Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Trail of Beauty: Experience nature’s splendor with a journey along the Susquehanna River Water Trail.

Most people experience the beauty of the Susquehanna River from afar, from the banks or as a blur from their cars.

However, you need not be satisfied with a sideline vista. From Sunbury to Middletown, you easily can travel on the river along the Susquehanna River Water Trail.

Formed in 2000, the 54-mile-trail, with 25 islands containing primitive campsites, is maintained by the Susquehanna River Trail Association (SRTA). Confusing to some, a water trail is no different from a foot trail except that, instead of hiking boots for trekking, one needs a boat.

“It’s a really nice juxtaposition of civilization and nature—an accessible wilderness,” said Brook Lenker, an SRTA founder.

Lenker began his journey to creating the trail while pursuing a master’s degree at Towson University and writing a paper about a proposed hydroelectric dam along the Susquehanna in Harrisburg. In an effort to understand the river better for this project, he contacted Pat Riley, a local river guru.

“He put me in a solo canoe, said ‘follow me,’ and changed my life,” Lenker said.
The trip opened his eyes to the special nature of the Susquehanna and set him on serendipitous course.

In 1993, while working for Dauphin County Parks and Recreation, Lenker visited Hog Island, part of the Maine Island Trail, America’s first water trail. As he witnessed the public’s access to the islands and camping along the water trail, he thought, “It would be cool to do something like that in Harrisburg on the river.”  

Over the next seven years, with help from the state government, local outfitters and the conservation community, SRTA was founded.

Today, the trail represents a cooperative effort between SRTA, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the National Park Service.

Its mission: “To facilitate the use of the river to encourage stewardship.”

Much to See

SRTA members take stewardship seriously, acting as caretakers of the islands.

The volunteer position of steward involves surveying the islands regularly, maintaining the campsites and reporting any problems to the association board. Work may involve tasks as simple as cleaning up trash or as labor-intensive as hauling cement by canoe to repair a fire ring. The 12 or so stewards work hard so that visitors can fully enjoy the river.

River attractions include a wide variety of birds, including great blue herons, egrets and cormorants. Boaters can see these birds up close in their natural habitat as they nest or stalk along the bank fishing. Bald eagles are often spotted, so frequently that boaters are almost guaranteed a sighting, Lenker said. Non-feathered animals include mink, beaver, deer and, occasionally, bear.

“There’s so much to see that you can’t see from the road,” said Mike Traxler, SRTA president.

Boaters can pull up on an island for exploring or paddle to a rock, unload and bask in the sunshine. Morning and evening paddles offer stunning views, with the sunlight skipping across the water as it rises or sinks below the horizon.  

Always Changing

Before heading out into all this watery beauty, there are a few things that boaters should consider.  

First of all—be safe. Traxler recommends that novices journey with an experienced guide or someone familiar with the river. Outfitters like Susquehanna Outfitters on City Island, Shank’s Mare Outfitters and Blue Mountain Outfitters can provide guides and boats.  

Low-head dams pose a serious risk, and two exist in the middle section of the Susquehanna—in Sunbury and Harrisburg. Boaters should portage, which is river speak for taking a boat out of the water and going around the dams. They may look innocuous, but the vortex they create makes them deadly. Dams are clearly marked with caution buoys.  

Planning is also important.  

“The mistake a lot of new paddlers make is trying to go too far,” said Traxler   

Low water or a headwind will make the trip longer, and a good rule of thumb is one mile in one hour. If the water level is too low, the trip could be a real drag, literally. If the water level is too high, conditions are dangerous. Under five feet is considered safe. Check water levels at SRTA’s website.

Paddling represents one aspect of the trail, camping another.

Lenker said that its camping focus makes it unique. Each island has clear DCNR markings to let folks know it holds a campsite. Sites contain a fire ring, a clearing for tents and a log-in box. The box has a logbook and lots of good information for visitors.  

Based on the Appalachian Trail logbooks, they allow campers to offer feedback about the site, record wildlife sightings and even pontificate on the river experience.

“Life is like a river; keep paddling!” said one visitor who left her name as Ruth Ann.

Another wrote, “It’s another awesome summer day. One can’t describe a peaceful moon on the river!” Yet another contained the superimposed, drawn handprints of Cheyenne, age 21 months, and Douglas, age 3 years.

Venturing out on the Susquehanna River Water Trail will afford a different experience for each person, depending on the time of year, weather and happenstance. Even for folks like Traxler who frequent the river, each time is fresh.

“Every time I’m out, I experience something new, something I’ve never experienced before,” he said. “It’s always changing.”

For more information about the Susquehanna River Water Trail and the Susquehanna River Trail Association, visit

Author: Susan Ryder

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