1-13-2006 Wysox, Sugar Run and points in between

Thanks entirely to Kayak Dude and Dave from Endless Mountain Outfitters, I paddled another 17.5 miles on the Susquehanna river yesterday. I have not earned any river history merit badges as of yet, but I'm gettin' there. I've been on the river four times since June 2002, and I've paddled a total of 75.5 miles. And as of yesterday afternoon when we beached the boats at Sugar Run, Kayak Dude had passed the 1,000 miles paddled on the Susquehanna mark. His merit badge is on back-order. And then there's Dave. I have no clue how many miles he's paddled, but we're talkin' about a guy who sells kayaks, rents kayaks, leads novices on river tours, hordes piles of kayaks in two aging buildings, and according to some of the locals--he even sleeps in a kayak. The latter claim cannot be substantiated.

I'll not try to wax poetic about the beauty and the history of the Susquehanna. Rather, I'll just tell you what we did and what I experienced on what would be considered a hop-skip-and-a-jump of a kayak trip to the River Rats that know this river's every nook, eddy and cranny.

But before we get into any of that, I want to start with the following tidbit of mine that The Times Leader published on December 18, 2005. For whatever reason, The Citizens' Voice chose not to publish it. They have some disclaimer on their web site about keeping your comments under so many words, but if I sent the following their way--"Bush ate my children!"--I imagine they would have turned it into a three-part series. Follow me. I do have a point.

Load 'em up.


I am not by any stretch of the imagination an environmentalist, nor do I play one on television. In my opinion, much of what passes as environmentalism these days is fueled by junk science, well-meaning, but misinformed citizen activists and those agenda-driven folks much, much higher on the political food chain.

In the grand scheme of things, my entire nondescript life is probably not worthy of even the briefest of footnotes in this area’s still unfolding history, but unlike Congressman Paul Kanjorski, I have paddled a few miles on the Susquehanna. My perspective is not that of the average resident who occasionally glances down at the river from the middle of a bridge, or from atop the dike. I’ve been on it, I’ve been in it and I’ve even tasted it a couple of times. I’ve seen the devastating ecological damage the acid mine run-off has caused close-up. I’ve also witnessed the sewage that collects atop the water along the shoreline at various points in this valley. And I have watched that sickening brownish foam attach itself to a kayak paddle. With Wilkes-Barre poised to make a major comeback, why would we want to erect an inflatable dam directly in the path of unchecked corrosive pollutants and a steady flow of untreated sewage? Why?

Currently the Department of Environmental Protection is sifting through the exhaustive environmental reports, the longish engineering reports and the recently forwarded public comments whereas this “tourist attraction“ is concerned and that agency will make the final determination as to whether Wilkes-Barre becomes home to a polluted lake or not. I am still trying to ascertain how anyone as learned as Paul Kanjorski could actually believe that by damming sewage we will be attracting untold numbers of cash-engorged tourists to Wilkes-Barre’s soon-to-be remodeled shoreline.

During the 2003 RiverFest event, my not-yet three-year-old grandson was asked what he thought of the river while experiencing it for himself from the middle seat of a two-and-a-half man sea kayak parked right in the middle of the river just north of Forty Fort.. He uttered his telling response in less time than is required to flush a toilet during a mid-August thunderstorm and further degrade this river of ours by way of our aged and oft-overwhelmed sewage outflows. He said, “It’s chocolate water.”

That it is.

Now, with no due respect to our well-entrenched Congressman, if a child one week shy of his third birthday could realize in an instant that the water quality of this river is severely challenged, then why would we spend $14 million to create a polluted mini-lake where none currently exists? And while this state is among this nation’s leaders in the removal of dams that have been proven to degrade rivers, why should Wilkes-Barre buck that sensible dam removal trend and create an easily debatable inflatable dam that is sure to provide deflated returns?

Wouldn’t it make much more sense to use that $14 million to correct the sewage outflow problems and incrementally return the Susquehanna to it’s much more pristine days of old? Mr. Kanjorski’s constant tip-toeing around the lengthy laundry list of environmental concerns is typical of a politician who spends the preponderant amount of his time chasing after federal “pork” dollars all for the purposes of securing his core voting block in advance of the next election cycle. But one undeniable fact remains…his loyal core voters will instinctively recoil at the sight of fecal matter, floating or not. And if we are one day forced to pinch our nostrils shut while traversing the length of Market Street Bridge, I’m wondering if the proposed Lake Kanjorski could become a rather weighty anchor around his political neck when the next election go-round comes due. Despite the giant cardboard checks coming direct from Washington D.C., the well-publicized press conferences and any future, but sure to be well-attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies…if it stinks, it stinks.

