Sara Kaplaniak

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids.

Land, water trek offers insights to lower Susquehanna

It was a picture-perfect morning and I was all set to check out a new bike-and-kayak excursion offered by an outfitter along the Susquehanna River. And then I received a surprise: My son, Noah, decided to come with me.

Usually the only opportunity to steal time with my busy 14-year-old is during long trips in the car. This was a treat.

Our adventure began in Columbia, PA. Our host was Jim Cox, owner of Chiques Rock Outfitters. A two-part tour lay ahead: traveling 7.5 miles on a riverside bike trail (partially on the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail), then a kayak trip on the Susquehanna River that would take us back to where we started. Before hitting the road, we agreed to call Jim when it came time to switch from bicycles to kayaks.

We began our bike ride through an area that Noah observed as seeming “industrial.” He was right. The beginning of our ride followed a portion of the historic Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, crisscrossing train tracks and passing by manufacturing plants before adopting a quiet and leafy pace along the river.

The ride was flat and relaxing. Soon, we encountered an abandoned railroad tunnel carved out of solid rock and then got up-close-and-personal with the base of Chickies Rock, a massive outcropping of quartzite towering 200 feet above the river. This local landmark would make another appearance during the second leg of our trip.

After taking photos of these natural wonders, we pedaled along the well-marked trail to the beat of midsummer cicadas. Even though it was the middle of the week, we exchanged greetings with many cyclists and joggers. Here and there, interpretive signs highlighted remnants of iron furnaces, timber mills and abandoned canal locks evoking the area’s rich transportation and industrial history.

Halfway to our destination, we ran into Jim, stationed at his other post along the trail. In addition to more canoes, kayaks and bicycles, this location has a small campground where travelers set up for outdoor explorations that include bicycling, paddling, fishing and rock climbing. An outdoor kitchen encourages storytelling and camaraderie. On busy weekends, Jim breaks out an antique-trolley-turned-food-truck equipped for making snow cones.

The second half of our bike ride took us along Front Street in Marietta. It was tempting to linger and explore the town’s historic homes and charming restaurants and taverns. But it was morning and we had an itinerary to follow.

After winding through the town, the trail returned to the river and a more natural setting. For a time, it felt like we were riding through a cave carved from leafy trees. Eventually the landscape opened up into a wide open meadow before leading us to our destination — American Legion Park. It was time to have a snack and contact Jim. The river was calling.

“It should take you three hours and change to paddle back to Columbia,” Jim said, as he grabbed the bicycles and unloaded our kayaks from his trailer. “That’s assuming you take your time and explore a little.”

My son and I are novice kayakers, so I inquired about any difficulties we might encounter. The river was low and calm, and Jim didn’t foresee problems. He offered afdvice about handling clusters of rocks located toward the end of our paddle. He also provided life jackets equipped with whistles to use in case we ran into trouble. I wondered (to myself) whether my son would be able to resist blowing his whistle just once to hear how it sounds.

Then we were off. A light breeze and small current led us past a couple of islands to calm waters where the river stretched out wide before us. We worked our way toward the shore to explore and take in the sights and sounds of the Susquehanna.

We had the river to ourselves. That is, except for ducks, geese, herons and the countless dragonflies that visited our kayaks throughout the afternoon. The water was warm and clear — more so than at home, upstream near Harrisburg. As if through glass, we saw interesting rocks, lush aquatic vegetation and schools of small fish below the surface.

The three or so hours it took to paddle back to Columbia went quickly. A highlight included a sandy beach we discovered along the shore where we stopped to take a drink and snack on our apples. I quietly observed my teenager tap into the little boy he once was not so long ago — perhaps imagining that no one else in the world knew about this special spot as he turned over rocks, tossed driftwood and watched tadpoles dart among the underwater grass beds.

Farther along, Chickies Rock emerged in the distance, eventually assuming its prominent place in the landscape. From the perspective of the river, it was easy to see why thrill-seeking climbers from far and wide travel to conquer its face. Knowing the Susquehanna’s role in Pennsylvania’s history, I imagined it served as a beacon for merchants shipping goods up and down the river.

And then, just before the two bridges that marked the end of our journey, there were lots and lots (and lots) of rocks. Not just here and there. They claimed the wide span of the river.

Following Jim’s advice, we stayed to the left, taking each cluster one challenge at a time. In some places we rode some mini-rapids with an enthusiastic “weeee!” On one occasion, I found myself approaching a small ledge that challenged the few kayaking skills I had acquired. I chose to get out and maneuver myself and the kayak on foot among shallow waters while my son paddled his way around it. We never needed those whistles, but were glad to have them just in case.

Then our hard work was rewarded. Just past the rocks, we paddled through beautiful wetlands boasting tall grasses and colorful wildflowers that clearly served as a favorite spot for herons and other birds. After taking a moment to explore, we cooled off in the shade of the historic Wrightsville Bridge.

Our journey came to an end at Columbia. Jim’s young helper greeted us at the shore to retrieve the kayaks and inquire about the day. “Thanks for a great day, Mom,” Noah said, as we settled into our air-conditioned minivan.

The fresh air, sunshine and physical exertion had put smiles on both of our faces. Either of the two activities — biking and paddling — could have easily filled a day. More time on land would have allowed for a long lunch and antiquing in one of the river towns linked by the bike trail. More time on the water would have invited exploration. But combining cycling and paddling into one outdoor excursion provided a sense of the local geography and river town culture that one choice alone would not have achieved.

The end of such an epic day felt bittersweet. I have lived near the Susquehanna for most of my life and never experienced the river in this way before. And, with my son growing older, I couldn’t help but wonder when our next adventure would happen in the midst of busy schedules and life’s distractions. I’m motivated to find the time, and he is, too.

By kayak, by bike or both

The bike-and-kayak excursion offered by Chicques Rock Outfitters is best suited for adults and older children. The bike trail is suitable for any age. Kayakers shouldn’t paddle alone. Beginners might consider the company of a guide for their first few paddles, especially for navigating the Susquehanna’s notorious rocks.

  • Chicques Rock Outfitters: This family-owned outfitter provides information and gear (and even a campground) for outdoor enthusiasts seeking to immerse themselves in the area’s natural and cultural history.
  • Northwest Lancaster County River Trail: This 14-mile, multi-use, paved trail follows the Susquehanna River while winding through historic river towns.
  • Susquehanna River Water Trail: Depending on your time frame and skill level, there are many water trails to explore along the Susquehanna River in Central Pennsylvania.
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Sara Kaplaniak

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids.

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