More than a decade ago, when a group of canoeists floated along a stretch of the Susquehanna on a canoe trip sponsored by a local conservation group, the germ of an idea took root.
The excursion was nice, but wouldn’t a trip on a grand scale — with scores of canoes spending a week on the river — be great?
The idea simmered for some time. In 1991, it germinated as the “Susquehanna Sojourn,” a weeklong trip covering roughly 100 river miles and focusing local attention on the Bay’s largest tributary.
“Way back then, we were still working that basic message that the Susquehanna River is connected to the Bay,” said Cindy Dunn, who developed the sojourn concept for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay with fellow river enthusiast Bill Eberhardt.
“We take that for granted now, but at the time, a lot of people really didn’t know that, or weren’t aware of it.”
Nearly 100 people showed up for the inaugural sojourn, which was organized by the Alliance and sponsored by the state and other groups. The canoeists became “emissaries for the river,” stopping in towns along the way, presenting local officials with proclamations from the governor, and getting proclamations in return.
The idea has mushroomed since then as a tool to build river awareness.
This year in Pennsylvania, there are a dozen sojourns — including the 11th annual Susquehanna Sojourn — sponsored by various organizations throughout the state. Altogether, paddlers will cover nearly 760 miles of the commonwealth’s rivers.
The concept has spread throughout the watershed, as well, with river sojourns now taking place in each of the Bay states.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Conservation and Recreation recently launched a new Pennsylvania Rivers Sojourn Program with a $60,000 Growing Greener grant to the Pennsylvania Organization of Watersheds and Rivers. The program not only helps to support the sojourns, but is intended to help groups share ideas and establish even more sojourns to build river awareness.
“A river sojourn is the ultimate environmental classroom,” said DCNR Secretary John C. Oliver as he kicked off the two-month sojourn season in late April. “You experience the sights, sounds and life of the river and its surrounding communities. I encourage all Pennsylvanians to join one of our many sojourns this year to get up close and personal with a local river.”
The 12 sojourns will pass through nearly 300 cities, towns and boroughs. In addition to paddling, participants engage in luncheon and evening programs and entertainment focusing on the culture, history and heritage of the communities.
Dunn, who now heads Pennsylvania Audubon, said that from the beginning, the sojourns helped to build a local sense of pride in the river by drawing people to the shore to meet with paddlers.
“From the very beginning, we saw this as a tool to get people involved with the river,” she said. “We figured the idea that a group of people would spend a week on the Susquehanna would make people a little more proud or aware of their resource.”
The visits became local media events as well. “A hundred paddlers coming down the river is a sight you don’t see every day,” said Brook Lenker, who now organizes the Sojourn for the Alliance.
The Susquehanna Sojourn has drawn coverage not only in local media, but has also been featured in national outdoor magazines, and in National Geographic’s “Great Rivers of North America.”
In the past decade, the Susquehanna Sojourn has covered more than 1,000 river miles and included more than 1,000 participants. The sojourns, Lenker said, have helped to make a case for the economic and ecotourism value of the rivers.
But, he added, “the real value is for people to get out on the water and get a whole new perspective of the river than what they get just looking from the shore. It really makes you appreciate the mystery and wonder of the resource.”
For information on Pennsylvania’s rivers and river sojourns, visit DCNR’s web site at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/rivers.