Susquehanna 2009

This page describes a weekend camping trip that Norma and I did along the Susquehanna River in 2009.

The Susquehanna River is the longest river on the east coast. Hence, one might think it is challenging to narrow down a place to go kayaking. But this wasn't too difficult since we came to see something very specific...petroglyphs.
Petroglyphs are images carved by early peoples into rock surfaces. These carvings may include lines, dots, human, animal, supernatural, and symbolic designs. Pennsylvania petroglyphs are considered to have been made within the past 1,000 years.
- from Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania

Above is a petroglyph of what I believe is a walking bird and two four-legged animals. We saw it at Little Indian Rock on October 4, 2009.

PreparationOpen accordion icon
On October 5, 2008, Norma and I got a taste of paddling on the Susquehanna River in the Holtwood area. Though our time was limited, we knew it was a place we wanted to return. Hence, on October 3-4, 2009, we did just that.

I mentioned that we came to see petroglyphs. This prehistoric rock art is found in concentration in only a few places.
The lower Susquehanna watershed has the highest concentration of petroglyphs in the Northeastern United States with over 1,000 carved designs recorded at ten sites.
The area I planned to explore is known as the Safe Harbor Group, where
...the largest and best known sites are Big Indian Rock and Little Indian Rock. There are more than 300 petroglyphs on seven rock islands.
- from Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania

Based on input from a variety of sources, I decided to narrow down my search to the northern part of Lake Aldred which resides on the Susquehanna River, bordered by Safe Harbor Dam to the north and Holtwood Dam on the south.

In order to accomplish our goal of finding these elusive petroglyphs, I began by doing a good bit of reading:
  • Edward Gertler's Keystone Canoeing
  • Susquehanna River Water Trail - Lower Section (Pennsylvania) Map 1 of 3: Safe Harbor to Mason-Dixon Line (Milepost 33 to 13)
  • Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania

  • Then, I contacted a few people/organizations for more information:
  • Shanksmare
  • Conestoga Area Historical Society
  • Indian Steps Museum
  • Wendy B.D. of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association
  • Pennsylvania Kayaking and Canoeing Group
  • Safe Harbor Water Power Corporation: I was told that it is safest to paddle if there is less than 20,000 cubic feet per second of water being released AND the river stage in Harrisburg is below 4.5 feet. Unfortunately, this website does not appear to provide this information. Instead, one can call 1-800-692-6328. Be forewarned that cell phone reception in this area is poor so you might want to phone in before arriving.

  • Having completed my research, I put together a plan for the weekend and sent an e-mail asking 25 other kayakers to join me. I had one positive reply for Sunday, the day I planned to search for the petroglyphs.
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     Saturday, October 3, 2009

    Paddling at Conowingo IslandsOpen accordion icon
    On the morning of October 3, 2009, I checked the water levels on the Conestoga River at USGS 01576754 Conestoga River at Conestoga, Pennsylvania and USGS 01576500 Conestoga River at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. According to Gertler, the Conestoga River Lancaster should read at least 250 cfs (3.5 feet) for shallowest riffles.
    Despite the rain during the night, the river level was insufficient for paddling with just 3.33 feet by 0630. Hence, I decided that today we would once again paddle in the Conowingo Reservoir, a body of water on the Susquehanna River formed by the Holtwood Dam to the north and the Conowingo Dam to the south.

    At 1100, Norma and I launched my Ocean Kayak Cabo at Muddy Creek. Last year, we explored Muddy Creek and much of the northeast side of the reservoir. This year, we focused more on the northwest side.

    We paddled as far north as we could without portaging. Along the way, we encountered numerous rocks that abruptly jutted out of the water.
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    Norma in the tandem kayak with big boulder behind
    Tandem solo.
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    Zoomed out view of Norma in the tandem kayak with big boulders behind
    Big rocks.
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    Big rocks in the water and shore, looking downstream
    Looking downstream.

    We pulled ashore and did some rock scrambling.
    Norma facing away on a big boulder

    Several sections looked like the giant stones were worn down by something cylindrical. Many had depressions as if someone had used them to crush grains with another rock. I found a few places where a hole was worn completely through the rock.
    Looking down at a hole in the rock with Norma in the kayak below

    These rocks are part of the Conowingo Islands, a
    Bedrock island cluster containing old growth trees, potholes, and rare plant species.
    - from "Susquehanna River Water Trail - Lower Section (Pennsylvania)"

    I saw a snake about two inches wide. I never saw its head so I couldn't tell how long it was.

    We saw several other kayakers and a few people with canoes that were set out to do some camping on one of the islands.

