Let's talk first about how to get your float adventure started. In most cases you only need a boat, paddle, life jacket and legal access to start your paddling adventure. There is a good bit of information published about the West Branch of the Susquehanna River Water Trail to get you started, but here are a few more details based on my own experience to make this an exceptional outing on the Susquehanna.
First, understand that if you are going to float from point A to point B, you will need to have at least a basic land transportation plan. Over the years I have heard more than one river paddler expect to magically return to their point of initial departure after paddling downstream. If returning to your launch vehicle by water is your goal, i.e. paddling point A to point A, then accessing a reservoir is a good place to start. The Lock Haven Municipal Boat Ramp provides an excellent location to launch and return. The reservoir is popular for powerboating, so plan to share the water with a variety of small boats. It is a great "launch and return" facility with a clean rest room and more than adequate parking.
While I enjoy a launch and return, I have a personal preference for paddling from point A to point B, in which case planning a transportation shuttle is a necessity. On today’s journey my husband, Virgil, and I had originally intended to park at the Lock Haven Municipal Boat Ramp and then carry our boats on river left well below the Lock Haven Dam to access the flowing water safely downstream. Lock Haven Dam is a "low head dam" meaning water flows over the top and not underwater through a gate. It is important to launch well downstream of its current and to never paddle over a low head dam, which can be hazardous.
“The Lumber Heritage Region’s Susquehanna River Water Trail – West Branch” map indicated about a 300-yard carry around the dam on a well-developed portage path on river right. From the river left parking area, we realized launching on river left was not an option since we would have to cross private property to get downstream of the dam (a no-no). If we launched and paddled across the reservoir, it would require a significant carry to get around the dam and re-enter downstream. Hmm. . . the current safely below the dam looked very inviting, but being the senior-citizen paddlers that we are, we elected to drive our put-in vehicle a bit further downstream to easier access, albeit without the nice rest rooms and paved parking facility.
We drove around Lock Haven Dam, launching downstream at Lock Haven Memorial Park (about 1.1 miles from Route 664 on East Water Street) across from the Piper Memorial Airfield and just before the Great Island Bridge. We enjoyed watching flights of several model airplanes above the Piper Airfield. Memorial Park has parking for about nine cars, a picnic shelter, and two pathways through brush to the river. There was construction on Great Island Road Bridge over the downriver access path, so we used an undeveloped pathway slightly upstream. After a bit of a muddy launch (the downstream site is much better), we realized the bridge construction crew had placed danger buoys to the right side of Great Island, so we floated around Great Island to the left. Although our water trail map indicated the preferred channel to the right, we found our route to river left around Great Island to be open with plenty of nice current to move us along.
Checking out the Water Trail map to reveiw our progress, Pam Dillon photo.
Great Island was the location of three Munsee Indian villages in the 1700s, so we may need to get back that way on a future trip to explore. We also hope to check out Bald Eagle Creek which joins the West Branch on the river right side of Great Island.
Once past Great Island we enjoyed the increased flow of clear, riffling, slightly-faster-moving current entering upstream from Bald Eagle Creek. There were numerous fishing boats, anglers, and swimmers enjoying the refreshing, flowing river at that confluence as we floated by.
This, my first West Branch water trail outing, took place on August 3, 2019. August is typically a lower water flow period for many Pennsylvania rivers. While the water levels downstream of Lock Haven generally offer good paddling year-round (except, of course, during periods of ice or flood stage), it is always good practice to verify acceptable levels before driving long distances to the put-in. The Keystone Canoeing (Gertler) guide book indicates the Williamsport gauge should be over 1000 cfs (cubic feet per second) or 0.0 feet. Our conditions were 3290 cfs (1.5 feet) which provided a nice moving current without being pushy. The corresponding gauge reading at Lock Haven (not mentioned in the guide book) was 1600 cfs (8.25 feet). These conditions were perfect for a beautiful day in August. (Note: When gauge readings are much, much higher you may experience flood level conditions with swift current and floating debris. Gauge readings are very site-specific – a cfs reading too high or too low in one location might be just right for another! Best to check online gauges and guide books before making a long drive!)
Oh yeah, about floating from Point A to Point B. . . we used two vehicles to "set a shuttle" for this outing. While we floated approximately 7 miles from our Memorial Park put-in (river mile 69) to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) Pine Access (river mile 62), we had first driven about 12 vehicle miles via parts of a major highway (US Rt. 220) to drop our second shuttle vehicle. Remember to paddle with take-out vehicle keys safely secured in a dry bag! There’re a LOT of stories about arriving at a take out without keys!
Approaching the PFBC Pine Access doesn't look like much but it has a paved ramp with ample parking. Pam Dillon photo.
The August evening float was relaxing and delightful. The water was clear with a few riffles. We saw numerous birds and, while locals talked about the bald eagles in the area, unfortunately they did not make an appearance on this evening.
In total, we floated under four bridges, one an old stone railroad bridge with small birds flying back and forth, seemingly unconcerned with our quiet intrusion. Regrettably, we never quite got away from road noise, but watched delightful dragon flies chasing one another and enjoyed the beautiful lighting of early evening on a clean, clear waterway. We arrived at the take-out surprisingly soon, after spending about three hours of easy paddling.
Railway bridge, Pam Dillon photo
Getting started on this section of the West Branch of the Susquehanna held a few surprises, but it was the adventure we were hoping it would be. Virgil and I arrived at the takeout looking forward to an early start the next day to float further downstream.
Whether you take a day trip or a multi-day paddling adventure, the West Branch Susquehanna River Water Trail will give you access to wild lands, scenic beauty and history in this vast region of the Chesapeake watershed.