Pennsylvania there is a complex of connected rivers on which I have had a lot
of good times during the past 20 years: the Sinnamahoning and Kettle flowing
out of the Black Forest; Pine Creek rushing through the magnificent Grand
Canyon of the East; the Moshannon and Loyalsock, pre-eminent white-water runs.
These, as well as hundreds of other streams, creeks and springs, are
tributaries of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
There is a
something about a river that invites you to travel it from beginning to end.
Considering what high regard I have for the West Branch, it may seem curious
that I had never made such a trip on this particular stream. However, there was
no sense of deprivation or frustration because I felt certain that someday the
time and circumstances would be ripe. And sure enough, time and circumstances
coincided last spring. Lyn, my eldest daughter and a college junior in Arizona,
called one April evening to say that she had a month off between the end of the
spring semester and the beginning of summer school and that she was coming back
to Pennsylvania. "But I'll get bored if I just sit around playing with toys
and people I used to know," she said. "I want an adventure. I was
"What I have
been thinking about—again," I said, "is paddling the whole West Branch.
You want to do that?"
weird," Lyn said. "I was going to say before you interrupted that I've
really been thinking about a canoe trip. It's been 10 years since I was on a
"When can you
"My last exam
is on May 12. If I fly, I'll be home the next morning, but if I ride the bus it
will be later."
reservation. I'll send a check for a plane ticket in the morning."
Like old hemp
ropes, rivers tend to fray at their upper ends, dividing into a number of more
or less equal strands, any one of which can logically be called the source.
This is the case with the West Branch, the original strands of which rise in a
100-mile are of highlands that stretch from roughly the Altoona-Johnstown area
to the New York border. Through the offices of the U.S. Geological Survey, one
of these strands has been designated as the West Branch. It begins in Cambria
County on the outskirts of the village of Carrolltown from a number of seeps in
a swampy bowl overlooked by several junk-food drive-ins and a public riding
stable. It is not a picturesque scene, but humble beginnings should not be held
against anyone, or any river.
From there the
West Branch runs north and east for 240 miles—through mountains for most of the
way—until at Northumberland it joins the Susquehanna, which rises at
Cooperstown, N.Y. out of Otsego Lake and flows southward through less rugged
terrain. The Susquehanna rolls down through the Harrisburg-York-Baltimore
megalopolis until it enters—in fact, creates—Chesapeake Bay.
All in all, the
Susquehanna drains 27,500 square miles. It is the largest river flowing into
the Atlantic Ocean from the continental U.S. Each day an average of 23 billion
gallons pours out of the mouth of the river. However, this enormous total is
more or less a drop in the bucket compared to what the river can do when it is
really trying. In the flood of '72, hydrologists calculated that at its peak
the river was discharging nearly 700 billion gallons of water a day into the