Paddlers across the state and beyond often dream of the day when they can take time off from their daily grind, pack up their paddling gear and tackle a multi-day adventure on the mighty Susquehanna River water trail. .
America’s longest river to flow into the Atlantic offers a wealth of paddling opportunities, from a leisurely afternoon paddle to a multi-state adventure that’s sure to test both your mettle and your perseverance.
Two of the most notable long-distance routes along the Susquehanna include the 444-mile Main Paddle (known as the “444”) that runs from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the 228-mile paddle from the West Branch of Cherry Tree, Pennsylvania, to Northumberland.
Only a handful of paddlers attempt these routes each year, but in 2021 two Lancaster County residents decided to “take it up a notch” and paddle not one, but both paddling adventures in a single year, racking up over 660 miles of paddling along this treasured water trail.
Mark Heller and John Laughlin grew up paddling the Delaware River. Although their paths didn’t cross until later in life, their shared zeal and passion for rivers sparked an unprecedented idea.
Looking back on the intrepid adventure, Heller noted that their Expedition 444 was truly their first serious encounter with the Susquehanna River and their first overnight trip along a waterway.
“I had read about the three guys who did the 444 last November and one of the guys was an amateur,” Laughlin said. “It was his first outing, and I thought, ‘If this guy can do it, [then] so I can.'”
Fueled and inspired by the success of their fellow paddlers, Laughlin and Heller began the process of planning their big trip down the water trails of the Susquehanna.
In the months leading up to each trip, Heller first had to wade through the waters of research.
“I pulled from many different sources, pulled data from other people who had been on the trip, put together a list of ports, and downloaded all of this information into a GPS app that I could use in airplane mode when I was on the water”, Heller said. “New York was definitely a challenge finding maps and information, but once I looked in Pennsylvania there were plenty of maps, and the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership had a lot of great resources.”
What benefited the duo the most, however, was having experienced paddlers for the start of their journey.
“For the first three days of our 444 attempt, we were actually a group of five,” Laughlin said. “One of the guys had great outdoor expedition skills, so we leaned on him. After spending three days with him, we learned enough to get through the rest of the trip on our own.
While the Main Stem of the Susquehanna River is longer than the West Branch, the pair explained that the nature of this section is more conducive to those new to overnight river travel.
“Starting on the North Branch was the best way to do it because we could stop in towns,” Heller said. “It makes things easier for you. If you forget something, you can take it to the next river town and find a convenience store.
As the pair continued to descend the North Branch on their 444 paddle, their confidence and growing nighttime paddling expedition skills sparked an idea.
“It was when we hit the confluence at Sunbury, we started thinking, ‘You know, the west branch needs to be done too'” Laughlin said.
So, halfway through their ambitious 444 paddle, Laughlin and Heller began planning the second part of their adventure.
“We decided right there on the water to paddle [the West Branch] in September,” Laughlin said.
At this point, the two still had plenty of miles to paddle to complete their journey to the Chesapeake Bay, but more miles later—aching limbs, but soaring enthusiasm—they found themselves celebrating their accomplishment and excited to be planning their next Susquehanna adventure in the fall.
So, just months after paddling the 444 in May, Heller and Laughlin set out to tackle the 228-mile West Leg, bringing their paddling total for the Susquehanna River Water Trail to 672 miles. It’s a monumental achievement, made all the more amazing by the fact that they’ve clocked up all that mileage in the space of five months.
Given the remote and isolated nature of the West Branch, the couple benefited from their learnings by paddling the most populated sections of the 444, “It was the right way to do it, so by the time we did the west branch, we were more self-sufficient,” Heller said.
While the West Branch can be a challenge due to its remoteness, it is also the reason why it is now the favorite stretch of all rivers paddled for Heller and Laughlin.
