Suggested Trip

Thoughts on Reclaiming the Susquehanna: A Paddle from Highspire to Goldsboro


Located between the PA Turnpike Bridge and Three Mile Island, the Highspire to Goldsboro section of the middle Susquehanna combines varying conditions and both natural and manmade sights to provide a scenic afternoon tour for paddlers of any level. Best of all, it is a perfect example of how the river is being reclaimed for future generations.

Long History of Industry
But that has changed. Tightened regulations, decrease in industry, and a greater interest in recreational use have allowed a rebound. Today, it is one of the most enjoyable sections for a wide range of recreational activities, including paddling.

Making the Trip
There are several launch and recovery points available on this section – Highspire Public Launch, two Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission Access Areas, PPL Royalton launch, and two marinas. For this trip, I utilized the Highspire Public Launch and PFBC Goldsboro Access Area for launch and recovery respectively. Why? Maximum time on the water. By utilizing these two launches, I was able to start at the upstream most point (almost under the Turnpike Bridge) and finish at the downstream most public launch. Plus, they both offer well-maintained, easy to use launches for a variety of paddle craft, with ramps suitable for those cartopping, trailering, or slipping their yak into the truck bed.

The PFBC accesses are free; however, you will need your watercraft permitted or registered.  More information on non-powered registration and launch permits can be found on the PFBC website. There is a nominal fee of $5 per day or $45 per year for using the Highspire Boat Launch – also known as the Steelton Boat Launch, depending on which borough you might live in. Additional information on how to obtain a permit can be found here.

Upon launching, you will find the area immediately below the Turnpike Bridge to be an ideal location for drifting, paddling, and exploring. This wide, slow section of the river is relatively shallow, so recreational boating is limited. Most boaters you encounter will be fishing or waterfowl hunting, depending on the time of year. There will be very few motorboats buzzing the area, towing skiers or otherwise running to nearby recreation sites. For the most part, you will be alone to explore the many islands, soak up the sun, and possibly catch a glimpse of local wildlife.

As you move downstream the river narrows and eventually deepens, making it more attractive to power boaters. This is especially true below the PPL Public Launch, located on the east shore downstream of the Swatara, as it is also the location of the last set of riffles that limit upstream movement of most boats. While this does mean an increase in traffic, it does not usually mean the area is not suitable for paddling. Except on a nice summer weekend afternoon, the number of boats using even the main pool surrounding TMI is nominal. If traffic is heavy and you are concerned about negative interactions, simply stick close to shore when passing the many islands that dot the area and you will be fine – with an increased chance of seeing some of the deer, waterfowl and numerous other species of wildlife that call the area home.

There are very few potential dangers to be encountered along this route. On busy weekends traffic will be heavier, and the water levels rise considerably following a recent rain, but there are no dangerous rapids, falls or strainers to navigate. However, you should not attempt to venture any further south. While the Susquehanna continues south to the Chesapeake Bay, it is not readily accessible from here, as there are two dams blocking your path. Red Hill Dam blocks the path to the east of Three Mile Island and can not be safely navigated. There is an exclusion zone above and below the structure, making entry illegal, and no public portage. Although York Haven Dam, located to the west, does provide a portage it passes through private property. You will need to make arrangements with the power plant operator prior to entering the area. Signs at the entry point, located on the west shore upstream of the power plant, provide paddlers with the most current contact information and how to arrange an escort. Again, the dam includes exclusion zones above and below so attempts to navigate are both illegal and extremely dangerous.

In Closing
This route is a perfect choice for those looking for a quiet, relaxing day on the water. There are no rapids to navigate or long portages to make – just wide-open water with plenty of scenery to enjoy. While it may take a little getting used to with the TMI towers looming in the distance, you will soon learn to enjoy the fact that they now stand as a testament to the fact that this section of the Susquehanna has been reclaimed by those who enjoy it. Once the site of heavy industrial use, the worst nuclear disaster in American history, and considered almost dead, it is now a prized location for anyone who enjoys getting on the water and being close to nature.

Tom Burrell

Tom grew up exploring Pennsylvania’s waterways, fishing and paddling the Pocono waters surrounding his childhood home. He was able turn his passion for being on the water into a livelihood, first with the US Coast Guard and later as a conservation officer. For the last 22 years he has patrolled and protected the waters of Southern Pennsylvania, including the Susquehanna and its many tributaries. When not fishing or boating, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three children, including passing along his passion for the outdoors.

October 16, 2019

Main image: Photo by Tom Burrell
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