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Mark Heller and John Laughlin of Lancaster County take on the 444

Paddlers from all over the state and beyond often dream of the day when they can take time off from their day jobs, pack up their paddling gear, and tackle a multiday adventure on the mighty Susquehanna River Water Trail.

America’s longest river to empty into the Atlantic boasts a multitude of paddling opportunities from a leisurely afternoon paddle to a multi-state adventure that is sure to test both your grit and perseverance.

Two of the most notable long-distance routes along the Susquehanna include the 444-mile main stem paddle (known as the ‘444’) that runs from Cooperstown, N.Y. to Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the West Branch’s 228-mile paddle from Cherry Tree, Pa. to Northumberland, Pa.

Only a handful of paddlers attempt these routes every year, but in 2021 two Lancaster County residents decided to ‘step it up a notch’ and paddle not one, but both paddling adventures in a single year, racking up over 660+ miles of paddling along this treasured water trail.

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Two guys, two kayaks, and 444 miles of river

Mark Heller and John Laughlin of Lancaster County grew up paddling the Delaware River. While their paths did not cross until later in life, their shared zeal and passion for rivers sparked an idea unlike any either had ever undertaken.

Looking back on the intrepid adventure, Mark noted that their 444 expedition was really their first serious encounter with the Susquehanna River, and their first overnight trip along a waterway.

John explains, “I had read about the three guys that did the 444 last November [2020], and one of the guys was an amateur. It was his first time out, and I thought ‘If that guy can do it, [then] so can I.’”

Fueled and inspired by the success story of their paddling peers, John and Mark began the process of planning their great water trail journey on the Susquehanna.

In the months leading up to each trip, Mark had to first wade through the waters of research.

“I pulled from many different sources, mining data from others who had done the trip, gathering a list of portages, and downloading all of that information into a GPS app that I could use in airplane mode while out on the water. New York was definitely a challenge to find any maps and information, but once I looked into Pennsylvania there were plenty of maps and the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership had a lot of great resources.”

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Mark and John at the riverside with their kayaks

What most benefited the duo, though, was having some experienced paddlers along for the start of their journey.

“For the first three days of our 444 attempt, we were actually a group of five,” explained John. “One of the guys had some great outdoor expedition skills, so we leaned upon him. After spending three days with him, we learned enough to get us through the rest of the journey on our own.”

While the main stem of the Susquehanna River is longer than the West Branch, the pair explained that the nature of this section is more conducive to those just getting started in the realm of overnight river trips.

Mark explained, “Starting on the North Branch, was the best way to do it because we could stop in towns. It eases you into things. If you forget something, you can take out at the next river town and find a convenience store.”

As the pair continued down the North Branch on their 444 paddle, their confidence and growing overnight paddling expedition skills sparked an idea. According to John, “It was when we hit the confluence at Sunbury, [that] we started thinking, you know [what], the West Branch needs to be done too. So, halfway through their ambitious 444 paddle, John and Mark began planning part two of their adventure.

“We decided right there on the water to paddle it [the West Branch] in September.” Notes John.

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Mark and John about to pass under a covered bridge

At this point, the two had many more miles to paddle to complete their journey down to the Chesapeake Bay, but 100+ miles later—limbs sore, but enthusiasm soaring—they found themselves celebrating their accomplishment and excited to plan their next Susquehanna adventure in the Fall.

So, just several months after their May paddle of the 444, Mark and John set out to tackle the 228-mile West Branch—bringing their paddling total for the Susquehanna River Water Trail to a whopping 672 miles. It is a monumental accomplishment, made even more amazing by the fact that they tackled all of that mileage in a matter of five months.

Given the remote and isolated nature of the West Branch, the pair were benefited by their learnings from paddling the more populated stretches of the 444 “That was the right way to do it, so by the time we did the West Branch, we were more self-reliant,” Mark said.

While the West Branch can be a challenge because of its remoteness, this is also the reason that it is now the hands-down favorite stretch of any river paddled for both Mark and John.

