Finding a Susquehanna Sanctuary


There are few better remedies for an overabundance of worry and stress than the powerful, life-giving waters of the Susquehanna River.  As I sit here on the crooked trunk of a river birch, looking out across the rushing flow from the bank of Susquehanna State Park, I can’t help but ponder when I first fell in love with this place. This is the view that would renew my passion for the natural world and spark me to co-found the Susquehannock Wildlife Society.  

As is the case with many, my connection to nature started at a young age, thanks to loving parents who took me hiking, encouraged outdoor exploration, and allowed me to keep a variety of pets, usually of the reptilian kind. During those formative years, it was probably turtles, with their ancient design, fascinating appearance, and unique habits, that resonated the most with me,  and would be a parallel throughout my life leading up to this very moment here by the Susquehanna.

It was turtles that connected me to this river and changed me from what so many of you might have also been: mere expressway travelers gazing far down from the interstate as you pass between Harford and Cecil Counties on I-95.  It is astounding how few of us ever get to know this river, the longest on the east coast and longest non-navigable in the United States. There is so much history and ecological diversity that surround its watershed, yet a lot of us have largely paid it little mind. Deservingly, the great Chesapeake Bay receives an immense amount of attention, but it's easy to forget that the Bay is but the flooded lower reaches of the Susquehanna intertwined with the salty waters of the vast Atlantic Ocean after millenia of changes –  ranging from a meteor strike to melting glaciers – united them in their incredible partnership.

The diverse shorelines, exposed boulders, and island formations in the Susquehanna that make it iconic for this region also make it ideal habitat for a species that is endangered here in Maryland. It was the hope of seeing this species – that I had never seen in my whole life as an avid turtle enthusiast – that motivated me to venture into the racing current in my then brand-new kayak. The northern map turtle, while fairly common across much of its range that follows large river systems throughout the midwest and up to the Great Lakes, is only found in the Susquehanna River and its immediate tributaries here in Maryland.  

Because of its limited occurrence here, little was known about its habits, population, size, and habitat until Towson University, in partnership with Maryland Department of Natural Resources, began to study them in 2008. They still continue to do so to this day. I got in touch with the Towson University researcher and immediately signed up to help with the project. I was then introduced to the river through the habits of one of its most interesting inhabitants, learning where the turtles nest, how many of those nests survive, what they eat and where they hibernate.  In the process, I came to appreciate the importance of protecting habitat diversity and the necessity to preserve the buffering lands along the Susquehanna. And I learned that even though the Susquehanna’s flow has been altered for human use, there are still many treasures to be found in her waters.

It’s impossible to wander through Susquehanna State Park without also being reminded of the history of this wonderful place, both human and geological. With its stone ruins of a long-abandoned canal and railroad, historic mill, and restored houses, the park allows visitors to imagine a time and place that has been mostly forgotten. There are even examples of petroglyphs created by American Indians on rock formations on display in the mill – formerly in the river before the Conowingo was built – showing how far back human use and appreciation of this area go.  The river ties these elements together, and is the main artery that flows through both the physical landscape and the history that connects different peoples, industries, and ecosystems.

While walking the scenic trails of Susquehanna State Park you are transported to a place that does not seem to fit the surrounding landscape, feeling much more like a slice of Appalachia than the top of the Chesapeake Bay.  The canals are reminiscent of the C&O Canal along the Potomac, and host a variety of breeding amphibians in the spring.  The floodplain explodes with the color of a wide array of wildflower and plant species, including some rare species, paw paw trees, and the beautiful virginia bluebells in breathtaking numbers.

The deep forest also makes the park an important breeding area and migratory stopover for a rich diversity of bird species,  including many warblers that can be difficult to find elsewhere in the region.  Bald eagles are seen in this area of the Susquehanna in some of the highest concentrations in the lower forty-eight states. The river and its tributaries are also home to many significant fish species – from the critically endangered Maryland darter (likely extinct, but last seen here) – to sportfish like striped bass and shad.

Since my first visit, I can’t stay away from this special place.  I’ve introduced many others to Susquehanna State Park through educational programs and recreational outings. With each season providing  a different look and feel, this place can be whatever you want it to be – because it has it all! In this one place you can fish, hike, camp, birdwatch, explore, or learn about important local history. It’s easy to access and also easy to become immersed in its splendor, escaping the chaos of modern society to embrace a sense of wilderness that is difficult to experience in the developed mid-atlantic landscape.  This is a place that everyone should find time to enjoy.  I hope to see you somewhere on down the trail.

Susquehanna State Park (MD)

Susquehanna State Park offers a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities as well as points of historical significance. The park is home to some of the most popular mountain biking trails in Maryland and the river itself beacons fishermen and boaters alike.

Scott McDaniel

Scott McDaniel lives in Harford County, is a Maryland Master Naturalist, Eagle Scout, holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Electronic Media & Film, and is the executive director for the Susquehannock Wildlife Society.

June 20, 2019

Main image: Susquehanna River, Scott McDaniel photo
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