    A sit-on-top plastic boat is the ideal thing to explore this area because there are so many sections where rocks just below the surface of the water will scratch a more fragile boat and because it is so easy to hop in and out or get unstuck.

    The water was cold but the air was comfortable with high temperatures in the mid-70s. The sun shone brightly and visibility was fairly good.

    Norma and I found a baby snapping turtle in the water. The shell was only two inches long. At first, we thought it was dead. We picked it up and after awhile, it began moving. The water seemed a little too cold for such a small reptile so we let it warm up on the boat then set it free on land.
    Baby snapping turtle in the water

    While Holtwood Dam is the northernmost boundary of this reservoir, we never even got close to it because the water was too low. Heck, we never even got to Norman Wood Bridge, where route 372 crosses over. If we had, we would have landed at and explored Lock 12, of the most well-preserved locks of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, built between 1836 and 1839 for commerce between the greater Harrisburg area and the Chesapeake Bay. Lock 12 is located in York County along Route 372 near the Norman Wood Bridge. Nearby, several hundred feet up Anderson's Run, is a restored double lime kiln and the remains of a sawmill and its dam, pond and millrace.
    - from Lock 12 Historic Area

    If we had more time, we would have certainly driven to Lock 12, which is just off McCalls Ferry Road, just northwest of the bridge. Maybe next time.

    We did, however, make it to the Lock 15 Interpretive Park, which resides on the west side of the Susquehanna River, just north of our launch.
    Lock 15

    We ate lunch at one of the picnic tables overlooking the river in the park.

    While many of us in Maryland are familiar with the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath locks, relatively few of us know about those that connect Pennsylvania and Maryland.
    The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canals were constructed by excavating or filling in land to create a progression of level ditches tied together by locks in a stairway of elevator fashion. The 231 feet decline in the natural elevation of the land from Wrightsville, Pennsylvania to Havre de Grace, Maryland required a total of 29 locks, 19 in Pennsylvania and 10 in Maryland.
    The lock system is quite an impressive engineering feat, to say the least.
    When needed, beds and banks were lined with a heavy layer of clay to prevent water from seeping out of the canals. Heavy timbers, stone blocks and wood planking were used to construct essential parts of locks and aqueducts. Each year, the canal was drained of water, usually before a deep freeze. After repairs, water would be readmitted into the canal, generally in March.
    - from sign at Indian Steps Museum

    South of our launch site, we kayaked between Big Chestnut Island and Hennery Island. A few fishermen were spotted along the way.

    Our next stop was Mount Johnson Island, the world's first bald eagle sanctuary. Unlike the northern part of the reservoir which is full of islands, 2.4 miles of open water separates Mount Johnson Island from any of its northern sisters. The distance seemed longer than what it was because a seven mph headwind slowed us down and made things a little choppy.

    On the south side of the island, we pulled ashore and walked up a road. The road was wide enough for a vehicle though I can't imagine any vehicle climbing its steep was certainly kicking my ass. Eventually, we made it to the top and caught a pretty good view of the islands from which we came. We didn't see any eagles but we did see the remnants of an eagle nest at the top of some power lines and a couple of old eagle feathers on the ground. One was the longest eagle feather I had ever seen, about 20 inches long!

    The water on the south side of the island was shallow and full of vegetation. It was also noticably warmer than the other parts of the reservoir. After completing our circumnavigation of the island, we headed back to our launch site, this time with the wind to our backs.

    We finished paddling at 1630, completing just over 11.5 miles.
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    Hiking at Susquehannock State ParkOpen accordion icon
    After loading up the boat, we checked in at Muddy Run Park then set up our tent at site 78. The campground was huge, with well over 100 sites and a few primitive group sites. It was also clean, family friendly, and near where we planned to launch tomorrow. But Norma and I felt that it lacked the charm of Otter Creek Campground, where we stayed last year. We missed the Sunday morning breakfast at Otter Creek. While both campgrounds have toilets fairly close to the sites, the showers are much further away. At Otter Creek, one can simply drive right up to the shower building, but at Muddy Run, there is no place to park near the building. It seems like a great deal of effort was made to cram as many campsites into Muddy Run as possible and in the process of doing so, something was lost. But for a large group, the primitive campsites would probably be ideal and more secluded. Unfortunately, these primitive sites were already booked, so this was not an option. Even if it was, I don't think they would have let just the two of us stay there.

