A group of people canoe and kayak on a calm river.
Susquehanna Paddlers A group of people explore the Susquehanna River by kayak and canoe. © The Nature Conservancy/Shawn Hickey

Stories in Pennsylvania

Mid-River Meanderings

Feel far from everything only minutes from Pennsylvania's State Capitol.

by Shawn Hickey, The Nature Conservancy's Operations Program Coordinator in Pennsylvania

Every trip down the Susquehanna River is like your first time on the river; it is always changing from one day to the next. This makes it a great place for someone like me who loves to get out on the water as often as I can.

The large size of the Susquehanna River’s watershed means that the water level can quickly change from one day to the next, depending on what’s happening up river. One day the water might only be a few feet deep in parts, with many exposed rocks and obstacles. A few days later, the water can rise several feet, doubling the volume of the river. This makes each experience on the river unique.

A brown birds looks on to a river.
River Bird A juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron is spotted along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. © Shawn Hickey/TNC

Originating in upstate New York, the river moves south through Pennsylvania, cutting it nearly in half, before moving on to Maryland where it empties out into the Chesapeake Bay. As the largest source of freshwater, the river’s health is directly connected with that of the Bay.

There are many places to put in a kayak along the Susquehanna. I paddle the most along the middle section of the river, near Harrisburg. Just north of the city, the river cuts through the Kittatinny Ridge and four adjacent mountain ridges forming what is known as the Susquehanna Water Gaps, a National Natural Landmark which boasts stunning views from both land and water, including from the Conservancy’s new Cove Mountain Preserve.

A mountain, covered in trees, is viewed from a river.
Cove Mountain Cove Mountain is viewed from a paddler exploring the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. © The Nature Conservancy/Shawn Hickey

As the river narrows through the Susquehanna River Gaps, it creates a series of rapids and white water. The most well-known section of rapids is called the Dauphin Narrows. Here you can see more experienced kayakers traversing in and around the boulders and fast moving water.

Closer to the city, the river opens up to almost a mile wide with several separate currents meandering around more than a dozen islands, almost creating several independent rivers running side-by-side. Spending time in the middle of these islands feels almost like you are miles and miles away from it all when in fact you are just a short distance away from the state capitol building.

Another exciting aspect of this stretch of river is the wildlife. It is not uncommon to see an osprey or bald eagle soaring overhead in search of its next meal. Passing by Wade Island in early summer rewards paddlers with a glimpse of Pennsylvania’s largest rookery of nesting great egrets, black-crowned night herons and cormorants squawking at each other. If you’re lucky, you might even see a river otter or beaver scurrying across the rocks into the water, not to mention the smallmouth bass that are popular with anglers fishing by boat or by land along the river.

A man paddles a canoe with his white dog in the back.
Canoe Dog Shawn Hickey and his dog explore the Susquehanna River in a canoe. © The Nature Conservancy/Shawn Hickey

If you are interested in exploring the middle Susquehanna River, I suggest putting in at Fort Hunter Park and taking out at Harrisburg’s City Island. It’s a nice trip that will take a few leisurely hours. There are also several local outfitters who can provide kayaks for individuals and groups.

In fact, as I write this, while looking out at the river from my office in Harrisburg, I can’t wait to get out there. See you on the river!