Going with the flow on Pennsylvania water trails

Phil and Dave Coleman

Courtesy Dave Coleman


By Brook Lenker

Pennsylvania has a best-kept secret, but the word is getting out. It’s our rivers, all 83,000 miles of them, many of which offer exceptional opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, camping, and fishing. From the whitewater of the Youghiogheny to the smooth waters of the Schuylkill, there is a paddling experience for everyone and almost any skill level.

Traditionally, only serious river rats plied the rivers of the commonwealth. Limited access, unknown hazards, and a lack of detailed information about different routes and river segments restricted enjoyment of the waters to those willing to invest a good bit of time and energy into planning a trip. The advent of water trails is altering this reality.

Water trails are basically paddling routes (although they may be accessible by some motorized craft) that have been mapped to facilitate public use. Many include detailed trail guides providing an assortment of useful information on water safety, local history, flora, fauna, and geology, as well as a detailed map. Orientation or interpretive signage may also accompany water trail development. Some water trails have created new campsites as part of their infrastructure. An emphasis on low-impact use or Leave No Trace ethics is common to all water trails.

In 1997, work began on Pennsylvania’s first water trail, the Susquehanna River Trail. Local proponents collaborated with the PA Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) and with primary funding through the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resource (DCNR), launched a 24 mile trail from Halifax to Harrisburg complete with a trail guide, signage, and Robinson Crusoe-like camping on 10 secluded islands.

Good ideas are contagious and the water trail affliction spread to other regions of the commonwealth. PFBC and DCNR formalized a statewide water trail program and more recently have partnered with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to help with this effort.

Hannah Hardy is the Water Trail Program Manager for PEC and her enthusiasm for the subject is overflowing.  “Pennsylvania has the potential to be ‘the place to go’ for water trails…from urban rivers to rural streams…Pennsylvania has it all!” Her vision of the Pennsylvania Water Trails Program is “to bring all of the individual water trails together in a statewide system.”  This is already beginning to take place on the Susquehanna River where various project managers are working together to build the Susquehanna River Water Trail System, which will extend into New York and Maryland with over 600 miles to explore.

The American Canoe Association – a new force behind the water trail wave – is creating a national list of recommended water trails. At least one Pennsylvania trail has been nominated for listing, an honor that would beckon more people to discover our rivers up close and personal – instilling awareness about the challenges facing these resources and the human role in restoring them.

Find out more about the 17 Pennsylvania Water Trails by visiting the Water Trail Guides page on the PFBC website (www.fish.state.pa.us). Scroll down the left bar and click on water trails to begin your journey. 

Brook Lenker is also a founder of the Susquehanna River Trail and serves as the Director of Community Relations for Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Published August 2005