we just find a spot on the river but this site was an official primitive camping site with a level area and a fire ring. Compliments of the staff of PA.
Got to the campsite about 6:30 pm. It was perfect. But the water was running quite fast there and we had to negotiate that to get into the quieter waters of a little lagoon by the campsite. We collected some fire wood, prepared a dehydrated dinner but had to take it into the tent in order to finish as the rains came one more time.
After the rains, we were able to build another small campfire and enjoy that on our last night out.
During that day, we saw yet more eagles, deer, and, finally, a log full of turtles! We had wondered where the turtles were.
And it was during this day that we tracked ourselves for the Ohio River Paddlefest, previously mentioned. We paddled 4.7 miles in 1:20 minutes and 9.4 miles in 2:24 minutes.
Day 5; July 1
Again, we slept in a bit. Karen bathed in the lagoon. Maggie wasn’t up for a morning bath! We collected stones and Karen built a small cairn to mark our presence.
We were on the river at 7:35 am with a good current and fast riffles and a tail wind at times. We stopped for breakfast about 3 miles downstream from the confluence of the Chemung River. We had been seeing helicopters for about a day over the river and wondered if there was an escaped prisoner or a dead body they were looking for. This day, when we saw one dip close to the river, we got more curious. When we came upon two fishermen, we asked about it and they said they were probably spraying the river for gnats. That was a bit worrisome! We then looked on line and learned that was indeed what they were doing. the PA Department of Environmental Protection, of all agencies, was spraying the river for black flies and gnats to make it more appealing for those wishing to enjoy the outdoors. Maggie had wondered why she was not covered with the usual but bites but not sure it was worth her comfort to dump some kind on insecticide in the river annually. Hum.
We had our last Snickers break at a park ramp and arrived at our destination, Towanda, PA, around noon. We found a coffee shop and got lunch to go, paddled back across the river to a nice part with a ramp, and let Ed and Lea know that we were
Towanda, PA. If you land there, make sure you use the park ramp on the river left side. The town side ramps are difficult.
not where we had told them we would be as the ramp on that side of the river was almost inaccessible. We unloaded, organized our things, ate our lunch, took a nap on the grass and waited for them to arrive a little after 3. They had brought their car and Karen’s so that we would not have to share a car all together. They went on their way and we loaded up and headed back to Bainbridge for Maggie’s car. Thanks to Ed and Lea, we discovered a nice ice cream shop in Bainbridge and we fortified ourselves for our respective trips home.
271 miles of the Susquehanna River still awaits us. Will we be able to return again this year? Maybe. Once you get rivers flowing in your veins it is hard to stay away.
Loading up in Towanda and heading back to Bainbridge.