Diving the Susquehanna River…..Unscripted!
Wednesday the 17th of August 2011: Diving the Susquehanna River – York Haven Dam
Well, I guess I should start at the beginning for this story. I always wanted to learn to Scuba Dive for the adventure of it, but after being certified found that the only thing people ever seem to do is go to quarries and on trips. Quarries are fine for a while and to get regular dives in for the experience, but after a while it gets a bit monotonous. You get sick of looking at the same purposely sunk objects, cars, fire engines….what have you, and the ‘pay to play’ aspect really bugs me. There is just no adventure to it as far as I am concerned. I wanted some real adventure. The thing that I got into diving for in the first place. So I did what any ‘normal’ person would do. I posted an ad on Craigslist looking for someone who was willing to risk a failure in the hopes of something new and amazing that others have never done. I’ll have to pull that ad and post it here also I suppose. I was semi irate as I wrote it. I got two bites, the first one never wrote back after initial contact. The second one, Shane, did continue to write and so we planned a dive. He is from Rochester NY, and so I would do the logistical planning to get us into the dive site. This is the story, as condensed as possible. I’ll have to pull some screen shots of google maps also and mark our track of how we did all of this. Also, it should be noted, that I never contacted anyone about doing this dive, so we had zero permission, I simply went off of whether or not there were signs saying ‘no’. I did not want to be told no, as this was a bit crazy and a bit dangerous. So we had full blown ignorance on our side, except for the parking, there was a sign there, saying no trespassing, but whatever. People think they need to own the world.
My dive buddy for this dive, Shane, and I met up in Goldsboro at the boat launch area. We had never met before, only spoke online and on the phone, so after brief introductions, we loaded his gear into my truck for the short trip to the York Haven area. I had scouted the area a few weeks prior to find our route into the location that was to be our entry point ,and found that if we drove down a small dirt alley, it dumped us along the train tracks. The train tracks had a wide shoulder of loose stone that we could follow the rest of the way. I knew the area where we would put in, as it was under the first set of high voltage lines that we would come across and that there was a very tight opening in the tree line that we could get my truck down into, in order to hide it along another dirt road that was just inside the woods. This narrow opening was a steep 3.5 or so foot downhill which gave us some trouble even just to get down and around a tight corner at the bottom, requiring me to put the vehicle into 4 wheel drive, which I already knew I would need to get back out later.
We parked the truck and got out, discussing how we would ferry the gear across the tracks, number of trips, etc. We settled on two trips, one for most of the gear, and the other for tanks and weights. We would follow the tracks maybe 50 feet or so further down, and then there was a small hill down into a fairly clear tree covered area where we could set up and had easy access to the water. Shane noticed a large, fairly flat boulder that was only sticking out of the ground a few inches that we could use to set up our gear and keep it clean of debris. Once set up, we ran our gear bags and other things that weren’t going with us back to my truck and locked it up.
We entered the water about 50-75 feet from the beginning of the race, needing to swim up river that distance to the mouth of the race, as we were diving the low head part of the dam above it. A ‘race’, as you may not know, since I didn’t, is where the river narrows considerably do to the damming, and the water races toward the hydroelectric plant. I had noticed even before we entered the water that it was moving pretty quickly, and also knew from the previous Monday when I was out in my kayak taking one last look at the dam from the down river side, that they had cranked up all but one of the hydroelectric units. We waded out into the water floating our packs, waist deep in 2 feet of water…..mud….deep mud…and long grass. We laughed, and grumbled, but got through it. River bottom was stones, no mud, but along the banks was a different story. Once out, we attempted to get our packs on, but the long grass was still giving us problems, so Shane suggested we just swim on our packs to the other side, using them like little surf boards if you will. We put our fins on and headed across.
Then we got into the current and the whole plan I had come up with went straight out the window. We noticed the dam breast on the other side going by rather quickly; there was no swimming against this current. Shane suggested just swimming straight across letting the current take us, because again, there was no fighting it. I had hopes that when we got to the dam breast, which was a good 200 or more feet across from the bank we entered from, that the current would be gone, much as it was on our entry. But the dam face was flat, and the water raced by there also, the most you could do was get a slight handhold and slow down just a little, but no stopping. Looking from where we had entered to where we had now drifted, I don’t mind saying I was a bit worried, really worried to be more precise, but I also knew that we could easily make it back if we were going to ditch the dive and head straight back over. I had never bothered to look into how the hydroelectric plant works, with regards to where it’s intakes are, the risk of us being either sucked into one of them or up against a grating system and held there until we simply ran out of air, etc. So I really did not want to get anywhere near it. But again, I hadn’t expected this current. I made my suggestion known, of the possibility of ditching the dive, when Shane noticed a downed tree, one of many, that had parts of itself hanging down the dam wall into the water. I might mention that the reason we didn’t simply climb up onto the dam is because it was a good 3 feet, maybe more, out of the water. It was decided that if the tree did not hold us, we would have to ditch the dive and swim back across….defeated….at least that was my plan, but Shane was determined, and very cool-headed about it. He reached the tree branches first, and they held. I came up on it next, and they still held, in fact the tree never budged an inch. After a brief discussion of the logistics of how we would get up onto the dam face, Shane handed me his pack and took off his fins, climbed up onto a branch that was just out of the water, and tossed his fins up onto the dam. It was settled, he had found our way. I handed him our packs, one at a time, and he carefully placed them onto the dam, after which he climbed up. I then pulled myself over to this perch he had been working from, popped my butt up on the branch, removed my fins, spun around and climbed up myself.
Once up on the dam, we both shouldered our packs, which were now free of the river grass due to the current we had just come out of, and proceeded to hike along the dam crest toward the low head portion. We talked and laughed about how it was going so far, climbed over more trees that were also hung up on the dam, even having to take our packs back off and slide them over one very large tree that I would guess was 5 feet in diameter, but in my head and memory this thing was a red wood. You could not straddle it, and that seems rare to me in Pennsylvania.
