A bright blue "Junicorn' and lots of smallmouth bass. If you think this sounds like a tasty gourmet meal or the characters in the latest medieval adventure novel, you are obviously not one of the 125 plus people who participated in the fifth annual Susquehanna Sojourn.
Dubbed the "Juniata Jaunt," this year's canoe trip ran June 21-28. It drew a record number of paddlers of all ages from all over the Chesapeake Bay watershed and from as far away as Seminole, Fla. The trip, designed to draw attention to the river, its connection to the Susquehanna and ultimately the Bay, covered 99 miles from Warrior's Ridge Dam near Petersburg, Pa., to the river's confluence with the Susquehanna in Duncannon, Pa. This was the first-ever Sojourn to highlight a tributary to the Susquehanna.
This trip had as much personality as it did rain. Sojourn alumni -- some participating in their fifth trip -- were everywhere. The kickoff drew more than 70 paddlers, and the numbers remained constant all week. A core group of about 30 paddlers weathered the entire trip.
But, according to sojourn organizing committee member Cindy Adams Dunn, of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, it didnt matter which day you paddled because the river offered spectacular scenery throughout, as well as some of the states most unique cultural attractions.
Her personal favorite as far as scenery was Sundays paddle through the Lewistown Narrows, a bend in the river where the sides of the mountains drop right down to the river, while Mondays stop at Mexico Mound, the site of a large Native American village which has been the subject of extensive archaelogical work, rated high on the trips long list of cultural attractions.
The tour of the states Van Dyke Hatchery, where state Fish and Boat Commission raises millions of shad for release into the river each year, was another hit with the paddlers, especially those who fished along the route.
Throughout the trip, paddlers built community ties by stopping in riverside towns to exchange proclamations, meet residents and elected officials, and learn about the area firsthand. A spirited welcoming event was held at Smithfield Riverside Park where the Huntingdon County Commissioners, and officials from Smithfield Township, Huntingdon Borough and local representatives exchanged proclamations with sojourners. Lunch, provided by the local welcoming committee, was much appreciated.
The excitement level we saw from the communities along the way as we paddled through was right up there, said Dunn. It almost seems as if the smaller the river, the bigger the deal the community makes of the sojourn they feel very attached to the river and theyre proud of it.
Without a doubt though, one of the focal points of this years trip was the Junicorn a bright blue 6-foot-tall papier-mache creature that resembled a mixture between Puff the Magic Dragon and Chessie. With his bulging eyes, toothy smile and spiked tail, the Junicorn was an immediate hit with the paddlers. The creature, created by sojourn alum Dick Lake of Harrisburg, was attached with 2-by-4s to the front of Lakes canoe for the float down the river.
For the first hour or so, Lakes Junicorn embodied the spirit of the Jaunt. Unfortunately, the Junicorn disappeared below the surface of the river never to be seen again in a tense, split-second event at the first rapid. At that point the Junicorn became a creature of legend and the mythical focal point for the paddlers.
The same rapids which laid claim to the Junicorn and at least one canoe, were tangible examples of the historical changes along the river. According to Dunn, most of the tricky spots that created the rapids, were actually the sites of old canal structures along the river. Seeing those old dams, along with the eel weirs and fish traps, really fit in with our theme of following the trail of history through the region, said Dunn.
Outfitted with nylon, Teflon and kevlar, this years sojourners were decidedly 20th century, but the motivation for the adventure was deeply rooted in the 19th century, with Pennsylvania folk life historian Henry K. Landis and the enthusiasm he generated by paddling the river in 1888.
The Jaunt loosely followed the path Landis chronicled in his journal. While he made the trip in canvas canoes packed with Eppo Cocoa and a 7-by-7 cotton tent, paddlers on the Jaunt carried the latest in modern supplies and equipment. Like Landis, though, this years paddlers focused on the health of the Juniata and its surrounding landscape, its cultural and natural resources, and the people who live along the river.
History came alive for the paddlers one day when a Henry Landis look-a-like strolled into camp to beg a few eggs and some flour from the sojourners. Brook Lenker, of the Dauphin County Parks and Recreation Department, surprised a few people when he hiked into camp wearing his 1888 garb.
The appearance of Landis wasnt the only unusual event during the trip. As usual, eccentricity was the name of the game on the river. For instance, the Sojourners took a pledge to clean up the shoreline along the way and turned it into a deck ornament contest. Societys castoffs became objects dart. For instance, a one-legged plastic lamb was strapped to a kayak deck with the shoelaces from and old Nike sneaker while an old rubbery plant holder in the shape of a swan, sporting the latest in river muck, dangled from the stern. Environmental troubadour Bill Oliver gets the credit for starting the trend, but the Alliances Ric Hazard wasnt far behind.
Meals, in some cases, were also a bit unusual. One of the more creative evening meals, according to an unnamed source, was the night the folks with the cellular phone had pizzas delivered to the cornfield south of McVeytown. Pizza and paddling what a combo!
Fishing for the resident smallmouth bass was also a popular pastime as the cadre rolled down the river. Some catches were more memorable than others, too. At one point, Sojourn alum Nick Carter of Maryland took on the role of mentor for one lucky angler. The wily Carter timed it perfectly as he tossed a dead chubb a pudgy little river dweller at the unprepared fisherman from the seat of his ancient yellow rock hopper. When she almost caught the fish barehanded, Carter laughed and cracked, See! Thats how you catch a fish! Thanks for the hands-on demonstration Nick!
Some lessons were more subtle, like the ones first-time Sojourner Dee Hurm of Seminole, Fla., took home. Born and raised in Altoona, Pa., Hurm spent many days and nights fishing and camping along the Juniata in the 1940s with his father. Hurm vividly recalled his familys own Juniata Jaunt a trip in 1943 where they collected Native American relics and camped in some of the same spots the Sojourn passed by. It was the same kind of weather, too, Hurm recalled with a laugh. It was raining so hard, I spent a couple of nights in the trunk of our 1940 Studebaker. Hurms father even kept a journal of the trip, a tradition resurrected on this trip.
Hurm said he was struck by the improved water quality of the Juniata during the paddle. The cleanliness was really apparent and I commend all the people who took part and made that happen. Hurm also complimented the Sojourn Planning Committee on the educational opportunities offered along way. He said he never knew the extent to which Best Management Practices were being implemented on the land to control runoff and was happy to learn about them. Hurm, who paddled the entire trip with his son Stephen, an attorney in Inverness, Fla., said he plans to be back next year. It was a thoroughly enjoyable time.
According to Hazard, next years Sojourn plans are already in the works. The planning committee has set its sights on the upper North Branch in New York to make the New York to Pennsylvania connection. The route would run from Otsego Lake near Cooperstown, N.Y., to Sayre, Pa. We have partners already lined up. Some of them are already out there scouting it, Hazard said.
Oh, and the smallmouth bass mentioned earlier in the story? Well, they were all those hefty little near-record-breakers practically jumping into my boat.