Under bright blue skies and with a strong tail wind, a record-setting number of canoeists and kayakers were literally drummed out of Corning, NY on June 6, as the eighth annual Susquehanna Sojourn, dubbed “Run the Chemung,” started off down the Chemung River.
About 130 participants, paddling almost 70 boats, threaded their way under Corning’s flag- draped pedestrian bridge and rode the strong current quickly downriver while the Peace Weavers, a group of Native American musicians, beat out a farewell cadence on their drums. A few minutes earlier, the Black Powder Revolutionary War Reenactors also helped to mark the start of the 134-mile trip with a series of blasts from their authentic muskets.
The Susquehanna Sojourn is designed to highlight a portion of the Susquehanna River system each year and to draw attention to its connection to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Susquehanna system supplies more than half of the daily freshwater to the Bay, so its connection to the Chesapeake is a tangible and important piece of the overall restoration effort. This year’s Sojourn was exciting one as it brought the annual event full circle. With the conclusion of this year’s trip in Pittston, PA, the entire Susquehanna River and its major tributary rivers have been paddled by Sojourners.
The message of stewardship and the importance of being a good upstream neighbor was a daily discussion among the Sojourners. “We want to be sure there’s an awareness message when we do this trip,” said Bill Eberhardt, a veteran Sojourn participant and perennial member of the organizing committee. “It would be easy to lose the message in a group this big, so we have to remind ourselves and others that we are out here for a reason, not just because this is a nice thing to do.”
The Sojourn has become an annual tradition for many paddlers and a hands-on introduction to the rivers of the Chesapeake region for scores of others. The record-setting participation in this year's Sojourn, organized once again by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay in cooperation with dozens of local community and business leaders, left trip planners amazed and a little awed.
“At first, I started asking myself how could we do everything we needed to do in a timely manner with 130 people.” said Brook Lenker, the Alliance’s Sojourn coordinator. “But that didn’t last for long because I had a lot of faith in the people on the trip and I knew we could overcome the obstacles in our way.”
Another record was set this year with 50 people paddling the entire stretch. These “through-trippers” were undaunted by the high mileage of this year's trip, which averaged 17 miles of paddling a day. “This was one for the history books,” said Lenker. “It was very heartening to see so much interest in an event for an entire week. It was amazing.”
For the uninitiated, the Sojourn can be a blur of early starts, safety briefings, launches, lunches, miles of gorgeous countryside, unexpected dunks in cold water, warm gravel beaches and a dizzying variety of after-dinner programs. The daily programs highlighted every topic from the Native American history of the area to natural resource problems to sewage treatment.
This wide variety of experiences is what Sojourn is all about for most participants. Sore muscles and cold, rainy days become background noise in a trip super-charged with visual beauty. This year’s trip featured the glaciated terrain of the Sus-quehanna watershed. Steep, green hillsides and rolling agricultural fields in the upland areas were the norm.
Paddlers saw everything from an awesome manmade cut in the side of a mountain at Wysox Narrows, to an unusual riverside rock called Standing Stone, which was featured in a National Geographic story on the Susquehanna River in the 1950s.
The immense scale of the scenery in this part of the Bay region was not to be outdone by the more intimate bits and pieces of natural beauty that make up the whole picture, including a trio of bald eagles riding thermal air currents, thousands of newly hatched mayflies that stuck to the top of the river water as if glued there, and the intricate dance of the swallows that fed on them.
The intricacies of planning a river trip for the 30 people who participated in 1991 seemed comical in the wake of this year’s Sojourn. “We invented the Sojourn in 1991 to draw attention to the river and I think it has done a good job as far as that goes,” said Mike Lovegreen, district manager for the Bradford County Conservation District, and member of the organizing committee. “This year, the Sojourn was front page news in every community it went through, and to me that says that these communities choose this trip to be their top story of interest, a story they want to be part of.”
A member of the original planing committee, Lovegreen reflected back on the origins of the Sojourn and explained that the first trip was just one project in a larger river awareness effort designed to draw attention to the North Branch of the Susquehanna. “Our first question back then was also our first priority — the river’s there, so how do we get people to pay attention to it?”