    With just a little daylight left, we drove to the nearby Susquehannock State Park.
    The 224-acre Susquehannock State Park is on a wooded plateau overlooking the Susquehanna River in southern Lancaster County. Besides the awesome view, the park offers a variety of recreational opportunities for year-round fun.
    - from "A Recreational Guide for Susquehannock State Park"

    Our first stop was Hawk Point where we caught a view of Mount Johnson Island to our southeast and Hennery Island to our southwest.
    Norma and I standing at Hawk Point

    Norma and I then walked on the Overlook Trail to Wisslers Run where we had a nice view of the northern section of the reservoir.
    View from Wisslers Run, looking down on the Susquehanna River, a road, and a train track

    We returned to the car via the Nature Trail.

    Before leaving the park, we made one final stop at the Landis House.
    The old stone house near the park office is known as the Landis House, named for the last owner before it was acquired by the Commonwealth as part of Susquehannock State Park. James Buchannon Long built the house in 1850 for a sum of $200. The house is an example of the stone architecture and craftsmanship of the time.
    - from Waymarking - Susquehannock State Park

    When driving at night in this area, one must be especially cautious of horse and buggies since there is a large Amish population.

    For dinner, we drove to the nearest town and ate a tasty pizza dinner at Dolce Vita Pizzaria & Grill.

    Despite the weather report which called for no chance of rain, it rained. But at least we got in a good day of paddling and if lucky, tomorrow would be just as good if not better.
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     Sunday, October 4, 2009

    Indian Steps MuseumOpen accordion icon
    After eating breakfast, preparing lunch, and packing up, Norma and I left the campground with plenty of time to meet Suzanne at Pequea, our launch site. But the roads shown by my Lancaster County ADC map were often unpaved and poorly maintained. I drove cautiously, fearing that I would scrape bottom or get stuck. But I managed to arrive, just two minutes late (two minutes more than what I wanted).

    Despite last night's rain, the day was sunny with a high predicted temperature of 68 degrees.

    Today's kayaking would be in the eight-mile long Lake Aldred, just upstream on the Susquehanna River from where we paddled yesterday.

    At 1000, the three of us began paddling out the mouth of Pequea Creek and into the Susquehanna River, heading south. After 2.2 miles, we rounded the southern tip of Duncan Island then paddled north on the west side of the river.

    We kayaked into the narrow section between Bair Island and the west shore. After 1.4 miles, we landed at York Furnace.

    I chained our boats to a post, then we walked 0.35 miles south on Indian Steps Road to Indian Steps Museum. Along the way, we found a ten-inch long snake that was badly injured. I believe it was a garter snake. Some of its guts were sticking out its side. We thought it might have been run over by a bicycle. I moved it off the road.
    Injured garter snake

    It would have been easy to land at the museum but there were signs indicating kayak launching is not permitted. The folks in charge told me it was to protect their lawn yet I found several large tire tracks throughout the grounds. I hardly think kayaks would be any rougher on a lawn than vehicles. We toured the museum and read about the petroglyphs we would search for later. There was a scale model showing a more pristine version of what we would find at Little Indian Rock.
    Replica of rock with petroglyphs

    In all probability the petroglyphs date sometime between 1500 A.D. and 1700 A.D. However, their precise date, the tribe which made them, and their meanings remain a mystery.
    - from sign at museum

    Not only does the museum contain a multitude of Native American relics but the building itself contains
    ...over 10,000 artifacts found by "judge" Vandersloot [which were] embedded in the masonry walls to form Indian patterns, birds, animals and reptiles...
    - from "Treasures from the Past"
    Outside of the Indian Steps Museum building

    We found a nice warm rock overlooking the lake. It was an ideal lunch spot.

    Next, we walked on the 0.25 mile Ulmer-Root-Haines Trail, just across the street from the museum. We found a green frog (Rana clamitans and some paw paw fruit.
    Green frog

    At the waterfall, we turned around. Unfortunately, the fall was just a trickle.
    Norma and Suzanne in front of waterfall
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    PetroglyphsOpen accordion icon
    The three of us walked back to the boats and launched. The wind had picked up considerably. It was forecast to be between 11 and 14 mph. We were somewhat sheltered for about half a mile as we paddled between the shore and the Urey Islands. Then it was about two miles to the small islands just south of the dam.

    We searched for Circle Rock, Little Indian Rock, and Big Indian Rock by checking out the larger rocks starting on the west side and working our way east. According to Liz at Shanksmare, these
    "islands" are actually more like large rocks sticking up out of the water. They are almost directly opposite where the Conestoga River empties in to the Susquehanna south of Safe Harbor Dam.