“The West Branch far exceeded my expectations. It was just beautiful; simply spectacular, Laughlin said. “I highly recommend the Shawville section to Renovo, and I saw us doing it every year. You can close your eyes and open them and feel like you’re in Colorado or Montana. It’s wild.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this section was the appearance of a wild elk and two cows by the river.
“It was right there, so close, only 50-70 meters away,” Heller said. “In my mind, it was so out of place. I’m used to seeing deer; I’m used to seeing different things in the woods, but they were three to four times bigger. They were huge.
“It surprised us in the light of day”, Laughlin said. “If we hadn’t gone into rapids, we would have pulled out our cameras to take a picture.”
Further downstream, the duo could hear a herd of elk in the state’s game lands. There was the male bugle call in the distance, but it wasn’t near the river. This encounter by the river was truly a rare treat and a highlight of their adventure.
Like elk sighting, there were several other things Heller and Laughlin weren’t prepared for – for better or for worse.
“Like a kid,” Heller said, “I’ve always had wet feet, always muddy, always enjoying the water. Among the things I was not prepared for, the first was mud.
Both had to work hard to keep that squishy Susquehanna mud at bay. He found his way from the banks of the river inside their tents and somehow snuck inside their waterproof cases.
Thinking back to their 444 paddle, they were also unprepared for the tides. For the lower portion of the river that empties into the Chesapeake Bay, Heller and Laughlin strongly recommend checking tide charts.
“We were paddling against the tides for the final stretch and that’s something we just didn’t come across in our research,” Heller said. “Tidal planning would have made the stretch much easier.”
Most strikingly, however, they were unprepared for the kindness of others.
The two men continually encountered restaurants ready to fill their canteens with water, happy to stay late or open early. They met friendly landowners who allowed the use of their private docks or a grassy patch to spend the night, and just genuinely interested people who showed kindness and enthusiasm when learning of their journey.
“We have been blessed” Laughlin said. “We met so many great people who helped us and when we told them what we were doing they were even more helpful. It was good to have those cheerleaders along the way.
While Heller and Laughlin weren’t ready to meet so many nice strangers, they were prepared in terms of the packing list. At the top of their list of useful items were their kayak carts, which made portaging so much easier, and their sickle and hand trimmers for clearing brush to set up camp.
Other useful items included a plastic hammer for tent pegs, a first aid kit, a hiker’s stove, a solar panel for recharging, at least three gallons of drinking water (these might fill up in cities rivers) and emergency water sterilization tablets.
Although it wasn’t on everyone’s packing list, the duo stowed a bottle in the front of Heller’s kayak as a celebratory drink at the end of their trip. So on the completion of the 444 in Havre de Grace and the West Branch in Northumberland, they toasted their success.
“I have the same bottle and each time we only draw one dose, so there is still a lot in it.” Heller said. “We still have a lot of rivers to cover with this bottle.”
So what’s next for Heller and Laughlin?
They go back to their roots.
“We hit Delaware next,” Laughlin said.
“It’s 300 miles, so it should be a lot of fun,” Heller said.
And that’s not all – on the road, the two plot to paddle the Allagash River and the coast of Maine as well as the 740-mile North Adirondack Forest Canoe Trail. Until then, they would like to see what part of the Susquehanna watershed they can paddle with its tributaries so close to home.
444 and the 228-mile West Leg may have sparked their excitement, but that’s just the beginning for these two intrepid paddlers. Both Heller and Laughlin are members of the 444 Club, Conestoga River Club and Conewago Canoe Club. The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (SGP) has bonded with the pair by joining the West Branch Paddle Club (WBPC), a SGP program that allows West Branch paddlers to support the water trail while earning perks for their paddles while they work. to paddle the 228 miles, divided into segments. To learn more about the WBPC, visit susquehannagreenway.org/wbpc.
Alana Jajko is the Director of Communications and Outreach for the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. His work is focused on promoting trails and communities within our vibrant and connected Susquehanna Greenway, so the public can take advantage of opportunities to engage with the outdoors. Jajko can be contacted at [email protected]