After an extensive survey of local residents in 1991, Lovegreen said that the biggest draw for citizens was the recreational opportunity offered by the river. At that point, increased access to the river became a priority, along with funding to begin a natural resource planning initiative for the area. This year’s trip reaped some of the tangible benefits of that early outreach effort when it made use of new boat access sites in Athens, NY, Wellsburg, NY, and Riverfront Memorial Park in Towanda, PA.
When asked to gauge the impact of Sojourns past and present on the way local communities relate to the river, Love-green said the trip opens doors. He used the lunchtime program in Towanda to illustrate his point. “This year, we had three county commissioners who were tickled to be invited to be part of this event. They came out to the park, learned what the Sojourn was all about and talked about the local river issues.”
Lovegreen stressed the importance that the event will have down the road. “The lines of communication are opened and networks are built. With events like the Sojourn, local officials get to know us better and we lay the foundation to start working with them.”
Lenker echoed Lovegreen’s analysis. “People like to ask me how this trip makes a difference,” he said. “They ask, does it make the river cleaner? I like to explain that it’s not that black and white, that the intangible results of the Sojourns are the most important.”
Lenker also brought up the dialog that Sojourners and local officials began this year when they discussed the various resource issues along the way, such as sustainable forestry and air pollution. He stressed the informal networks that a trip like the Sojourn creates among residents, local officials, businesses and participants. “The impact is hard to measure, but you know it’s there.” The hands-on nature of the Sojourn contributes to its success, he said. “People, groups want to be a part of the restoration effort and the Sojourn shows them how to do that.”
The Chemung River basin drains a little more than 2,600-square miles of land in New York and northern Pennsylvania and is home to about 237,000 people. The Chemung is formed by the confluence of the Tioga, which flows north out of Pennsylvania, and Cohocton River, which flows southeast in New York. For most area residents, the river and its mighty power are etched into their memories as well as the walls of their homes and businesses. The devastating effects of past floods was brought home during a lunchtime presentation in Big Flats, when local officials shared aerial photographs of the devastation Hurricane Agnes created in 1972. At one point during that storm, the normally narrow Chemung between Corning and Elmira, NY, was four miles wide. Most of the homes that survived that flood bear marks high on their walls as eerie reminders.
Natural disasters past and present were a timely topic on this year’s Sojourn as participants heard firsthand about the devastation that Wyoming County, PA suffered during a recent tornado. Paddlers heard the stories of the half-mile swath of destruction in the Lake Carey area and of the many victims of the storm. When the trip began, a few Sojourners started a relief fund on behalf of the victims and when they met later in the week, the Sojourners presented the Wyoming County commissioners with $500 to assist victims of the storm.
While some stops along the way were emotional, some were incredibly visual. For organizing committee member Jennifer Fais of Corning, NY, the overnight stop in Laceyville, PA was the best. “We were invited to camp in people’s backyards,” she said. “It was like a homecoming. They really opened up their hearts to us.”
In addition to the food and entertainment, there was a real homecoming of sorts in Laceyville as veteran Sojourner Dick Lake took the opportunity to publicly present a poem he’d written in honor of longtime Laceyville resident George Ciprich. Lake explained that he experienced firsthand Ciprich’s legendary kindness when he was a youngster living near Laceyville. Years later, he was moved to write a poem, dedicated to Ciprich titled, “George Ciprich Laceyville’s Heart and Soul.” According to several Sojourners, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time Lake finished his tribute.
While every stop had its special moments, the overall impact of the trip was always front and center for Eberhardt. Every morning, as the bustle of the ’98 Sojourn unfolded on the riverbank, Eberhardt took a few minutes to remind the paddlers to focus on the significance of the trip. Reflecting on the trip, he said, “You can say what you want about getting people involved [in the restoration] but we’re out here, we’re bringing on board people who aren’t necessarily part of the choir,” he said, alluding to the oft-made criticism that champions of the Bay effort are always just “preaching to the choir.” Moments later, Eberhardt was down in front of the crowd of eager Sojourners reminding them to think about why they were there and what it meant to be a good steward of the environment.