Floating down the river, there was no sign of civilization. Rolling hills could be seen all around, but there were no houses. Hawks flew overhead and an Eastern wood-pewee sang in the forest. But there were no planes. The rushing sound of the river filled the air. But there were no roads, trucks or cars nearby.

There was no cell phone coverage. It was as close to wilderness as one can get in a Chesapeake watershed filled with 16 million residents.

Welcome to the West Branch of the Susquehanna Water Trail, a 228-mile route that provides a sense of the wilderness encountered by explorers centuries ago—while simultaneously bearing some of the most serious scars that people can deliver. In most places, the crystal-clear water is biologically dead: a legacy of mining in the region, which has made it too acidic support fish—or even aquatic insects.

Of the 22 water trails in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, it remains the most wild and remote. It is the only major waterway in the Bay basin where paddlers have a chance to see elk. In some places, one is as likely to see bald eagles or bears as humans.

The West Branch drains almost 7,000 square miles—about three quarters of Maryland would fit in its watershed—but is home to fewer than 600,000 people. Put another way, that’s like taking the population of the District of Columbia, but spreading it over 155 times as much land.

“It’s as close to a true wilderness river as you are going to find in Pennsylvania, from Shawville down,” said Dave McCracken, owner of McCracken Canoes, as he rented our party of three a kayak and canoe to sample a stretch of what the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has dubbed it’s “river of the year.”

In our 14-mile stretch, beginning outside the tiny town of Shawville, there were no road crossings—and during much of it, there were no adjacent roads. It was one of the more remote stretches on the river, but not the most remote. A 22-mile stretch a bit farther downstream, between the small towns of Karthaus and Keating, never parallels a road, never passes a bridge, and bisects part of Pennsylvania’s elk range, home to one of the largest elk herds this side of the Mississippi River.

The trail is managed by the Lumber Heritage Region of Pennsylvania, designated in 2001 to focus on economic development; education; recreation and open space; and historic and cultural conservation. “The West Branch historically was the largest log drive river in the state,” noted Bob Imhof, project manager for the Lumber Heritage Region.

Deep snows on the river’s basin made moving logs down slopes to streambeds easy during the winter. When the snow melted and spring rains came, the bloated waterways provided a means to float logs hundreds of miles downstream—sometimes as far as the Chesapeake. The logs were tied together in huge rafts which would be disassembled and sold at their destination. Sometimes, thousands of the crude rafts jammed the river in the spring.

In places, the metal rings where the log rafts would tie up for the night are still found, secured in boulders along the river.

It was hard to imagine this during our trip. By mid-June, the water level was so low that we found ourselves pulling the kayak and canoe over some stretches. McCracken had said that, without some rain, he might have to cease rentals in another week and wait for higher water—something that often does not come until fall.

Because of the fluctuations in river levels, lumbering for decades was a part-time business. That changed in the mid-1800s when a pair of investors. James Perkins and John Leighton, hit upon the idea of building a giant boom across the West Branch at Williamsport. The boom would catch logs floating down the river and hold them until they were needed by sawmills. That ended the need for rafts, and spurred investments in new, bigger sawmills that could operate year-round.

Williamsport eventually boasted 30 sawmills, and in the 1880s, it was considered the Lumber Capital of the World. “Those 30 mills cut enough timber into boards to build 596,000 homes in one year,” Imhof said. “It was just an enormous operation. But the river was the mechanism to move the logs down to that site.”

In her book, “Susquehanna, River of Dreams,” Susan Stranahan notes that Williamsport at one point had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States—18 out of 19,000 citizens. Each had their financial roots in the West Branch forests.

Besides providing timber for buildings and houses, the tall, straight white pines were in demand by the ship building industry for masts. The industry wanted 100-foot logs, with a minimum diameter at the top of 18 inches.

“You can figure just how big the base of the tree would have to be if it was tapered to 18 inches at the top,” Imhof said. Some white pines were reported to be 8 feet across at the base, and more than 200 feet tall. Stranahan mentioned a legendary white pine that yielded a series of boards 150 feet long.

Those tall forests are long gone. “Everything else that remains around here, except for a few places, is dwarfed in comparison to what was here originally,” Imhoff said.

The whole region was essentially clear-cut by the late 1800s. A report by the U.S. Geological Survey a century ago said few places “have been destroyed to the extent that has taken place in northern Pennsylvania. One may journey for miles without encountering a mature tree.” Gone with the forests were the elk—the current herd is descended from animals brought from the Rocky Mountains beginning in 1913. Even the deer were nearly extirpated.

But the forests have come back, not as the giant white pine and other conifers that originally dominated the landscape, but as hardwoods. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the value of its oak, cherry and other hardwoods.

From the water, those dense forests appear as a quilt covering the surrounding hills on each side of the river with every imaginable shade of green. A thick understory of rhododendron was piled high on each bank, almost ready to burst forth with new colors for the trip.

Adding to the color in many places—especially where creeks enter the West Branch—are bright orange rocks. They are the legacy of a less-resilient part of the river’s past—coal mining.

