When Ranae Tibbens angles her blue kayak through the broad waters of the lower Susquehanna River, rocks are strewn across her path. Quite often, she aims right for them.
Tibbens, a professional river guide, is in the midst of a self-confessed love affair — with rocks. And the lower Susquehanna River is a great place to be.
Below the city and suburbs of Harrisburg, PA, the river takes a deep green breath before sweeping into the Chesapeake Bay just south of the Maryland line. It cuts through thousands of forested acres, its progress punctuated by dams and a few riverside towns.
Above the dams, the river swells into “lakes” where the rocks are submerged and the water is slow and smooth. But elsewhere, rocks are at play.
They rise in mounded clusters and jut from the water as small angular islands. They reach across the river in a broken gray ridge. In some spots, they emerge in smooth, twisting forms that seem shaped by a sculptor’s hand. Others form a bluff above the river.
These are the rocks that stopped the Chesapeake explorer Capt. John Smith in 1608. Later, they stunted large-scale trade and travel on the river when water was typically the best and fastest route for any purpose.
But for Tibbens, the rocks aren’t obstacles. They are destinations.
Tibbens is a partner in Chiques Rock Outfitters, based under the arch of a historic bridge in Columbia, PA.
“A lot people get an impression of the river by driving across the bridge,” she said. “It looks too dangerous, like you can’t get a boat through. But they don’t realize how different it is at river level. There’s always a nice flat channel to go through.”
This stretch of the river is wide, bumping against the historic remnants of canals, timber mills and ironworks that have faded into the woods. On the river, Tibbens brings paddlers up against the rocks to climb out and explore.
Vibrant wildflowers sprout from the nooks and crannies in the spring.
On one cluster of rocks, where a small “pebble beach” has formed at its base, there’s carved graffiti from the 1800s.
If the water level is safe, she’ll paddle to a great squarish rock where one can jump to a swimming hole.
And then there are potholes. The kind that form in the river, not the road.
River potholes are scooped out spaces in the rock, worn and smoothed over time. Some form little bowls filled with water. Others break through the rock to make small tunnels. The largest potholes, near Falmouth, PA, twist and bend the Triassic rock in surprising shapes.
Tibbens, of course, has favorites. When she reaches inside a pothole, she often pulls out a baseball-sized rock — direct evidence of its making.
“When you see holes that are round, there are usually rocks or pebbles inside them,” Tibbens said. “The current churns them around and they eat away at the sides.”
Sometimes, high water traps fish in the potholes. Tibbens and guest paddlers are the rescue crew.
The river and its rocks are a fun, scenic introduction to the lower Susquehanna. A few stops over a weekend visit will have visitors trekking and paddling through small towns, forests and farmland where the forces of nature have pushed hard and humans have pushed back.
The infamous rocks of the lower Susquehanna landscape exist in part because of its relentless flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
“From Harrisburg down to the Chesapeake, it loses a lot of elevation, something like 200 feet,” said geology professor Frank Pazzagalia of Lehigh University. “Because it’s so steep, the river has carved down into the rocks of the Pennsylvania Piedmont.”
The river’s name is associated with the native people living in the area when Smith arrived on its lower reach in 1608.
The “Susquehannocks,” Smith wrote, were “great and well-proportioned men” who seemed like giants to the English. They had an “an honest and simple disposition” and a great, resonating tone to their speech.
These impressive people were themselves relatively new to the area. Local historian Paul Nevin said that an Algonquin group of people lived here long before the Susquehannocks.
“The timespan that people occupied the river here is really beyond comprehension,” Nevin said. “If you take the time that people lived along the river and compress it into one hour, John Smith would have gotten here two minutes ago.”
The river’s earliest people left their marks, literally, in the rocks. The rocks were their canvas; their carvings, called petroglyphs, exist today. They include human figures, animals and patterns thought to have sacred meaning and, in some cases, relations to the movement of the sun.
