Seated in the bow of Peggy’s Wenonah canoe, I plunged my paddle into the crystalline current of the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, which is the outlet of Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, New York. Our sojourn had begun! Peggy and I paddled and painted our way down the North Branch (from Cooperstown to Sunbury’s West Branch confluence) not as a thru-paddle but as short segments of seven to thirty-five miles each over several years. Together we produced nearly 400 artworks, both plein air and studio, from 350 river miles. Many islands became our temporary outdoor studio. We passed others because the “light wasn't right,” the sides were too steep, or the vegetation too thick. Some islands were mere gravel bars.
In 1616, Etienne Brule, a friend of Champlain, followed the Susquehanna from its source to its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay. This year the North Branch of the Susquehanna has been designated Pennsylvania’s River of the Year! The name “Susquehanna” probably means “long crooked river," easily proven from a map! Once it reaches Towanda, the Susquehanna makes a huge curve, undulating its way to Mehoopany and Tunkhannock, marking the northern boundary of the Back Mountain’s section of the Allegheny plateau, part of the Appalachian Uplands. Just below Tunkannock, we paddled past LaGrange Island, the airport, and the mouth of Bowman’s Creek. That's where I shot the reference photos for one of my favorite river paintings, a large oil titled “Susquehanna Canyon.” It was an amazing place to paddle and even more fun to paint!
The river then angles sharply southeast, flowing to the point where ancient waters broke through a mountain range, creating Campbell’s Ledge. Curving widely eastward, Pittston marks the Susquehanna’s easternmost point in Wyoming Valley, a fact which surprises many people! The river then slides southwest past Port Griffith, where crumpled rail cars which failed to flush into that horrific Knox Mine disaster cave-in can still be seen tangled against the stream bank. The river caresses Wyoming and Forty Fort, both major sites of the Battle of Wyoming, one of the most important events in the American Revolution. It then flows onward to the towns of Kingston, Plymouth, and Nanticoke, where Susquehanna waters pass by the ghosts of too-numerous to count coal breakers which served the mines tunneling all around the Valley, even underneath the river. In spite of its troubled past, the river is still blessed by an occasional rainbow. I painted a watercolor titled “Memorial Rainbow” of one ending at the South Cross Valley Bridge.
The river then forced its way through another major mountain obstacle at Nanticoke Falls, a geological feature necessitating the Nanticoke Dam, part of the North Branch canal in the 1800s. Shickshinny and Mocanaqua mark the southern terminus of the Northern coal field as well as the end of the Susquehanna’s role as the southern boundary of our section of the Allegheny plateau. Culm banks still rise along the river, memorials to the heyday of anthracite. One of my favorite river moments was spent perched on the downriver tip of Belles (or Bellis) Island as I painted the bridge span from Mocanaqua on the left to Shickshinny’s old Stackhouse Colliery culm bank on the right. As the Susquehanna flowed peacefully downstream, I positioned two watercolor blocks together on my easel to capture the width of the view. Authentic Susquehanna River water was always used for our plein air river watercolors!
The entire area InSide the Back Mountain is part of the drainage system of the North Branch. Our lands were a perfect Native American paradise, filled with small game, deer, turkey, forests of pine, hemlock, and a variety of hardwoods, with outcroppings of Black Rock in various places along the river, used for shaping arrowheads. The Native’s Great Southern Trail passed through Wyoming Valley and numerous tribal groups hunted these hills, fished the river, and passed through their trails which have now become our roadways.
As Peggy and I paddled and painted, we witnessed perpendicular cliffs, green meadows, and delicate streams. We peered into deep glens. I learned about river “rock gardens" and “strainers.” Peggy learned about iron oxide, the yellow-orange residue from mine drainage staining river banks in many places from the confluence of the Lackawanna in Pittston south to Nanticoke. We gathered smooth black stones from river islands, breaking them open to reveal the glittering coal inside their coating of river mud.
Some see the Susquehanna as an enemy: flooded, polluted, dangerous. I understand. I see the Susquehanna through the eyes of an artist: historic, geologic, renewing, refreshing, hydrating, exceptional. Can you see what I see?
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 publication of InSide the Back Mountain.