As I dip my paddle into the waters of the Juniata River, I try to imagine what it would be like to accompany its waters on their sinuous path all the way to the sea. We'd wind around a jumble of ridges seeking the shortest, least resistant path to the Susquehanna River. We'd pass impressive mountains that shoot straight up from the river bottomlands and are covered in talus, like Jack Narrows before me. We'd cut through a chaotic tangle of topography where, from the air, the land looks like its been traumatized by geological forces.

And beneath my canoe, the waters of more than 6,500 miles of streams draining 3,400 square miles of land in the Juniata watershed mingle to carry me toward the Chesapeake.

Alas, I am only paddling a distance of 9 of the 150 miles on the mainstem of the Juniata River, traveling from Mapleton to Newtown Hamilton. I sample Pennsylvania's rivers like a person at a cocktail party, trying bite-size hors d'oeuvres when what I really want is to sit down and have a hearty full meal. Instead of a day trip, my heart longs to explore the entire Juniata. And not just the mainstem, but also the Little Juniata, the Raystown Branch and the Frankstown Branch. All of these and multiple tributaries flow together, draining 12 counties, and empty into the Susquehanna near Duncannon, above Harrisburg.

It would be fantastic to hop on that water trail and follow it into the Chesapeake. By the time I was finished, I would have an incredible insight into how the rivers and the land and the people and the past fit together. That's what the Pennsylvania's Water Trails Program does to you. It turns you into a river-running addict.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council created a marvelous Water Trail Program that makes exploring the state's rivers a cinch. To date, the state has 20 water trails ranging in length from 13 to 250 miles. They include rivers and streams in the Delaware River Basin, the Susquehanna River Basin, and the Ohio River Basin.

The Juniata, is among the more than 20 water trails throughout the region that are also part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

A series of free maps accompany each Pennsylvania water trail, outlining all of the put-ins, take-outs, camping spots and other information for both single- and multiple-day paddles. The state's goal is to have 1,000 miles of designated trails by 2010.

The water trail initiative is a component of the state's Greenway Program, which includes hiking trails and multi-purpose trails like Rails-to-Trails. They are part of an effort to promote tourism, provide economic benefits and encourage restoration and conservation by getting people out of doors and learning about the state's history, geology, ecology, heritage and wildlife.

All 150 miles of the Juniata River Water Trail are rated A-1 flat-easy water, perfect for beginner paddlers or wildlife and beauty-gawkers. There are no cities, few towns, only one dam, no fences, strainers or difficult rapids. And, with such a small population, the stream remains clean with good fishing. It's easy to continue on the Juniata for three consecutive days, finding excellent camp spots every night, for it bisects very wild land in the beautiful Rothrock State Forest, named for Pennsylvania's father of forestry, Dr. Joseph Trimbel Rothrock, who in 1895 became the first person to lead the newly formed Division of Forestry. One could detour off the river and explore a wide array of recreational opportunities in these forests.

The river's rich history offers many interesting things to see along the way. It was the best way for native peoples to travel across this maze of mountains. Later, canals were built along the shores; their remains include a guard lock that was part of the historic Mainline Canal.

Next came the railroads, beginning with the Pennsylvania Railroad, carrying loads of grain and coal from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The active Conrail line by the river's side, with trains rumbling by every few hours, pays witness to its continued importance. The tiny, sleepy railroad hamlets that the river passes appear to be stuck in that past of 50 years ago, providing a glimpse of what life was like when it was slower and one spent the evenings on the front porch in the company of one's neighbors.

There are also important natural areas near the Juniata to check out. Along part of the river are the nesting grounds of the very rare northern map turtle. Young turtles have designs on their backs much like topographical lines. No one knew the endangered turtles were using the warm, black coal piles located along part of the Juniata to lay their eggs until a road was constructed in 1999. That first year, there were 100 turtle casualties.

Then, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation erected an impressive fence and recreated a nesting ground with loose shale covered in sand. They have observed 470 adult map turtles, protected more than 200 nests and released more than 700 hatchlings since the program began in 2000. It has created stewards out of PennDOT employees, the local residents and everyone who paddles the river and learns of these beautiful creatures.

On the Raystown Branch of the Juniata, the river intersects Canoe Creek State Park. Visit the abandoned Turkey Valley Church any evening between June and August to witness more than 20,000 bats flying out of an open upstairs window. It is the largest maternity colony of the little brown bat in Pennsylvania and home to the endangered Indiana bat. Visitors lay out blankets and watch the two-hour natural wonder.

Standing Stone Monument is found at the head of Standing Stone Creek where it empties into the Juniata. The native peoples of the area, the Onojutta-Haga Indians, lived there until the 17th century. Their name means "vertical or standing stone" and it is from these people (and their stone) that the creek owes its name. The water trails provide easy access to all of these fascinating places, enriching one's river experience.

A paddler with a copy of the Juniata River Water Trail Map-divided into the Upper & Lower Section-can experience a river adventure safely on their own. More experience may be needed for portions of the Raystown Branch, a separate trail with its own map.

Those who are timid about their paddling skills, and desire some expert advice and guidance, can join one of the Pennsylvania River Sojourns. These are educational, multi-day paddling trips that have been guiding canoeists and kayakers down the state's rivers for nearly two decades.

The Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers, a nonprofit corporation that promotes watershed stewardship, partnered with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the American Canoe Association and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to create this program which was pioneered by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's Susquehanna Sojourn, first launched in 1990.

From the Ohio River to the Delaware, the various sojourns cover more than 700 miles of the state's most gorgeous waterways. Mostly occurring in June, the designated Rivers Month, they usually take place on official Pennsylvania Water Trails. There are usually 12-15 sojourns for a paddler to choose from every year, including at least one trip in the Juniata watershed.

The Juniata Clean Water Partnership coordinates their sojourn and is also responsible for protecting the river. It was created in 1997 to address the environmental and resource issues affecting the region. The group completed the Juniata Watershed Management Plan in the fall of 2000 to help guide conservation efforts in communities throughout the watershed. Because of its success, the partnership was honored by being put on the Rivers Conservation Registry. Members know that by reducing pollutants in the Juniata Watershed, they are also helping the Chesapeake to remain the most productive estuary in the country.

Paddling The Juniata

All sections of the Juniata and its branches can be paddled between February and late May and possibly a few weeks in December. If the summer is wet, it is floatable into early July. Once the Juniata becomes a mature river on the mainstem, paddlers can often travel until mid-August, and often again in November and early December. Floating speed is 2-3 miles per hour.

Maps and guides to the Juniata River Water Trail and other Pennsylvania water trails are available online from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission at www.fish.state.pa.us/watertrails/

Rothrock Outfitters in Huntington, PA, can provide rentals/shuttles and other supplies. E-mail rothrockoutfitters@comcast.net or call 814-643-7226.

The Juniata Clean Water Partnership leads a Juniata Sojourn every year. For information, call 814-506-1190 or e-mail Vdietrick@jcwp.org.

For information about other water trails or sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net