“I think it was a place where people went to connect with the creator,” Nevin said.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission counts more than 1,000 petroglyphs at 10 sites in the river near Safe Harbor — but visitors will likely need a guide to find them.
The petroglyphs are in an especially rocky area of the river below the dam, where water flows can be tricky. The carvings are shallow, usually less than three-eighths of an inch deep, on rocks in the middle of the river. In bright sunlight, they seem to disappear.
Nevin, who has studied the carvings for decades, leads a petroglyph paddle at Shank’s Mare Outfitters.
“These aren’t artifacts in a museum. It’s a place where you can see things that native people created in the place that they were created, and it’s still largely unchanged,” Nevin said. “It helps all of us understand the story of the place we live today.”
To see an ancient footprint, visit Indian Steps Museum near Airville. You’ll find this unusual museum in a 1912 arts-and-crafts house tucked along an increasingly quiet wooded lane, where a small legion of frogs croak in the pond and waterfowl stroll in the sun.
Pressed into the walls — inside and out — are arrowheads, spearheads, stone axes and other artifacts collected locally in the early 1900s.
John Vandersloot, a York County attorney, built the museum in 1912 as a tribute to American Indians. Vandersloot was captivated by their history and spirituality at a time when racism made his passion the subject of disdain.
The Conservation Society of York County operates the museum. Director Martin Weiss understands that adorning the walls with important artifacts is startling by today’s standards. But in 1912 it was a sincere tribute.
“This was only 30 years after Little Bighorn. Racism and xenophobia were running high,” Weiss said. “But Vandersloot intended this as a monument to Native Americans. From a social and historical standpoint, it’s remarkable.”
The museum grew to encompass artifacts, portraits and oral histories from across the United States. Modern Indians continue to make contributions and participate in the annual Native American festival each fall.
The name “Indian Steps” came from carved footholds that were once a common sight near this part of the river.
“Before the dams, the river was much lower,” Weiss said. “The native people carved stone steps to help them climb down to the water.”
Most have been submerged by the dams, but one example remains at the Indian Steps Museum.
The “step” looks like a footprint pressed into the rock. The shape was carved, then smoothed and deepened by time and many treads, creating a stable, foot-shaped surface for a wet or rugged climb.
It is not behind glass, and touching is allowed.
“It’s just amazing,” Weiss said.
You can gain a feel for this lost world by paddling the river near the museum, where the landscape still feels remote. A launch is available at a nearby park, about a mile up the road.
The museum welcomes visitors who arrive by canoe or kayak. This new policy will help with regional goals to improve public access to the Bay and its rivers. Weiss is happy about the change.
“If you come up in a kayak, I’ll be shaking your hand,” he said.
Over time, Europeans came to dominate the area and destroy the Susquehannock way of life. To these newcomers, the valley offered rich farmland, a seemingly endless expanse of timber, and veins of coal that helped fuel a nation.
But the Susquehanna’s rocky geography was a problem. The very clusters of rocks that turned Smith back toward the Bay stymied large-scale commerce on the river.
A link was desperately needed between the timber– and coal-rich region to the north and Chesapeake Bay trade routes to the south. This led to the construction of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal.
The canal was built between 1836 and 1840, running 43 miles on the west side of the river from Wrightsville to its mouth at Havre de Grace, MD.
It was difficult terrain to work with, but a canal needed rocks and those, at least, were plentiful.
Shank’s Mare Outfitters is located at Long Level which, true to its name, is a flat expanse of shoreline where the canal ran its longest stretch without a lock.
Liz Winand, whose family runs the business, is a fan of canal history.
“It was an amazing engineering feat, if you think about it,” Winand said. “No power tools, not even a steam shovel. There were just shovels, pickaxes and Irishmen.”
Canals of this era were short-lived because they were expensive to build and soon lost business to the railroads. The Susquehanna canal fell into decline by the mid-1800s.
While trains may have killed the canal, the dams drowned it.
