A trip down the Susquehanna Adventure: Eleven students from the Key School in Annapolis are on a 42-day canoe trip from the headwaters of the Susquehanna River to as far as they can go in the Chesapeake Bay by Wednesday.

July 26, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

It will take 3,024,000 strokes of their canoe paddles.

But by next week, an Annapolis school group expects to paddle at least this much -- after completing the first student trip the length of the Susquehanna River.

That's 448 shoulder-burning, arm-aching, blister-popping miles from the river's headwaters at Cooperstown, N.Y., to its mouth at Havre de Grace, plus at least another hundred to paddle southward into the Chesapeake Bay.

"I wanted to find my limits," said Page Madden, 14, a ninth-grader at the Key School, the private Annapolis high school that organized the trip. "That was one of my goals."

Eleven teen-agers from the school -- 10 girls and one boy -- set out with five teachers and alumni June 17, paddling 6,000 strokes a day for what will be 42 travel days when the group completes the voyage Wednesday on the Eastern Shore. They've dubbed the voyage the "SusqueBay Challenge."

The trip is the brainchild of Lee Curry, 57, a Key School outdoor education teacher and coach who was curious about the origins of one of the longest rivers in the East and wanted to fashion an environmental course around it.

It was not easy. The Susquehanna can be a huge, muddy stream -- more than a mile wide and only inches deep in some places. Travelers rarely paddle its entire length. The river is off-limits to ships and prone to unpredictable droughts and floods.

The students had only textbook knowledge of the river when they started the trip. They couldn't even find a complete map of the Susquehanna, and had to piece together 1970s county maps, tiny-print highway maps and nautical charts to find their way. Soon, they discovered that the river was not just a mystery to them, but to many of the people living along it.

"People at the end didn't know where it started, and people at the beginning didn't know where it ended," said Mike Coleman, 33, a group leader.

Most of the river winds through Pennsylvania, cutting between steep-sided canyons that traverse the Appalachian Mountains. Susquehanna experts are impressed by the trip.

"So few of us have ever had a chance to follow the river from its origin clear down to the end," said Susan Stranahan, a Philadelphia Inquirer environmental reporter who wrote the book "Susquehanna: River of Dreams." "By now, they must be so enamored of this river."

Indeed they are. Students were thrilled at seeing catbird, killdeer, grackles, cormorant, wood thrush, song sparrow, great blue heron and other creatures. They watched the Susquehanna twist past mountain ridges, marshlands, lush farms and rocky cairns. They glided through areas rich in Native American history, paddling alongside towns with names like Otego, Owego, Ouaquaga, Towanda and Mehoopany. Even the river's name is derived from local tribal lore.

The river, which flooded 10,000 years ago to create the Chesapeake Bay and now provides half of the estuary's fresh water, moves slowly and circuitously. It can test the patience of even the most determined canoe traveler.

"We'd ask how far away something was, and they'd tell you the next stop was just around the bend. That would be six bends," said Melissa Hyatt, 14.

"The original goal was to get more of history of the area," said Dan Martin, 16. "But we changed it to just getting as far as possible."

Conservationists say the river is the healthiest it has been in decades, noting that much of the Susquehanna was a raw sewage dump until the Pennsylvania government began cleaning it up in the early 1970s.

But when the group entered coal mining territory near Wilkes Barre, Pa., the wildlife began to disappear. The river turned pink from the acidic runoff from mining.

Further south, thick black coal dust lined the riverbeds. Parts of the river's West Branch already are dead from the polluted runoff, and cannot sustain fish or water bugs.

The stark environmental contrasts on the river weren't all the students learned. They also got a crash course in survival. Dangerous dams -- roughly a dozen -- sometimes would pop up without warning signs or buoys.

"These dams are really killing machines," said Dan Martin, boating program manager with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

"Power boaters go over them at night, and every year we get fatalities."

But there were no serious chills or spills this time. The worst scare probably was when some students accidentally abandoned science teacher Saundra Curry on a rock. But no one, not even Curry, seemed too traumatized. "The first thing she said when we rescued her was, 'Isn't this fun?' " said Adam Haile, 21, a group leader.

Once the Annapolis students saw the Bay Bridge last week, they knew that home was within reach. But they didn't sound too eager to give up the back-to-basics life the river has demanded. Showers and coin-operated laundries have become luxuries -- and television and malls are barely missed.

"We all worry about our image back home, but out here it doesn't matter," said Dana Holschuh, 16. "You are who you are."

"This is going to be a life-transforming event for these kids," said Cindy Adams Dunn, 37, a Pennsylvania environmental official who grew up four miles from the river near Harrisburg. "There's no way you can spend that amount of time on the Susquehanna and not have it affect the way you see the world."

The students post daily updates on a Web page on the Internet, typing entries on a laptop and transmitting it from their van.

Their Web page is at http: //www.the-hermes.net/susqubay. The group's e-mail address: susqubahe-hermes.net.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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