Susquehanna at Holtwood

River of the month #15

author: Pat Reilly
date: June 1999

The Susquehanna and many other eastern rivers cross something known as the ‘fall line’ as they approach tide water . The fall line is a geologic ‘step’ that signals the end of the Piedmont Plateau and the start of the Coastal Plane. Some rivers form spectacular rapids dropping over the fall line. Great Falls of the Potomac is the most notable. Others rivers, such as the Delaware, make it to sea level without so much as a good class 3.

Unfortunately, the Susquehanna’s fall line rapids were inundated long ago. Exploring the Susquehanna below the rt. 30 bridge you find that it is almost entirely impounded all the way to sea level. Three large hydro dams harness the big river’s power and create pools for the paddlers’ nemesis, the power boat. The dams and their lakes from north to south are - Safe Harbor Dam and Lake Clark, Holtwood Dam and Lake Aldred, and Conowingo Dam and Lake Conowingo. If you add up the total head height of these dams (220 ft) and then look at the total mileage of their impoundments (32 miles) you see that the river drops nearly 7 feet per mile going over the fall line. That won’t seem like much to a steep creek freak, but for a river as big as the Susquehanna, it’s a decent gradient. Compare it to the average gradient for the total river at just 2.39 ft. and it becomes apparent that these lakes no doubt hide some good rapids.

There is a ‘token’ section of original river bed below the Holtwood Dam that gives the paddler a glimpse of what it was like before the impoundments. When I first visited this area I was struck by how much it differed from the Susquehanna upstream. There are rocky islands rising abruptly from the water that appear as if they belong on the Maine coast somewhere. They are topped with upland vegetation, like laurel, hemlock and oak. This is a shocking difference from the rest of the Susquehanna that we know and love, the one with low flat islands formed of sand and silt, with only birch, willow and silver maple trees. In and around these rocky islands the water flows deep and swift, again in contrast to the ‘mile wide/foot deep’ character of the rest of the river. These sights may be familiar to those that have paddled Muddy Creek. But if it’s your first trip to the area, you only need to check out the river from the high rt. 372 Norman Wood Bridge to realize that the Lower Susquehanna is a drastically different river.

Depending on the level of Lake Conowingo there is only 1 to 1.5 miles of free flowing river from the Holtwood Dam to the beginning of slack water. But this short distance contains the best whitewater on the entire Susquehanna. Problem number one is you need at least 5.4 feet on the Harrisburg gauge or it ain’t happenin’. At readings lower than 5 feet, all the water will be going through the power plant and running down a swift narrow channel on river left that has no features and no access!

Problem number two is the access. To get to the best whitewater you must paddle and portage. Start by driving north on the road that leaves rt. 372 at the west end of the bridge. Aside from the dam itself, the first thing to catch your eye will probably be the ‘Fish Ladder’. I’m not convinced that this was an attempt to build fish passage but that’s the handle local boaters have given it. In any event, it’s a conglomeration of natural and manmade ledges forming a 50 foot high rapid that makes the chasm in the Muddy Creek gorge look like child’s play. It’s hard to believe that local crazies are starting to run the lower half of this monstrosity. You can put in at the bottom of the ‘Fish Ladder’ and shoot out through the trees (tricky and dangerous) or carry further down where the current slacks off. Then you face a hard ferry across half the river to a rocky island if you want the channel with the best white water.

Try not to lose any ground on the ferry or it will make an ugly portage worse. Now you face a carry across big nasty rocks to a long narrow channel that contains the biggest surfing waves between West Virginia and the Atlantic coast. The best waves are lined up next to a huge eddy that will carry you unassisted 100 feet or more back upstream to the beginning of the waves. Just below, where another channel joins from river right, is a great rodeo spot know as the ‘Storm Hole’. It can be heaven or hell, depending on your skill and the water level. This whole playground can be accessed without the carry, but you will need to know your way through the maze of rock islands and you must fight some awesome current.

Next comes more big waves, mostly dynamic but some stationary and surfable, that will carry you down to the route 372 bridge. Below the bridge things cool out just a little until rocky islands take shape once again. Then, more great play boating awaits as at least 4 fun chutes blast between the islands. These short channels parallel one another and extend back to the west bank of the river. Depending on the level, one or more will have great surfing. They can best be accessed from below by ferrying against strong current toward river right. Then you can eddy hop up the channels to the biggest waves and best holes.

A good trip is to do the big ferry and carry the first island below the dam. Run and play the narrow center channel. Ride the ensuing wave train to the bridge. Then play the lower chutes working your way back to river right. A final flat mile through another scenic narrow channel will bring you to the PFC Muddy Creek access (or the county park just upstream for us non-registered boaters). It may only be a 2-mile trip but there are enough waves and rodeo holes to make it last all day.

Many boaters don’t bother with the ferry/carry to the center channel. There are numerous waves and play holes along the west bank and in the first wide channel, making this an excellent ‘park and play’ destination. It’s just that I always prefer a river trip to ‘park and play’.

But where ever you decide to play at Holtwood be aware. (Dis be da disclaimer.) This is BIG WATER whitewater. And unlike ‘Falmouth’ that we talked about last summer, Holtwood is full of big holes. Especially around the end of the narrow center channel, there are holes that at some levels, you just don’t want to be in. Look everything over carefully or bring along a crazy young hole escape artist to use as a probe. (We had Rich Ertel.) Other hazards include eddy fences, swirling whirlpools, big waves and possible undercuts. If you’re not comfortable on the New or Cheat at good levels, you probably won’t feel comfortable out here. And keep in mind, it’s a long way to shore when out in the middle channel. Things just get crazier with higher water levels. A group of club members that boated Holtwood with the Harrisburg gauge at 11 feet, reported that the eddies in the center channel were surging up and down 2 feet every few seconds, making it a challenge just to get back in their boats after the portage.

One doesn’t have to be a white water paddler to enjoy this area. Putting in at the county park or Muddy Creek PFC access you can share the flat water with the fisherman and witness some unique scenery. With the river cutting down through the Piedmont Plateau, a gorge is formed leaving both sides of the river too steep for highways. If you’re here in the off season and the motor boats are gone the silence is welcome and unexpected for the ‘Susky’.

Two big islands, Lower and Upper Bear contain huge tulip and beach trees to complement their hemlock and pine topped cliffs of schist. I was lucky enough to camp on Upper Bear Island years ago. It has since been made a wildlife refuge by the power company that owns the island (PP+L, I believe) and now it is not permitted to make landfall. While it is hard to argue with a refuge, I believe this was a ‘cop out’ by the power company, an easy way to avoid possible litigation and cleanup work. But I guess the real blame falls on the pigs that left litter and the thieves that left deep pits after digging for Indian artifacts.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1999 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.