When mining takes place, long-buried pyrite that is associated with coal is exposed to air, as well as water dripping into the shafts. The pyrite oxidizes to produce sulfuric acid and other acid compounds. Ultimately, a potent mix of acids flowed out of the mines, often combined with aluminum and other material. The presence of iron hydroxides dyes the rocks of receiving streams orange. Other chemicals, such as aluminum, can leave the water with a blue or greenish tint.

The colors can be striking to look at, but the chemicals themselves are lethal for aquatic life. Huge swaths of the river are acidic dead zones. The water is so dead it is often crystal clear, making it possible to see every stone on the river’s bottom.

For decades, Pennsylvania’s legislators and judges were willing to sacrifice their streams to protect the coal industry. The attitude was summed up in a court ruling rejecting a homeowner complaint that coal mining severely polluted the creek flowing though their property. “The trifling inconvenience of particular persons,” the state Supreme Court wrote in the 1886 decision, “must sometimes give way to the necessities of a great community.”

The General Assembly was of a similar mind, exempting the industry from clean stream laws until the 1960s.

In more recent decades, the power of the coal industry was reined in, and discharges regulated. But in contrast to the heavy logging, from which many scars have healed, the impact of past mining lives on, as drainage from abandoned shafts continues to render huge areas of the river uninhabitable to fish.

“That industry, and its relationship to the steel industry, was a major economic engine in this state and in this country,” Imhof said. “The legacy, unfortunately, is not the greatest thing. What we are left with now, the second generation afterward, is how we are going to continue trying to clean up all this stuff.”

Progress is being made in curbing the mine runoff. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission this year stocked trout in areas once considered dead, and in other places, hatchery-reared American shad larvae are being introduced in with hopes that they will eventually return to spawn.

“When I was a kid, this river was dead,” McCracken said. “There was nothing in it. I wasn’t even allowed to swim in it. And it’s come back enough now that we have a large group of different breeds of heron on the river—both blue and gray. We have osprey back on the river, and we’ve got bald eagles back on the river. It’s definitely doing a lot better, and it’s come a long way.

Indeed, a great blue heron alternately waded along the shore and flew ahead of us during one stretch of our paddle. We passed a pair of Canada geese swimming in another bend of the river.

To commemorate its improvements, the state named the West Branch its “river of the year.” And, the river is a cornerstone of a new state ecotourism promotion, PA Wilds, which covers a 13-county area that is 80 percent forested and includes 2.1 million acres of public land. Among the gems within the PA Wilds is Cherry Springs State Park, located on a tributary to the West Branch, which is reputed to have the darkest nighttime skies in the Eastern United States. The Pine Creek Gorge, sometimes called “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is along another tributary, and is paralleled by a 54-mile rail-trail, much of it running through state forest with hardly any roads.

“It is like having a Yellowstone on the East Coast,” said Ted Eubanks, president of Fermata, a leading ecotourism consulting firm, who is working on the project. “There are 2 million acres of public land within a five– or six-hour drive of 60 million Americans.”

The hope is to strike a balance that helps some of the economically depressed communities in the region, while maintaining its wilderness qualities. Much of the attractiveness of the West Branch is not only the scenery, but the sense of remoteness one gains where giant boulders big enough to camp on outnumber paddlers in the river.

“We want to see it used; we don’t want to see it overused. If it’s overused, then you lose what your have,” said McCracken, who relishes the wildness of a waterway where he has spotted bobcat, bears and coyotes while canoeing. “A lot of the friends that I grew up with, they graduated from high school and went to college and moved away from this area. But I’ve never had any desire to leave. Everything I want is right here.”

Paddle Up

The best way to experience the West Branch Susquehanna Water Trail will be by boat, canoe or kayak. On the river, one can fish, look for wildlife, visit riverside communities or just enjoy the experience of floating downstream. The season for canoeing usually starts in March or April, and runs at least through June. The river may be accessible through the fall, depending on rainfall and water levels. If water levels are high enough, fall colors are said to be spectacular. Two outfitters who provide rentals and shuttle service are:

  • McCracken Canoes: Clearfield, PA; 814-765-1410. Contact: Dave McCracken
  • Rock River and Trail: Loch Haven, PA; 570-748-1818 Contact: Rick Henrich

West Branch Susquehanna Water Trail

The West Branch Susquehanna Water Trail covers 228 of the river’s 240 miles, from Cherry Tree, PA, to the confluence of the West and North branches of the Susquehanna at Northumberland.

There are numerous access points and camping sites along the way, although in some remote areas, access points are far apart.

The Lumber Heritage Region has produced an excellent $18 waterproof map of the trail listing access sites, points of interest, availability of services and other landmarks along the route.

For information about the trail, or to order the map, visit the organization’s web site at http://www.lumberheritage.org or write to Susquehanna River Water Trail - West Branch, Lumber Heritage Region, c/o Mike Wennin, Executive Director, Lumber Heritage Region of Pennsylvania, 20 S. 5th Street-Courthouse, Emporium, PA 15834; or call 814-486-0213 or fax 814-486-0215 or e-mail mwennin@lumberheritage.org