Unlike the vast, vast majority of those residents who have occasionally glanced down at the river from the middle of a bridge, or from atop the dike, I have gotten out there on our polluted river. I’ve put-in at Tunkhannock and paddled to Wilkes-Barre. And I’ve put in at West Pittston and ended the day-long voyage to a shout of “Ramming speed!” at the launch in West Nanticoke. But whether you’ve sat in the middle of the river and stared back at the people who stare back at you from the river’s edges or it’s many bridges is not any proof of any moral high ground whereas this highly dubious dam is concerned. Be it paddling on it, or observing it from close by, when we look towards that troubled river of ours, deep down, we all want the very same thing. To a person, we all wish it was a clean, free-flowing river we could frolic in devoid of any health concerns. Yet, as the recently printed bumper stickers so aptly state: “If you can flush it down your toilet, you can find it in our lake.”

Do you really want to play in, or on an artificial lake filled with “chocolate water?” Or would you prefer to see one of this nation’s longest free-flowing and dam free rivers returned to some semblance of what it once was, before our ancestors spoiled it? Should you settle for a smallish polluted lake you’re afraid to be contaminated by? Or would you prefer to be standing three-feet deep in a clean free-flowing river and still be able to see your toes?

“It’s chocolate water.”

Should we settle for “chocolate water?” Or should we demand better than that?

I’m just asking.

Mark Cour


Anywho, we put in on the river in Wysox, in Bradford County, and then paddled the 17.5 miles to Sugar Run, which is a stone throw south of Wyalusing. The first thing you notice when you paddle the river north of the Wyoming Valley is that you are not surrounded by chocolate water. You do not have foam clinging to your paddles. And the shoreline is not stained orange by any substances bleeding out of any ancient coal mines. But the biggest difference is the abundance of wildlife that we do not see in this valley.

During the unthinkable--during a short kayak trip in January--we ran across blue herons, kingfishers, canadian geese, and three bald eagles. I saw two bald eagles, but Dave claimed that he eyeballed a third. Thing is, this stretch of river is dotted by island after island and during our trip he hooked left while we hooked right a few times. We even ran across a very badly decomposed deer stuck in a submerged tree. Not what I expected.

Without driving to the Grand Canyon or some such trip, when was the last time your path crossed that of three bald eagles? No. Forget the '05 NFL season. We're talking the real deal here. As for myself, I cannot recall seeing a bald eagle before yesterday. That is, without sitting in front of a television set. Do they still call them sets? A 103-inch flat screen plasma set? Ah, nevermind.

(Note to Kayak Dude: Am I learning, or what? When we completed the Tunkhannock to Nesbitt Park trip, I referred to the blue herons as herrings?)

Now, I'm not suggesting that if we correct the ages-old sewage out-flow problems in this valley, the bald eagles will migrate south and take up residence atop the rotunda dome. I'm merely suggesting that wildlife tends to flourish on the stretches of the river not used as an open sewer. In Sugar Run, the folks rail against dams, identify pollution problems, and seek to acquire riverfront properties in an attempt to keep that river flowing by somewhat pristine. In this area, our congressman tells us that being able to recreate in sewage behind a giant condom of a dam would attract untold numbers of visitors. But as things currently stand, where do folks drive dozens, if not hundreds of miles to to frolic on the Susquehanna? Where do they go to rent kayaks? What is the destination point for those who seek to spend three days in a kayak, and two nights sleeping in a tent on an island in the middle of the river? They're not coming to Wilkes-Barre, folks. They go north where the chocolate water and the mine staining isn't. Sorry, but when presented with a choice of bald eagles, or killer carp--the novice paddlers are going to go north every time.

Do you really want to play in, or on an artificial lake filled with “chocolate water?” Or would you prefer to see one of this nation’s longest free-flowing and dam free rivers returned to some semblance of what it once was, before our ancestors spoiled it? Should you settle for a smallish polluted lake you’re afraid to be contaminated by? Or would you prefer to be standing three-feet deep in a clean free-flowing river and still be able to see your toes?

