Paddling on the Susquehanna Sojourn is a family affair for the Davis family of Indiana County, PA. But it didn't start that way.
Stephanie Davis was a nervous mother when she sent her 6-year-old daughter on her first sojourn 13 years ago. Her husband was on the trip, too, but Davis wasn't sure how her shy little girl would fare on a multi-day, 100-mile paddle and campout with a large group of strangers.
When she picked them up at the end of the trip, things looked grim.
"Sierra was in the parking lot crying like crazy," Davis said. "Hair uncombed, dirty from head to toe, tears streaming down her face."
Davis rushed to the rescue. Then Sierra said, "Mom, I'm crying because it's over."
Within a few years, the entire family was on the river. Davis paddled her first sojourn when her youngest child, Tavan, was 4 years old. Tavan spent most of the trip rocked to sleep in the kayak.
"At end of the day, when we'd all line up and pass the boats up on shore, they'd pass him up in the kayak and put him under a tree still asleep," Davis said. "As he grew, he became the best water-battle boy ever."
Today, Davis and her husband Andy, along with 19-year-old Sierra, 16-year-old Denali, and 12-year-old Tavan are devoted fans of the annual trip, which Davis believes has had a big influence on her kids.
"It's a place where they've seen the good of the world," she said. "The nature. The people. The sense of accomplishment."
River groups in the Chesapeake region began sojourns in the late 1990s as a way to engage people and communities with a river. While most sojourns have traveled the Susquehanna watershed, they have also taken place on the Potomac, Patuxent and James rivers.
An organized sojourn — usually a week of paddling and camping — is not your average paddle. But that doesn't mean that beginners aren't right at home among the brightly colored flotilla that winds downriver.
To begin with, participants don't have to paddle for a full week. Some sojourns are shorter. And one can always jump in for a day or two to see if you like it. Organizers can suggest a portion of the route that's best for each individual and often help to arrange for a rented kayak or canoe if it is needed. A shuttle makes sure that food and gear are waiting at each day's end.
Participants are surrounded by a small army of fun-loving paddlers who help one another with everything from boat handling and paddle strokes to camp food tips and water battles.
"A sense of community evolves when you are on the river," Davis said. "There are little kids and 80-year-olds. It's amazing to watch how people come together."
Erin Pierce of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership is helping to plan a 2013 sojourn on the Susquehanna's West Branch.
Pierce said that sojourns are planned to be safe and pleasant for all skill levels. Professional guides are on-hand and safety rules apply. "Fear should not be a reason to stay home," Pierce said. "Even if you come with a small skill set, everyone is welcome."
Some veteran paddlers come every year. "They have such knowledge," Pierce said. "I'd always wanted to learn a canoe stroke. Where else could I get such good free instruction?"
Sojourns also immerse paddlers in the feel of the river and towns along its shores. Local naturalists, historians and storytellers visit the evening campfires. And when a group this large paddles into town, elected officials may proclaim a "river day" and draw the local press — which is good for the river, too.
"You get a connection with the world, a connection with yourself and a connection with people you very often wouldn't even know in your regular life," Davis said.
And think about bringing the kids.
"A lot of people wonder if they could really take a 6-year-old," Davis said. "It's hard enough to get them to go to bed at home. But I don't know anyone who has regretted it."
Check with the organizers for cost, registration, route details and rental options.
- West Branch Susquehanna Sojourn: May 14–19, Mahaffey, PA, to Keating, PA, 97 miles. www.susquehannagreenway.org or 570-522-7211.
- North Branch Susquehanna Sojourn: June 8–15, Great Bend, PA, through the Southern Tier of New York to Wyalusing, PA, 93 miles.www.headwatersrivertrail.org or 607-346-2727.
- Rivanna River Sojourns: April 27 & 28, consecutive day-paddles near Palmyra, VA, and Columbia, VA, (no overnight camping), 34 miles.www.rivannariver.org or 434-985-1802.
- Juniata Sojourn: June 8 to June 12 or 13. Main branch from Mapleton, PA to Howe Township, PA, 76 miles. www.jcwp.org or 814-506-1190.