Editor’s Note: This is a column on area watersheds by Blyden Potts and guest columnists to spread awareness of the area’s tributaries and the efforts of area volunteers to keep them clean.
In February, I shared the story of Joshua Dixon catching a 57-pound Flathead Catfish in the Maryland part of the Susquehanna River. It happened again. This weekend, I read about Garrett Hollenbach of Selinsgrove catching another enormous (57-pound, 8-ounce) Flathead Catfish, in mid-September, while fishing the Susquehanna near York.
If the weight is certified, it will break the prior record of 56 pounds, 3 ounces (set in 2020) to be the largest Flathead Catfish, or freshwater fish of any species, caught in Pennsylvania.
Another Susquehanna story I saw this weekend is about two guys from the Manheim area, Mark Heller and John Loughlin, who paddled the length of the main branch of the Susquehanna, 444 miles, over 18 days in May and June of this year. For an encore, they are now paddling the 228 miles of the West Branch. You can follow their travels on a Facebook page called: “Four Guys 444.”
My father used to talk about canoeing the entire length of the Susquehanna. One of his influences may have been a July 1950 National Geographic article, “Down the Susquehanna by Canoe.” I think Havre de Grace had some special interest to him, perhaps simply for the French name. Inspired by a comment Gen. Lafayette made, the town renamed itself after the French Port of Le Havre, France. I am sure Gen. Clinton Canoe Regatta, and the history it commemorates, of Gen. James Clinton damming Otsego Lake then breaching the dam to get a deeper draft and better speed for the boats of his 1779 military expedition also inspired my dad.
Neither he nor I ever did the whole trip, nor even the regatta, but decades ago, we did paddle the first section, the course of the regatta, from Cooperstown to Bainbridge. If the river at Harrisburg is your mental image of the Susquehanna, to see it as a creek in the headwaters is quite a contrast. Call it Baby Susquehanna. It meanders peacefully for several miles through a rural valley, to a small reservoir called Goodyear Lake. A ways below the dam, there is a braided curve where we tipped the canoe. He lost his paddle. So I had to paddle the last few miles to the day’s takeout at Oneonta. I have brought a spare paddle on river trips ever since.
The longest river east of the Appalachians, the Susquehanna is also the largest watershed in Pennsylvania, draining about 21,000 square miles, over 45 percent of the land area of the commonwealth. It enters the state for a few miles near the northeast corner before turning near aptly-named Great Bend.
It flows back into upstate New York, and passes Binghamton on a westward trek of 50 miles before re-entering Pennsylvania at Sayre. From there, it descends in a large zigzag across the mid-state: Southeast to the Wyoming Valley, southwest to Sunbury where it joins the west branch, south to Harrisburg, and then southeast again to the Chesapeake Bay.
It passes some unique history along the way: French Azilum, a 1790s refuge for royalist exiles from the French Revolution; Port Griffith and the site of the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster; dozens of historic river towns; the Millersburg-Liverpool Ferry; and Three Mile Island. It flows through majestic gaps, over eroding ridges, and around myriad islands, while passing the Statue of Liberty near Dauphin, and City Island and the Capitol building at Harrisburg.
No wonder so many are bitten by the bug. If the river and its history fascinates you, you may enjoy “Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake” by Jack Brubaker (2002). If you like the idea of paddling the river, but only if you can do so vicariously, a documentary made by a group of students who paddled the Susquehanna in 2006 may be just the thing: https://www.pbs.org/video/wvia-original-documentary-films-expedition-susquehanna/