The cash-engorged tourists are voting with their feet, and the businesses in the Wyalusing area are reaping the benefits--not Wilkes-Barre. And if we want to compete with the Wyalusings for those seeking adventure on the river, we need to address our pollution concerns, and embrace the rich history that our stretch of the river has to offer.

If we dam it, we'll get a stagnant cesspool and a few motor-driven boats. If we dam it, the 200-mile paddling challenges come to an end. If we dam it, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in this country is no more. If we dam it, we do even more damage to an already fragile eco-system. If we indeed dam it, our ignorance will be on display for all to see. In a nutshell, if we dam it, we are making a big mistake.

A weird thing happened while I was at the boat launch up there in Bradford County. A packed my AM radio and had intended to try to tune in to WILK and catch Sue Henry's show. But once we pushed off and got to paddling, I nixed that idea. I bothered to escape Wilkes-Barre for an entire day, so I figured I might as well sever all ties. No police scanner. No WILK. Nope. If we're doing The North Branch, let's do it without Wilkes-Barre. When I arrived home yesterday, things got even weirder. I escaped the Willie Bee for a spell, but it tried to follow me.

Joe Leonardi, a republican angling for a run at Paul Kanjorski made an appearance on Sue's show and somehow this site came up. Turns out, Mr. Leonardi is against this deflatable dam idea, and as we know--so am I. So when I got settled in and opened the e-mail inbox, there sat an e-mail from him. So I called the congressional hopeful and yapped for a spell. He offered to be interviewed by me for publication here, which would be a first for this site. But let's not make the mistake of thinking I'd lob softballs at the guy simply because he perceives me to be a right-leaner. I am not hopelessly partisan, and I never will be. And if I may, I'm thinking after being interviewed by me your average politco would run screaming to the relative safety of the editorial boards of our two newspapers.

For instance, it was reported by two local bloggers at My Take and Gort 42 that during Mr. Leonardi's political coming-out shindig at Convention Hall he took a shot at Tom Leighton with the following:

"We have to encourage businesses to fill buildings not just believe they will be filled.”

Now, if he actually managed to knock-off Paul Kanjorski, is that what we should expect from our new Republican congressman as far as a working relationship with our Democrat of a mayor is concerned? Sniping? It sounds as if a well-worn page was ripped right out of Commissioner Steve Urban's playbook. You know the tired drill, Reps good/Dems bad. I could care less what capitalized letter happens to appear before a local candidate's name. I will vote for the best available local candidate provided that they are not advocating the legalization of illegal narcotics. So much for the Green Party's chances, heh?

And believe me, I'm not trying to pound on Mr. Leonardi. All I'm sayin' is, I'm not hopelessly partisan, and I will vote for what might work for my city, while all other priorities--including party affiliation--are rescinded.

Whoa there! What happened to the latest kayak adventure?

Wysox rock-cut

Kayak Dude, KD for the purposes of this exercise, showed up here at the adobe at 6:45 AM and we were off and running towards Sugar Run. The plan was: We'd show up at Dave's kayak warehouse, load the two boats onto his truck, his wife would drive us to the launch in Wysox and we'd paddle back to Kayaks R Us. We arrived in Sugar Run around 8 AM or so, loaded up, drove to Wysox and launched by 9:30. While at the launch, a local guy delivered donuts. We marveled at a strange-looking DEP truck monitoring the emissions of a nearby manufacturing plant. We said our bye-byes, hit the portable head, donned the lifevests and we were off.

The water was cold, but without these near record high temps, it would never even occured to us to be kayaking in the first place. For obvious reasons, kayaking is pretty much limited to the warm weather months. I was wearing biking gloves that do not cover my fingers past my knuckles. But the Sun was rising fast so it didn't really matter. We paddled past the rock cut just south of Wysox. This used to be a rather dangerous hill during the winter months until PENNDOT removed a third of the mountain and re-did the entire stretch of road. Smallish homes passed on the right and my paddling partners discussed at length the property owners, the land values of said properties, which ones were on the market or recently sold, and which properties were accessible to kayakers. Some property owners encourage visits from the boat crowd, while still others will run them off in a heartbeat. Although, it was amazing that these two guys knew just about everything there is to know about each passing property.

Before too long, my teachers were discussing French's Island. So I had to ask where the island had gotten it's name. From a legendary moonshiner named Frenchy St. Clair? A couple of girls from way back when that became the world's only tongue-based circus act? Sup with the French's Island bit?

