River of the Year 2023 vote: Help the Susquehanna's North Branch gain awareness, action via recognition
As Angie Tuttle paddled and fished her way down the North Branch of the Susquehanna River from Howland Preserve to Riverside Park in Tunkhannock, she had a feeling something was watching her and following along.
“I just kept fishing and floating and then I heard cracking branches up on the bank,” she said. “I looked and saw a tiny little fox face looking around a tree at me! That little fox followed me for a while and kept me company.”
“We are excited to once again kick off the public online voting process for Pennsylvania River of the Year,” said Janet Sweeney of the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers in a press release from the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “As we all continue to spend more time outdoors and deepen our appreciation for the beautiful natural resources of Pennsylvania, the annual River of the Year voting process is a fun way to rally behind and support your favorite waterway.”
Other finalists include the Conestoga River, a tributary in the Lower Susquehanna watershed, and both the Schuylkill River and Perkiomen Creek from the Delaware River basin.
Images from the North Branch of the Susquehanna River by Angie Tuttle.
A variety of threats
Recognition from a River of the Year win would help partnering agencies tackle a number of issues the North Branch faces, according to Cain Chamberlin, executive director of the Endless Mountains Heritage Region, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2023 and co-nominated (with the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership) the river for consideration.
“There is definitely a need for more public access points along the North Branch, which requires the maintenance of our existing accesses as well as riverside communities to create new ones along the water trail,” he said.
Another continuing issue for the North Branch involves excessive sedimentation.
“When it rains, the river really lives up to its reputation of years past as a ‘muddy river,’” said Tuttle. “Some of the tributaries contribute an increased amount of sediment runoff which we see for almost a week before it clears up.”
That erosion, along with an increase in invasive species such as the emerald ash borer, hemlock woolly adelgid and spotted lanternfly, has led to a higher number of dead trees along the river’s shores, according to Chamberlain.
“Those trees eventually wind up falling into the water and creating strainers for paddlers and boaters on the Susquehanna,” he said. “In our region, volunteer first responders have graciously removed some of these larger obstacles on the river to eliminate these safety hazards, but these local fire companies can only do so much and water trail management organizations like the EMHR do not have the capacity or resources to take on these tasks.”
Like most rivers that travel through a variety of population hubs, the North Branch of the Susquehanna has a long history of industrial pollution.
“Centuries of industrial growth and operations along its shores, flooding events that sweep debris into the water and those who purposefully dump unwanted items into the Susquehanna through the years have created a major challenge for organizations like ours,” Chamberlain said. “While the Susquehanna is much cleaner now than it was decades ago prior to environmental regulations, we still have a great deal of work to do.”
Images from the North Branch of the Susquehanna River by Angie Tuttle.
Awareness into action
That work can be made easier via better awareness that can come from a River of the Year designation, according to Alana Jajko of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, which has seen an explosion of public interest in paddling excursions, including a North Branch sojourn this past summer that sold out in a few weeks.
“Events like this serve as a gateway for people to really experience the river first-hand and understand the work that still needs to be done,” she said “By providing access to these outdoor opportunities, we’re hoping to build a bridge that can help transform that enthusiasm into action.”
The Endless Mountains Heritage Region manages the upper leg of the North Branch water trail from the Columbia/Luzerne county line to the New York boarder (146 miles). In addition to the regular monitoring and public access sojourns the association offers, it hopes to coincide a River of the Year designation with its 25th anniversary for a special week-long sojourn from Sayre to Shickshinny in early June.
The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership manages the remaining 36 miles of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River to its convergence with the West Branch in Sunbury. In addition to a sojourn, the association has plans to incorporate River of the Year programming into two events already on the books for 2023.
“Our Susquehanna Greenway Cleanup week in April engages communities, trail organizations and advocacy groups from across the Greenway in a coordinated cleanup effort of the area’s land and water trails,” said Jajko. “Last year, the cleanup effort hosted 12 sites, engaged over 400 volunteers and removed 13,000 pounds of litter.”
The Greenway Partnership also plans to hold its second annual Outdoor Expo at the Shikellamy Marina on June 3, 2023.
“This free-to-the-public event will engage outdoor organizations, businesses and vendors in a single-day exhibition focused on providing educational programming, access to gear, informational presentations, and skills clinics to the public to help connect them with the outdoor opportunities along the Susquehanna Greenway,” she said.
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association also has plans to be involved with River of the Year festivities and awareness if the waterway wins the designation via expansion of its youth environmental education programs in the region. This includes its popular HERYN (Helping Engage our River’s Youth with Nature) kayaking and fishing program days and enhancing a network of STEM-related family environmental education in schools, community libraries and other venues.
“River of the Year recognition would help spark important conversations with communities throughout this section of river about a wide variety of topics,” said Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky. “From historical incidents like the Knox Mine Disaster to more current issues such as acid mine drainage, concerns about fracking and emerging contaminants such as microplastics and PFAS, programs that open a line of public discussion at the family and community level are a critical first step toward realistic change.”
According to Jajko, the North Branch is a living, breathing thing.
“It has a character that is as unique and changing as the river itself, shifting from rolling meadows and forests to seemingly endless mountains, vibrant cities with industrial pasts to quaint river towns that dot the winding river valley,” she said. “The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership is proud to manage a piece of it alongside many noteworthy partners, all of whom will do their part to improve the health and accessibility of the river should the North Branch receive this very special designation.
“Now, it's up to our friends and neighbors to show their North Branch love. Vote and help us foster this treasure that runs right through our backyard!”
One vote is allowed per email between now and 5 p.m. EST on Jan. 18, 2023. Voting can be done at this link. Learn more about each of the 2023 River of the Year finalists here.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.