“The West Branch far exceeded my expectations. It was just gorgeous; just spectacular,” said John. “I highly recommend the section from Shawville to Renovo, and I could see us doing that every year. You can close your eyes and open them and feel like you’re in Colorado or Montana. It’s wild.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise on this section was the appearance of a wild bull elk and two cows at the river’s edge.

Mark explained, “It was right there, so close, just 50-70 yards away. In my mind it was just so out of place. I’m used to seeing deer; I’m used to seeing different things in the woods, but they were three to four times the size; they were HUGE!”

“It surprised the living daylights out of us,” John added. “If we hadn’t just entered some rapids, we would have pulled out our cameras to take a picture.”

Further downriver, the duo could hear a herd of elk out in the state game lands. There was the call of the male bugle off in the distance, but it wasn’t close to the river. That encounter along the river’s edge was truly a rare treat and a highlight of their adventure.

Like the elk sighting, there were several other things that Mark and John were not prepared for—for better or for worse.

“As a kid,” Mark explained, “I always had my feet wet, always muddy, always enjoying the water.” And yet, “Out of the things I was not prepared for—number one was mud.” The two had to work hard to keep that squishy Susquehanna mud at bay. It found its way from the banks of the river to the inside of their tents, and somehow snaked its way inside their waterproof cases.

Thinking back on their paddle of the 444, they were also not prepared for the tides. For the lower piece of the river that empties into the Chesapeake Bay, Mark and John highly recommend checking the tidal charts. “We were paddling against the tides for the last stretch and it’s something we just didn’t come across in our research. Planning for the tides would have made the stretch a lot easier.”

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Mark and John set up their camping tents

Most strikingly, however, they were not prepared for the kindness of others.

The two were continually met with restaurants willing to fill their canteens with water, happy to stay late, or open early. They encountered welcoming landowners who allowed use of their private docks or a grassy patch to spend the night, and just genuinely interested people who showed kindness and excitement when learning of their journey.

“We were blessed,” John said. “We met so many wonderful people who were helpful and when we told them what we were doing they were even more helpful. It was nice having these cheerleaders along the way.”

While Mark and John were not prepared to meet so many kind strangers, they were prepared in terms of their packing list. At the top of their list of useful items were their kayak carts, which made portages so much easier, and their sickle and hand clippers for clearing brush to make camp.

Other useful items included a plastic hammer for tent stakes, a first aid kit, a hiker stove, a solar panel for recharging, at least three gallons of drinking water (they could refill in river towns), and water sterilization tablets as backup.

When asked if there was one item they found to be absolutely essential for a trip on the river, Mark jokingly replied, “I think a bottle of bourbon!”

While not on everyone’s packing list, the duo had tucked a bottle up in the bow of Mark’s kayak as a celebration drink when they finished their journeys. So, at the completion of both the 444 in Havre de Grace and the West Branch in Northumberland, they toasted to their success.

“I’ve got that same bottle and each time we took just one shot out of it, so there’s still plenty in there,” Mark explained, “We have a lot of rivers we have to cover yet with that bottle.”

So, what’s next for Mark and John? They are heading back to their roots.

John: “We are hitting the Delaware next.”

Mark: “That’s 300 miles, so it should be a lot of fun.”

And that’s not all—down the road, the two are plotting to paddle the Allagash River and coast of Maine as well as 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail of the Adirondacks. Until then, they’d like to see how much of the Susquehanna watershed they can paddle with its tributaries being so close to home.

The 444 and the 228-mile West Branch may have sparked their paddling buzz, but that is only the beginning for these two intrepid paddlers.

Mark and John are both members of the 444 Club, Conestoga River Club, and Conewago Canoe Club. The Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (SGP) connected with the pair through their joining of the West Branch Paddle Club (WBPC), a program of the SGP that allows paddlers of the West Branch to support the water trail while earning perks for their paddles as they work towards paddling the 228 miles, divided into segments. To learn more about the WBPC, visit susquehannagreenway.org/wbpc.

About the Author: Alana Jajko is the Director of Communications and Outreach for the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership. Her work is focused on promoting trails and communities within our vibrant and connected Susquehanna Greenway, so that the public can enjoy opportunities to engage with the outdoors. Alana can be reached at ajajko@susquehannagreenway.org.

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