As it was explained to me, this was where some of the French had escaped to back when Mel Brooks was the King of France and had a rather bloody revolution on his hands. Er, something like that. Try this link for a more accurate accounting of what went on there:

French Azilum

After we passed that historic outpost, Dave pointed out that we had already covered 10 miles as we approached 11 AM. And by 11:30 we were beaching the kayaks at what looked like a rest stop for river enthusiasts. We didn't need lunch as much as we needed to stretch our legs. Oh, and one of us needed a smoke. There's one in every bunch, heyna?

Free parking

Turns out, we had arrived at Homet's Ferry where a grist mill once operated. And judging by the name of the place, I'm guessing a ferry once crossed the river at this locale.

1827? Holy muck!

There was a rotted deer laying next to the remains of the mill's foundation located right at the water's edge, and not one part of it smelled too good. KD surmised that someone had probably dumped it there. And from the looks of the four-part rotted thing, I wouldn't argue with that assessment.

We munched our lunches, stretched the legs, sipped our drinks and then it was time to get back out there on the river. Being Winter, there was no foilage to speak of, but I imagine this area would be something to see come Summer. Keep me in mind, boys. Unlike my local dam builder in congress, I thoroughly enjoy exploring this river and the surprising depth of it's history.

Before too long, we were fast approaching Standing Stone. They tell me this is the very spot where KD inverted his kayak last year. Though I still feel like a trainee while manning the front seat of his monsterous battleship dressed up like a kayak, I do understand that inverting your kayak is definately not the way to go. They tell me that etched into this stone are people's names from as far back as (I forget), like, 1830. That's amazing. Sure, it had the 'Suzie loves Tommy' type graffiti painted on it and dating back to 1970, or 1980. But 1830??? This is the very first time I have been awestruck by a stone that slid down a hill a couple of hundred years before my grandparents were even thunk of.

Markie loves Debby Harry?

Before too long, we were heading back into civilization, assuming that Wyalusing qualifies. I had no idea what time it was, but before very much longer we were trying to climb out of the boats onto a very muddy, and very slippery riverbank directly behind the kayak warehouses where we had started out only hours before. Once we managed to drag the 'yaks back to the driveway, I asked what time it was. It was 1:30 PM.

By no means were we in a hurry. KD mentioned that his shoulder was injured as of late. And my shoulders and pecs were bothering me due to an excessive workout with the weights. And yet, we covered the entire trip in four hours. I doubt that we set a world record for the Wysox to Sugar Run course, but I thought it would have taken us a lot longer. But, what do I know? I do bicycles on most days.

Ever since the deflatable dam boondoggle first hit the local radar screen, I've been exploring this river of our's thanks in no small part to KD and his many kayak buddies. And I've encouraged everyone to do likewise. You really have no idea how interesting and fun it can be. But to experience it for yourself, you need to grab a paddle and get on out there on the river. And if you're curious at all, the June '06 RiverFest fast looms on the horizon.

You can listen to Paul Kanjorski spin the tale. Or you can listen to the River Rats that know the river tell the truth of the tale. They seek no economic development. And they want nothing in return for their tireless efforts other than a clean free-flowing river, and to know that's it's barely explored history will not be lost upon future generations. Politicians will come and go much like the water that passes us by with little fanfare. But the river has always been there and it always will be there.

So what should we do with, or for our river? Should we turn it into Paul Kanjorski's smelly aquatic mall of sorts? Or should we work to return it to what it was when that rock that became Standing Stone came tumbling down with the rest of the landslide?

Do it. Be an explorer.

The public comment period for the deflatable dam has come and gone. And the promised public hearings scheduled for December were put off until January. And then they were re-scheduled for February. The latest fib was they were pushed back to March. And now they tell us the public hearings will happen after the Novenber '06 election and not before.

Care to venture a guess as to why?

Because the public comment period did not go so well for the few trying to push the deflatable dam down our throats and a politician...ahem, or politicians (?) do not want to be embarrased by the public hearings until after the election cycle has passed. And if you doubt that, call Uncle Kanjo and ask him why the public hearings have been indefinately put on the back burner.

If the deflatable dam is such an abject no-brainer of a winner, what the heck is he so afraid of?

The truth?

75 miles. I'm gettin' there.

Thanks, guys. As per usual, it was fun, entertaining, educational and a good workout.

Kayak Video


PS--Welcome back #559!

I'll see ya out there.