Susquehanna Stories – Millersville Students Kayak the River to Write about It

“Every time I take a class on this trip, one person falls in the river.” That was the line our Environmental Advocacy Writing professor, Dr. Justin Mando, said before our class went on the annual kayaking trip. As we drove to Shanks Mare Outfitters… As we picked our kayak partner… As I put my backpack in the kayak – all I could think about was how at least one person always falls in. Having learned about the Susquehanna River’s environmental issues, I wasn’t sure it was a river I wanted to fall into.

Students on the Susquehanna

Environmental Advocacy Writing is an upper level writing class at Millersville University and part of RiverStewards’ Susquehanna Storytelling initiative. Over the course of the semester, we students learn how to write for specific audiences and learn different lenses (analytic positions) from which to write. One assigned project involves telling the story of the Susquehanna River. Whether we highlight the river’s struggles, its animal inhabitants, or the changes it has experienced over the years, the goal of the project is to write a piece that discusses an environmental issue relating to the river. However, it is difficult to write about a place if one has never spent time there.

An Afternoon on the Water

Shanks Mare Outfitters is located south of Wrightsville, in the Lake Clarke region of the Susquehanna. Lake Clarke is a portion of the river created by water that backs up from the Safe Harbor Dam, which allows the river to expand wider than other areas along its length. On the October afternoon in which our trip took place, the weather was still warm enough that it would be almost refreshing to take a swim in the river. Students were paired with a partner to maneuver a tandem, two person kayak, for a two hour excursion. This portion of the Susquehanna neighbors the Turkey Hill landfill, with windmills to help in identifying it. The river was far from stagnant that evening, as we paddled in-sync against the wind. Paddling in the middle of the Susquehanna gives one an idea of just how wide and vast this water system actually is. Framing the river are patches of dense forest that are inhabited by a variety of eagles and herons; along with waterweed just kissing the surface of the water in the shallow parts.

After a satisfying trip, students docked their kayaks on shore, with the relief that no student had taken an unexpected dip in the river. However, everyone did feel a connection with the river by the end of the trip. Physically paddling through it gave a better sense of all the river means.

History Plays a Role

Not only is the environmental aspect of the river important for our writing, but the historical context helps us learn this place. Our evening ended with historical accounts of the area from one of the Shanks Mare Outfitters owners, Liz Winand. While she retold the history of the land and river we had just explored, it wasn’t difficult as storytellers and writers to imagine an old coal barge drifting lazily down the river or the indigenous people who used to live on this land. There is so much history and nature that rests just a few miles away from our own back porches.

Though no one fell into the Susquehanna that evening, it is fair to say are all immersed in it.

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