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Susquehanna Life

Stewardship: Paddling Our Way to Sustainable Tourism

Jun 11, 2021 04:30PM ● By Joan Wenner, J.D.

Susquehanna paddling is a perfect way to enjoy the outdoors, fresh air and healthy exercise. Glide along and view the diverse flora and fauna while experiencing the largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Part of Pennsylvania’s Water Trails Program, the 444-mile Susquehanna River is ranked high for visitor experiences in Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources polls highlighting the state’s resources. With this utilization of natural resources, however, comes a responsibility to protect them. 

Five of Pennsylvania’s Heritage Areas Programs, a partnership between DCNR and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, share a national conservation designation as a National Heritage Area. The Susquehanna National Heritage Area was officially designated and signed into law in February 2019. Once inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape Indians, the Susquehanna River is an ecofriendly destination to take advantage of the river and all it has to offer. 

Make a difference

This emphasis on enjoyment of the naturally occurring resources has fueled a trend toward ecotourism on the Susquehanna River.  Ecotourism is defined as “informed travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.” 

Nature-focused paddling trips feed our desire to experience the natural world. Rachel Buxton, Ph.D., a researcher who studies noise pollution, says a growing body of evidence shows that time spent in a natural area makes us more focused, boosts mood, improves memory and lowers stress levels. (It’s something water trail lovers have always known.)

Ecotourism invites tourists to participate in an experience that facilitates clean air and water, and “includes sustainable recreation tourism and natural resource-based industries too for the economy and quality of life in Pennsylvania," according to DCNR.  “Protecting biodiversity and conserving natural habitats support a strong ecotourism industry, particularly in rural areas across the state.”

And for those adventurers who want to make a difference, annual events like “Paddle with a Purpose” allow volunteers to help reduce invasive species like the water chestnut. Visit for more information. 

Take responsibility

Blue Mountain Outfitters, one of several rivers adjacent Susquehanna River outfitters (see box), seeks to promote the concept of ecotourism. “We preach a ‘Leave No Trace’ policy to our customers and sponsor yearly river clean-ups with the Sierra Club,” notes co-owner Mary Gibson.  “Our hope is that after experiencing the beauty of the waterways, our customers will want to do all they can to protect them,” adds Doug Gibson.

Blue Mountain Outfitters has been owned and operated by Doug and Mary since the 1980s. Doug, a Keystone native, is a self-described ‘river rat’ and former white water guide—and the first president of the Susquehanna Water Trails Association. As a kid, Doug spent practically every waking hour, when not in school, paddling the Allegheny. He is committed to protecting the vibrant stretches of waterways in this region. (He never fails to point out that Pennsylvania has more non-powered waterways than any other state.)  

A 5,000-square-foot restored circa 1903 Marysville Railroad Station is home to the business. It houses canoe and kayak inventory, repair workshop and orientation area for their Susquehanna River trips.  Mary Gibson organizes educational trips, plans community involvement endeavors, maintains relationships with customers and writes the company newsletter. 

Most requested trip

One of the most requested paddling trips at Blue Mountain Outfitters stretches from Duncannon to Marysville and includes a section of the Dauphin Narrows, where a 25-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty stands on an old bridge pier in the middle of the river.

“Will I be able to see the statue?” is the familiar refrain. The answer, says Mary, is yes. As the river narrows, it creates a series of rapids and white water. Mary cautions paddlers to take the channel on the left-hand side of the river (the only safe passage through the Narrows), and only when past the rapids can you can paddle back up to view the statue. 

Island hopping on your own

Many paddlers choose to go it alone. Primitive camping is available on a number of river islands, where paddlers are encouraged to scout and “claim” their own space—no permits or fees required.  Build a fire, cook some marshmallows or hot dogs and watch for bald eagles and other birds. Enjoy staking claim to your own piece of the river, if only for a day or two.

According to the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (, a few especially notable spots are Islands 93 and 89. Located along a 10.8-mile section of the river beginning in Halifax, these have become favorites of river campers due to their accessibility and large size.

DCNR advises there are more than 20 river islands for primitive campsites or day use camping found along a 51-mile stretch of the Susquehanna. (See for information.)

Good fishing and boating opportunities abound along the Susquehanna and its tributaries. For details contact the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (

No matter how you decide to enjoy the river, take ownership of it: be responsible, leave no trace and have fun!

Joan Wenner, J.D. is a longtime boating safety, general interest and historical writer. She has been published in Pennsylvania Heritage and other Pennsylvania magazines, and throughout the U.S., Canada and the UK. Comments are welcome at:


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