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Searching for history on the Susquehanna

By Ad Crable

The Associated Press

MANHEIM — Mark Heller, of Manheim, wanted to paddle 444 miles down the Susquehanna River for a sense of adventure.

A year of COVID-19 claustrophobia and a similar yearning for exploration did it for the Rev. John Laughlin, a Millersville resident and pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Manheim.

“Follow the exploits, adventures and journey of four guys who want to do something a bit bigger than themselves,” wrote Todd Roy, of East Petersburg, who created the trip and is founder of the Conestoga River Club.

Like hiking the Appalachian Trail, plenty of people have paddled the length of the Susquehanna from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre de Grace, Maryland, at the mouth of the mighty Chesapeake Bay. That’s hardly the point. It’s about finding and testing oneself and the community that unfolds along the way.

So on the crystal clear morning of May 15, five men in colorful, single touring kayaks set off across Otsego Lake and disappeared down a ribbon of water that would gather strength across three states. But first, they would navigate the river’s North Branch.

Within a half-mile, they had the first of 13 sometimes arduous and tricky portages around dams. The last three on the lower Susquehanna, Safe Harbor, Holtwood and Conowingo, the utilities drove them around.

Their strongest memories of the river’s first tentative stretch was gin-clear water where the bottom, even 12 feet or so below, always was visible.

This might be a good point to dispel the notion that a 444-mile trip downstream on the Susquehanna is an effortless tubing float. There were days of no current, white caps and face-first wind that made progress a draining workout.

“This was not a casual sojourn,” Laughlin says.

But most days were spent in a reverie as the men contemplated what it must have been like for early settlers and Native Americans plowing these same waters in birch bark and dugout canoes. Spring had not yet sprung in upstate New York, but later they glided past phlox blooming on the shore and locust trees coming to life with their yellow-green coats.

They had read Jack Brubaker’s “Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake” and knew of the logging, coal mining and many other uses that would enlist the river through the centuries.

After a tentative first few days, they found their paddling legs and rhythm and for the rest of the 18-day journey moved across the water at 5 mph — up to 39 miles a day. At night, they would find a river island, cut down the grass with a sickle and pitch tents. At first they built wood fires to cook their freeze-dried meals but switched to a gas stove to reduce their impact.

From the islands, they were lulled to sleep by the murmur of water and watched the stars at night. Often they were not alone. One morning, a buck on an island snorted them awake. On the tip of an island near Mehoopany, they saw a black bear.

A few times they walked into a town for a hearty meal. Once they called and ordered delivery pizza, but workers were too suspicious to deliver it when asked to take it to river’s edge. Their best meal: a burger and a beer. One day, when he felt his energy reserves were getting low, Laughlin bought and ate an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

On day three, Roy had to drop out for health and boat issues. His friend who had accompanied him, Nick Yorty, of Pittsburgh, also left. Joe Haney, a York County man who had learned about the trip on Facebook, completed his predetermined section and soon Laughlin and Heller were alone.

“We looked at each other and decided to finish it,” Laughlin recalls. Months earlier, he had called Heller, a member of his congregation, to see if he could give sermons on the couple Sundays he would miss. “No,” Heller replied, “I want to go too.”

Both men had grown up around rivers. What most worried Laughlin was whether he could sleep in a tent for two weeks.

They found that man’s use of the river as an ally and enemy through the centuries is clearly distinguishable. “What’s impressive is how much we as humans worked at containing that river,” says Heller, 64, a retired landscape architect and telecommunications specialist. “There is riprap, canal walls, dikes and what the railroad did to make sure the banks were stable. We seem to fight the river at every turn.” They saw acid mine drainage seeping into the river.

People they met along the way were gracious and kind. A restaurant opened an hour early for them. On Poplar Island, off the shore of Middletown, they pulled up on a busy Memorial Day weekend in search of a place to pitch their tents. They were greeted by friendly cottagers, who call themselves the Poplar Island River Rats, offering a beer and an invite to sleep in the yard.

One day, they livestreamed to a fifth grade class where Laughlin’s daughter is a teacher. They were ready to recount the history of the river but the kids had a more pressing question: where do you go to the bathroom? Answer: In the weeds with a camp shovel. Inquiring young minds also wanted to know how in the world they kept their cellphones charged on the water. Answer: A solar-charging device.

Four of the five paddlers tipped at some point on the trip, usually when encountering trees across the water, known as strainers. But Heller and Laughlin said being on the river was the safest part.

“John and I had no worries in the water,” Heller notes. “I almost hurt myself the eight times I was on land portaging kayaks.”

The last few miles of the trip the pair encountered something they did not anticipate going down the Susquehanna: paddling against an incoming tide.

Moving slowly and silently made for incredible wildlife observations on the trip. They saw eagles, osprey, egrets, swallows skimming the surface in front of them, owls, a peregrine falcon, deer, a bear, beaver, muskrat and lots of waterfowl.

Laughlin came to savor being disconnected. “It was nice not to listen to any news for 18 days and to be cut off and have quiet time. And to not have the noise of society. Being unplugged was nice, and I am still largely unplugged and enjoy it.”

Adds Heller, “It was an experience that I cherish — and I don’t use that word lightly — and one that makes you want to do it again.”

And they are doing it again. They plan to spend 10 days paddling the 228 miles of the West Branch of the Susquehanna.

To follow their journey down the North Branch and the main stem of the Susquehanna in more detail with videos, photos and diary posts, go to the “Four guys 444” page on Facebook and “mayorheller” on Instagram.

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