Field notes from the third annual Susquehanna Sojourn, held each June to promote awareness of where the river comes from and where it goes.
So this is death; nothing rude, just an absence of life, and quite lovely -- water clear as air moving over pale rock below, gleaming pewter as it slides away toward the Chesapeake between plushy green mountains of Penn's great woods.
The water is so crystalline because for nearly a hundred miles the river is acid-dead, devoid even of plankton upon which to build a food web. It is the legacy of King Coal, gouged by the million-tons from deep within these old hills. To reclaim all the mines now leaching acid would take billions of dollars and decades, maybe centuries.
This is the West Branch of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, traversing some of the wildest country left in the East. It rises closer to Lake Erie than the Chesapeake, at a spring dripping between stones of an old railroad tunnel near Carrolltown, Pa.
The West Branch gathers force for 240 miles before its confluence with the main Susquehanna, source of half the Chesapeake Bay's fresh water.
Halfway to the confluence, life returns; water pours from marble caverns in icy, blue-green exhalations to counter the bile from dark, ulcerated mine pits upstream. From a sacred place of the Susquehannock Indians, home to their chief Wi-daagh 300 years ago, flows a great limestone spring, largest in Pennsylvania.
Graced by trout and beaver, the spot is bounded by rushing brooks and watched by a giant red oak, with a trunk 12 feet around, near the old chief's reputed grave. The spring flows 22,000 gallons a minute, 32 million gallons a day. Along with other springs it is enough to neutralize the acid.
For a short distance, the river's color shifts through several hues, as acid and base -- life and death -- wage their struggle. Then, blue herons and sea gulls, and an occasional osprey, begin to show up along the banks.
Perhaps only such birds can know both Susquehanna and Chesapeake as a seamless whole; but the weeklong sojourn in June is the finest venue I have found for Pennsylvanians and Marylanders to remind themselves of the ways water binds our states and transcends political boundaries.
Our flotilla numbered from a dozen to a hundred paddlers,
depending on the day. The river grips you with disarmingly velvet power, its smashing potential apparent only when a rock looms far in front, then sweeps by and is left far behind while a bewildered flat- lander is still pondering evasive action.
June evenings and mornings were crisp, and middays were warm enough for a cap dipped in the river and slopped on one's head to feel delightful. We made camp early; plenty of time for talk and for evening programs on the river's history, culture and ecology.
Bill Matuszeski, brewing blackberry currant tea by his tent one afternoon, talked of restoring fish runs from the bay up the Susquehanna. As head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis, he is keenly aware of the long haul ahead to repair the bay's health.
He says it will mean changes in every way we affect the environment, from sewage and development, to farming, fishing and driving. He believes that if Pennsylvania upstream and Maryland and Virginia downstream do everything they can, the job seems feasible -- but just barely.
Meanwhile, it wouldn't hurt a bit if the shad and herring and rockfish that used to spawn up the Susquehanna can be brought back by a series of lifts and ladders over the dams that block the river -- candy to keep people's interest from flagging.
Restoring fish populations will require more attention by Pennsylvania to upstream pollution, Mr. Matuszeski says. In addition, Maryland and Virginia must beware of overfishing in the bay.
The sojourners included prominent state officials, professional environmentalists and serious canoe enthusiasts. But for all that, perhaps the nicest flavors were lent by the many paddlers who were none of the above.
There was the fellow who went down a stretch of fast water backward. He had closed his carpet cleaning business for a few days and bought a canoe just to see the river. His devotion to snowmobiling made a few of the hard-core backpackers wince, but he was enthusiastic, and he is on next year's sojourn planning committee.
I enjoyed the two guys who were out of work. Rather than mope around, they packed their battered camper and joined the sojourn. If they could get a modest grant -- enough to cover groceries, they told me -- they'd be willing to canoe all the way down the bay.
And a couple of Conrail engineers and their families came out to one of our evening campfires, and passed word of the sojourn up and down the line. The railroad follows the river, and we were tooted by every train that passed.