Paddle a string of islands in the lower Susquehanna River

LNP newspaper/AP

WRIGHTSVILLE, Pa. — Summer was fading into autumn as I glided into a labyrinth of wooded and grassy islands and exposed necks of mud — the Conejohela Flats in the lower Susquehanna River.

There may be no other place on the Susquehanna that surrounds you by so much nature and history as this compact string of islands, accessible only by boat just off the opposing shores of Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania.

The Conejohela Flats also are in the middle of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area, one of 55 such sites across the U.S. I was joined on my morning paddle by Zachary Flaharty, office manager of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area and author of a paddling guide to the flats.

The Conejohela Flats on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania is seen from the Turkey Hill observation platform on June 3, 2013. (Abby Rhoad/LancasterOnline via AP)

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The first channel we explored led to an inlet with an impressive raft of American lotus. Floating plates of lotus pads greeted us with a dash of whimsy before we paddled into the raised flowers. The flowers had already bloomed, but their seeds had not yet dispersed; gently shaking the saucerlike seed pods, we could hear the seeds rattling inside.

We extricated ourselves from the clingy water plants and shallow water by poling with our paddles. Then we glided over to a small island where the bright yellow flowers of bur marigold grew from a base of primrose, keeping the spirit of summer. The Conejohela Flats in the lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania are rich in history and a vital stopover for thousands of migrating shorebirds. (Susquehanna National Heritage Area)

In a tree above us, six great egrets, glowing white in the morning sun, stoically looked down on our wanderings. Migrating monarchs tipped their wings at us as the sun burned off the morning mist.

Flaharty said he is drawn to the flats by both the birding and the solitude.

“I just like how it is an escape,” he told me before our trip. “It’s a different part of the river, and its little nooks and crannies appeal to me.”

Paddlers also appreciate the usually calm water. “It’s a calm space in an otherwise turbulent river,” said Marty Cox, owner of Chiques Rock Outfitters.

Following another small channel between islands, we emerged beside an expanse of mud and barely submerged plants. These mudflats are an indispensable stopover for thousands of migrating waterfowl each spring and fall, especially shorebirds.

Their existence is one reason why the National Audubon Society has designated the Conejohela Flats as an Important Bird Area. Birdwatchers flock to the shores here, hoping to see some of the 37 species of shorebirds that stop to dine on bugs and rest on the mudflats during their migrations between the Arctic and southerly climes. An estimated 17,000 migratory shorebirds visit the flats each year.

Perhaps the most dramatic avian spectacle occurs when masses of tundra swans and snow geese descend on the flats in a sea of white.

It was too early in the season for the geese and swans show, but when we rounded a bend and came upon an extensive mudflat, I counted dozens of great egrets, great blue herons and cormorants, as well as flocks of Canada geese preparing to land. An osprey flew over, a bald eagle gave a high-pitched cry and a kingfisher made its presence known. We were awed.

The area is also full of history.

Though it remains markedly undeveloped, the landscape on both sides of the river here has certainly changed over time. The largest known village of the Susquehannock was once located just upstream of the flats, roughly where Washington Boro is now. In 1647, it had an estimated population of 4,000.

Both Native Americans in dugout canoes and European settlers used the islands as strategic spots to catch migrating American shad, an eagerly anticipated food staple each spring. The largest island in the flats is named Shad Island.

William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony, wanted to make the small town now known as Washington Boro his “new” Philadelphia. Penn envisioned the river as a major trade route, though it turned out not to be reliably navigable.

Disputes over productive spots, fishing practices and resentment over small dams built on the river and its tributaries led to sporadic violent conflicts between area residents from the mid-1700s until about the time of the Civil War. These came to be known as the Shad Wars.

A boundary dispute between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies also involved the flats. It simmered over time and occasionally erupted into violence between Maryland and Pennsylvania colonists — both laying claim to the area — in the late 1600s to nearly 1740. The actions of Thomas Cresap, a Maryland land agent, precipitated most of it, at least in the Pennsylvanians’ version of events. In Maryland, Cresap was considered something of a hero.

Construction of the Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam had the most dramatic impact on this stretch of the Susquehanna. Before the building of the dam in 1931, the river here — at the widest point of its 444-mile journey to the Chesapeake Bay — was shallow and rapid, foaming through rocks and boulders. The islands themselves were farmed.

With the building of the dam, water backed up and slowed down, flooding some of the islands. Other islands grew larger as silt coming downriver formed alluvial plains on their edges.

“From a paddling adventure’s standpoint, it is always changing, whether it’s floods or sediment buildup or the ever-changing water levels,” said Devin Winand of Shank’s Mare Outfitters. “Sometimes you can run a pontoon boat, and other times you can’t get a kayak through it.”

Decades ago, sediment wasn’t the only thing coming downstream with the water. Coal dust from Pennsylvania’s coal country far upstream washed down in such quantities that it was vacuum-dredged by barges known as Pennsylvania’s Hard Coal Navy from the 1950s until the early 1970s. Look closely and you can still see streaks of fine black coal dust mixed into the mud.

As you paddle among the channels and shorelines, you will see assorted little huts made out of grasses and lumber tucked into inlets or on stilts in the river in places out of the wind.

These are active duck blinds, the continuing legacy of the area’s duck-hunting tradition. Until Hurricane Agnes in 1972 ripped out vast amounts of underwater grasses, the meadows here made this stretch of the river a magnet for migrating ducks, particularly canvasbacks. The numbers of ducks using the flats have never come close to the numbers seen before Agnes, but paddlers should still avoid the blinds during hunting season, from mid-October into January.