Just below the towering Norman Wood Bridge in southern Lancaster County is a cluster of water-sculpted rock islands like no other on the Susquehanna River.
For the kayaker, the Conowingo Islands are a playground filled with a labyrinth of channels to explore amid towering rocks, huge potholes, hidden coves, sandy beaches and swimming holes. There are weird currents to play in and excellent fishing.
It should be noted here that boating, hiking and fishing are currently acceptable forms of outdoor activities during the governor’s stay-at-home coronavirus guidelines, as long as social distancing is practiced.
For the adventurer on foot, one of the large islands, Peavine Island, is usually accessible from the shoreline Mason Dixon Trail on the York County side of the river. Bushwhack through thick forests to scale craggy summits for breathtaking views of the maze of islands and explore little ponds and unique and rare plants that have adapted to constant inundation and exposure. Deposits of soil filling in cracks, crevices and potholes sprout plants uncommon to Pennsylvania.
Lancaster County’s Natural Heritage Inventory calls the Conowingo Islands “one of Pennsylvania’s most unusual and picturesque riverine landscapes.” To me, it looks like a slice of coastal Maine.
“I definitely think it’s almost an otherworldly feel. Certainly, it’s like no other stretch of the Susquehanna,” says Devin Winand, who guides paddlers through the islands for Shank’s Mare Outfitters in Long Level.
Matt Samms, a two-time member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak wildwater team, likes the islands and the nearby Holtwood Whitewater Park so much that he moved from Lancaster County to a York County home within sight of the islands.
“It’s an awesome spot,” he gushes. “It’s so moist down there and the soil is so fertile. There are little ponds on the islands and the islands are so dense and jammed with rich moss. It’s like the Pacific Northwest.”
“They looked like this mysterious wonderland,” recalls paddler and photographer Seth Dochter, of New Holland. “Every single island looks different. Every single channel is different.”
One of the things that make the islands unique is that most islands in the Susquehanna were formed from deposits of silt. But the Conowingo Islands are the product of thousands of years of eroding exposed bedrock.
Roberta Strickler, of Lancaster, who has paddled among the islands many times, remembers standing on the Norman Wood Bridge years ago with a friend, who observed, “It is one of the few places on the Susquehanna that still looks the same as when the Indians saw it.”
There are about 30 islands of varying sizes, stretching from the base of the Holtwood Dam to 3.5 miles downriver. But the islands that paddlers head to are all below the Norman Wood Bridge on Route 372. All the islands are uninhabited except for several islands at the downriver end of the chain that have a few cottages. The islands range from small outcroppings to 65-acre Upper Bear Island. Some of the potholes are 10 to 20 feet in diameter and depth.
Keep an eye out for eagles, beavers, otters and deer that swim between the islands and the mainland.
One of the pleasures of paddling the islands is that you won’t run into personal watercraft or large power boats. It is a retreat for quiet-water paddlers.
And though paddling is usually in calm water in summer months, river levels can change abruptly and dramatically. The hydroelectric Holtwood Dam just upriver can release water at any time. So can the Muddy Run Pumped Storage Facility on the Lancaster County side. And the Conowingo Dam downriver can drain river levels. Every paddler I talked to emphasized the need to stay abreast of scheduled water releases and listen for the warning sirens at the Holtwood Dam.
“I’ve experienced the water level go up a foot in a half-hour to an hour, and the current changed considerably,” says Joe Hainey, of Dover.
And, in any river level, there are rocks just below the surface around the islands. There have been water rescues from swimmers getting into trouble in the currents and from people getting stranded on the islands after sudden rises in river levels.
Ad Crable is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com.