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Itinerary:

Tour of the Conejohela Flats

The Conejohela Flats are a combination of low-lying islands and mud flats on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania about three miles south of Columbia and Wrightsville, located just offshore from the small settlement of Washington Boro in Lancaster County.

The Conejohela Flats are alluvial islands that develop from the forces of erosion and deposition and the building up of large amounts of sediment (soil, silt, sand, and coal silt derived from upstream coal mining waste), which alters their shape and size. Major floods from severe weather events can dramatically change islands. Ice during the winter devastatingly carves out large chunks of land and soil altering the landscape. The dredging of river channels, construction of dams, pollution, erosion of soil caused by poor agricultural practices, intensive logging of the watershed, and acid drainage from coal mining has harmed natural areas such as the Conejohela Flats, and on a greater scale the health of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. An effort has been made in recent years to restore the health of the river and Bay, but much work remains to be done.

The Safe Harbor Dam (located on the Susquehanna River about 6 miles south of the Conejohela Flats) was built in 1931 to generate electricity. With construction of the dam, the river behind it backed up, flooding many of the low areas of land and islands creating the 11.5 square-mile reservoir known today as Lake Clarke. The dam also became a huge trap for upriver sediment that flowed into the shallows of the river, expanding and creating new islands such as the Conejohela Flats. 

The operators of Safe Harbor Dam are required by their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license agreement to not raise the water level of Lake Clarke above a certain set amount so that a percentage of mud flats are exposed from April 15-October 15 during the shorebird migration period. Safe Harbor is permitted to increase the water level to generate more hydroelectric power during the non-migration season.

Navigational Hazards

  • Paddling the Flats is most suitable for canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards because of the shallow water conditions and chance of becoming stuck. Mud flats, sand bars, and channels are constantly forming and reforming, so there is no set route, making each paddle trip to the Flats a new experience.
  • Weather is unpredictable and conditions can change quickly and unexpectedly. Always check the weather and water levels. Leave No Trace. Respect nature and wildlife. Enjoy from a distance.
  • Be aware and respectful of waterfowl hunters. Do not disturb duck blinds.
  • Pack proper equipment and clothing depending on the season and conditions. Take along plenty of water, binoculars, camera, and bird guide.
  • Paddlers must adhere to life jacket, sound-producing device, and registration/launch permit requirements. Use a light source during dark hours.
  • For more detailed information on paddling regulations and safety see the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) safety webpage http://fishandboat.com/safety.htm or the Pennsylvania Boating Handbook http://www.fish.state.pa.us/bookboat.htm. For PFBC launch permit information and requirements use http://fishandboat.com/launchpermits.htm

Thank you to Susquehanna Heritage for contributing to this itinerary. 

Water Safety

Remember: safe use of rivers and any designated trails, at any time, is your responsibility! Water trail maps are for informational and interpretive purposes only and are not meant for navigational purposes, nor do they take into account level of skills or ability required to navigate rivers. The National Park Service, Chesapeake Conservancy and/or the individual trail associations assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of water trails, maps or other printed or web-based materials. Learn more about water safety.

Image Credit: Henry T. McLin / Flickr

Paddling Notes

Navigational Hazards

Paddling the Flats is most suitable for canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards because of the shallow water conditions and chance of becoming stuck. -Mud flats, sand bars, and channels are constantly forming and reforming, there is no set route, making each paddle trip to the Flats a new experience.

Weather is unpredictable and conditions can change quickly and unexpectedly. Always check the weather and water levels. Contact Shank’s Mare Outfitters or check http://www.shwpc.com/ for conditions. -Leave No Trace. Respect nature and wildlife. Enjoy from a distance.

Be aware and respectful of waterfowl hunters. Do not disturb duck blinds.

Pack proper equipment and clothing depending on the season and conditions. Take along plenty of water, binoculars, camera, and bird guide.

Paddlers must adhere to life jacket, sound-producing device, and registration/launch permit requirements. Use light source during dark hours.

For more detailed information on paddling regulations and safety see the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) safety webpage https://www.fishandboat.com/Boat/WaterandIceSafety/Pages/default.aspx or the Pennsylvania Boating Handbook https://www.fishandboat.com/Boat/BoatingRegulations/Pages/BoatingHandbook.aspx For PFBC launch permit information and requirements use https://www.fishandboat.com/Boat/RegisterTitle/Pages/LaunchPermitAgentsBoat.aspx

Trail History

The term Conejohela is derived from an Native American word meaning “kettle on a long, upright pole.” Susquehannocks were the last known native group to live in this area along the river near present-day Washington Boro. The many islands and rocks were used for hunting and fishing. Dugout canoes were used for travel and the river was a major trade route.

Where the Conejohela Flats are located today was once a major river crossing known as the Blue Rock Ford and later became a crossing for the Blue Rock Ferry. This area and the islands were farmed before and after the construction of Safe Harbor Dam. The Conejohela Flats were and still are a popular and abundant waterfowl hunting area. Historically, the catching of migrating shad was a profitable business for fishermen, who used the islands, sand bars, and rock outcroppings on the river as shad fisheries and shad batteries.

The Susquehanna Hard Coal Navy was a fleet of boats and barges that vacuumed tons of coal silt from the river bottom that had washed downriver from the coal fields in northeastern Pennsylvania. Coal silt was used as a fuel source. The navy ceased to exist after the mid-1950s, but the destructive process of dredging for coal silt continued on Lake Clarke until 1973.

Water Safety

Remember: safe use of rivers and any designated trails, at any time, is your responsibility! Water trail maps are for informational and interpretive purposes only and are not meant for navigational purposes, nor do they take into account level of skills or ability required to navigate rivers. The National Park Service, Chesapeake Conservancy and/or the individual trail associations assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of water trails, maps or other printed or web-based materials. Learn more about water safety.