    I found what I believe to be Big Indian Rock and Little Indian Rock. According to my Garmin GPSMAP 76S, Big Indian Rock resides at coordinates N39 54.847 W76 22.945. But before you go plugging these coordinates into your GPS, I must issue a disclaimer. While my GPS has served me well over the years, it has been run over by a car and gone dead for several days due to water damage. When I looked at the location of Big Indian Rock on my Garmin MapSource software, things looked quite accurate relative to our position in the lake and the surrounding features. But the elevation read 98,424 feet! Not sure what happened there. Regardless, I do believe the longitude and latitude readings are at least approximately correct or as I like to say, "Close enough for government work."

    If you look on a map, you should search for Big Indian Rock about 0.6 miles due south of where the Conestoga River empties into the Suquehanna River on the eastern half of the river. It is also roughly a third of a mile south of the much larger Indian Rock Island. Big Indian Rock doesn't look like the other small rock islands. It looks more grayish than brown. Here's a view of it looking downstream.
    Big Indian Rock, a big boulder in the water

    You'll find a laminated etiquette guide on the south end of the island and a sign-in sheet.
    Etiquette guide

    The guide reminds us that for Native Americans, these rock art sites are considered sacred places. It also mentions things like not wearing shoes on the island to help prevent wear. I found it easiest to land on the north end. Just be careful getting out of your boat since the parts of the rock underwater are very slippery.

    We went ashore and checked out the numerous petroglyphs which were so carefully carved into the rocks. There were also several more recent (modern) carvings but there wasn't any difficulty in distinguishing between the two. I brought my water cannon because I read that the petroglyphs are sometimes easier to see when wet. This was indeed the case.
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    Norma and Suzanne on a wet rock that shows the drawings quite nicely in the right light
    Norma and Suzanne.
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    Me on the same rock with a modern carving shown in the lower right of the photo
    Modern carving, lower right.
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    Petroglyph of an animal figure (maybe a dolphin?) and a human
    Dolphin and human?
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    Petroglyph of possibly a person in a canoe
    Person in a canoe?.
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    Petroglyph of thunderbird spirits
    Thunderbird spirits.

    About 750 feet due north of Big Indian Rock was Little Indian Rock at N39 54.964 W76 22.979 (same elevation as Big Indian Rock). Once again, it is easiest to find if you look for the laminated white paper at the southern side of the island. While this island was significantly smaller, it was still quite impressive.
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    Petroglyph resembling a deer
    Possibly a deer?.
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    One pamphlet calls this petroglyph a composite design comprised of a circle enclosing dots, animal, bird, and human tracks
    Animal, bird, and human tracks.
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    Petroglyph of a manitou spirit
    Manitou spirit.
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    Petroglyph of a thunderbird spirit
    Thunderbird spirit.
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    Petroglyph of a serpent shape carving in the lower right
    Serpent, lower right.

    We didn't find Circle Rock.

    To our north we saw the mouth of the Conestoga River.
    Mouth of the Conestoga River at bridges

    Having accomplished my goal of seeing petroglyphs, we paddled back to Pequea, about 2.2 miles. The wind gave us a pretty good push and we often reached speeds of over five mph.

    By 1600, we were done, having kayaked an easy 10.5 miles.
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    Shenk's Ferry Wildflower PreserveOpen accordion icon
    Suzanne bid farewell while Norma and I drove to the Shenk's Ferry Wildflower Preserve which is described as being of the most impressive wildflower sanctuaries in the eastern United States...

    Once again, on the way there, we found ourselves on ominous dirt roads that made me wish I had a Humvee. We should have followed the directions on the website that approach the preserve from the north rather than the more direct route from Pequea that leads from the south or the east.

    An unmarked trail led us east on a path just north of Grubb Run. We saw some interesting plants but not a significant number of wildflowers. I guess it just wasn't the right time of year.
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    Tiny pink flowers
    Late bloomer.
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    Yellow flower with one not yet open
    Good landing pad for bee.
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    Spherical blue things and small spider
    Blue balls and a spider.

    At a tunnel with a creek passing through it, we turned around.
    Norma at a well-constructed tunnel for a creek

    On the drive back, we stopped for dinner at Fallston Diner in Fallston, Maryland. We received generous servings and good service at low prices. It was a good way to end the day.
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    ConclusionOpen accordion icon
    Much later, in 2017, I came across Lancaster County Magazine - The Susquehanna's Mysterious Petroglyphs.

    It was nice to see so much within a two hour drive from home. It's too bad we didn't get to check out the three petroglyphs on display nearby at the Conestoga Area Historical Society but their hours didn't fit in with our schedule. Maybe some other time.

    I hope to return in the spring to paddle on the Conestoga River, Pequea Creek, the Juniata River, and more of the Susquehanna River Trail. The Susquehanna area has many scenic places just waiting to be explored.

    So much to paddle and so little time.
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