Many of its 29 locks were clustered in areas where the dams exist today. Both took advantage of spots where the river makes a notable drop in elevation. When the dams were constructed and water pooled behind them, many of the canal’s historic structures were lost.
One exception is a watered portion of the old canal bed that can be seen under a dome of trees in the Wrightsville town park.
Another is Lock 12, preserved by the utility company PPL, which owns Holtwood Dam. It’s found along Pennsylvania Route 372, at the west end of the Norman Wood Bridge.
The only remaining lockhouse stands across the Maryland line in Havre de Grace, preserved and open to the public as the Susquehanna Museum.
The railroad, on the other hand, has had a longer life.
In some spots, active lines still run along the river and block public access to the water. But area partners are looking for creative solutions.
The railroad itself has generated some hidden gems, like the cluster of historic buildings in Marietta that offer food and music in a quirky historic setting.
In the 1900s, the river was harnessed for power. The largest dams — at Holtwood and Safe Harbor in Pennsylvania and Conowingo in Maryland — were built between 1910 and 1931.
Their construction put historic resources underwater, but the enormous landholdings associated with the dams have been saved from development and in many cases are open to the public with water access, hiking trails and dramatic river overlooks.
At Long Level, Shank’s Mare Outfitters sits along Lake Clarke — not truly a lake, but a stretch of the river upstream from the Safe Harbor dam, which has widened the river and slowed its flow.
Winand said areas like this make an ideal introduction to the river. “For traditional novice paddlers who would be intimated by a river, this is more like lake paddling,” she said.
The view from Shank’s Mare includes the Conejahela Flats, famous for their number and variety of migratory birds.
“For paddlers, it’s amazing,” Winand said.
The island flats would provide good habitat without the dam, but the dam has actually given the birds a boost.
“The raising and lowering of water creates a false tide on the mud flats,” Winand said. “That makes a good food source for shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers.”
State and local agencies, along with nonprofit partners, have been working to connect the region’s outdoor resources with trails for hiking, biking and paddling. Some are still under development. Good options include the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail, Mason-Dixon Trail and Conestoga Trail System. The Manor Township Trail will open soon.
The region is also part of the Susquehanna River Trail and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, two long water trails.
Jonathan Pinkerton, vice-president of the Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area, said the activity signals renewed interest in the river and its waterfront towns. Places like Columbia, Wrightsville, Marietta and Washington Boro in Pennsylvania are becoming known as “river towns” that offer a base for explorations by water, car or on foot.
“What you see is a shift back to appreciating the river as a natural resource,” Pinkerton said.
Overlooks show off the majesty of the river and the preserved lands that surround it. Some of the best are at Susquehannock State Park and Chickies Rock County Park in Lancaster County, PA; Samuel Lewis State Park in York County, PA; and Holtwood Environmental Preserve, located on both shores of the Susquehanna near Holtwood Dam.
A unique spot, stepped back from the river, is the High Point Scenic Vista in Susquehanna Heritage Park. A walk up the grassy knoll leads to a crest with chunky stone benches and a compass rose set into the walkway.
There are no obstructions to the full-circle view. The river sweeps in from the north, past the bridges at Columbia and Wrightsville, then dodges behind a few hills to emerge on a wide bend to the south.
The view from such overlooks reveals a landscape where people share the natural setting, but don’t dominate.
You can take much from such moments, but more if you venture onto the river and feel its force at work.
“You can just sit here and watch it go by, and that’s great,” Tibbens said. “But it’s more fun being on it.”
Stops & Resources
- Chiques Rock Outfitters: Columbia, PA. 717-475-6196, www.chiquesrockoutfitters.com
- Indian Steps Museum: Airville, PA. 717-862-3948, www.indiansteps.org
- Lower Susquehanna Water Trail: www.susquehannawatertrail.org
- Shank’s Mare Outfitters: Wrightsville, PA. 717-252-1616, www.shanksmare.com
- Zimmerman Center for Heritage: Wrightsville, PA. 717-252-0229, www.susquehannaheritage.org