We eventually make it to the low head portion, and surprisingly, there were actual concrete steps built into the dam crest to allow you to easily step down from the race portion of the dam to the low head portion. The majority of this entire dam system is a low head dam. The total height of the dam, I might add, is 23 feet. We had probably hiked 200 to 300 feet across the race portion of the dam to get here, that would be my guess at least.
Once down on the low head, we were both a little tired, and decided to leave our packs near the steps while we scouted the area that I believed we should dive. The width of the race portion of the dam that we hiked along went from around 7 feet or so wide, down to 4-5 feet in the area where it met the low head portion, but the low head portion is very wide. I would guess easily 14 feet but probably more, with a slow decline on both the up and down dam side. Basically plenty of room to walk around, although slippery where there is water running over, which was only a trickle on this day.
We slid down the backside of the dam, and walked around in the water and on the rocks for a bit, then climbed back up to the dam crest to start working out our dive.
The plan was for me to lead, at least for a bit, and then either switch, or come up and do a second dive with Shane in the lead. Shane, unbeknownst to me, was doing little but trying to keep an eye on where I was the entire time, as visibility was maybe a foot or slightly more. We dropped down in around 5-7 feet of water and hugged the bottom, which was really the only way to tell where you were at. If I lost sight of the bottom I became disoriented pretty quickly. We had both tried to get our buoyancy in place to get off of the bottom, but again, with visibility so low, and having a rocky bottom to begin with, we found it better to just be on the bottom, negatively buoyant. We didn’t stir up much, we also didn’t see much, mostly just small boulders and in between those, small river pebbles and rocks. There were quite a few snails to be seen though. As we worked our way out away from the dam, I was actually kind of surprised to feel my ears needing adjusting, and looked at my gauges. We had hit 10 feet. Then 14. Then eventually 18. That seemed to be the deepest we were finding, and upon ending the dive, that indeed was our deepest. We did at one point come across a peculiar little catfish, perhaps 2 inches long, just darting around on a small boulder. Luck had it that we both spotted the little guy, so at the least we both saw something on this dive. He played around our lights for a few seconds before darting in different directions and then out of sight. Shane and I kept in pretty good contact throughout the dive, which was difficult in the low visibility, but my hats off to the two of us for maintaining awareness of the other’s safety. At one point I drifted off the bottom a little bit and felt some vertigo, this concerned me, and when I reacquired the bottom I noticed that it was starting to go past me ever so slightly, and from the direction we had swam out, and the direction now being taken, I knew that it was back toward the race. We had a long way to go before we got there, but not being on the surface I couldn’t exactly tell how much time we had, so when Shane asked about going up, I agreed and we made a controlled ascent.
Upon reaching the surface we were both surprised how far out we had gotten from the dam and that the current was indeed beginning to carry us back toward the race, but not very quickly. We swam back to the dam breast and started discussing the dive, what we had seen, how little we had seen, and whether we wanted to do a second dive. We both had plenty of air left, at least an hours’ worth at that depth. We decided that he would lead this next dive, and I would follow. Also that to avoid the current, we would work our way out as we had before, but then use our compasses to follow a north west heading to follow the curve of the dam breast. We began our second dive, but I did not descend fast enough and lost track of him in seconds. We stayed down for a little trying to find each other, and then both surfaced and took another shot at it. The second attempt worked and I managed to stay with him, but was surprised at how difficult it was to just keep an eye on where he was. All my concentration was absorbed in trying to keep an eye on any part of him, whether the tank, a fin, his light, anything. Now I could see what his first dive was like, and it sucked. For me the first dive was kind of nice, even though I didn’t see much, but this was just downright stressful. We managed only 2 minutes and suddenly found ourselves back at the dam coming out of the water. Shane had gotten turned around somehow, and it was long before we were thinking of checking compass headings, so both of us were surprised to start seeing surface light so quickly again. We both had a laugh and discussed taking another stab at it, but it was coming up on 7PM, and with what we still had to do to get back out of there I was really hesitant. We ended up ditching the second dive and heading back across the river to our entry point.
The exit worked a lot better than the entrance to this dive. We were now up river, and could let the current carry us to our landing spot. We started heading across, watching for boats, which were all curious of the divers in the water. This is something rarely seen in this river, which made me proud that I was one of those guys. While we were first gearing up on the dam to head into the water, three people on jet skis that were riding back and forth spotted us and stopped to watch us for a minute or so. I waved, they waved back, and were soon on their way again. We managed our landing quite well, even pulling out a little ahead of where we put in. We spotted a more rocky area to get out at and thus had a lot less muck to walk through. Much better.
We got back to our setup rock, and started taking our gear apart and packing up. I needed a cigarette badly. We got all of the gear hauled back across the tracks and repacked into the back of my blazer, and were on our way. Back through the narrow opening in the trees we went, back down the train tracks, and then back to Goldsboro where we had met up. We had done it. Several weeks of planning, one failed attempt when Shane was local but we recently had some significant rain and the water was undivable, and then a matchup in schedules and weather permitting….we had done it.
When we reached his car it was getting pretty dark. We moved Shane’s gear to his car, filled out our log books, said our goodbyes, and were on our way. I was so jacked up I didn’t get to sleep until after 1am that night.
Now that’s the sort of thing that I got into scuba diving for. No trip planned for me, no amusement park set up underwater, just me and friends finding adventure.
It should be noted, that a few days later while out in my kayak below the dam, I climbed up on the dam and a boat was dispatched from the hydro plant and I was kicked off of the dam citing private property. Apparently you are not allowed within 100 feet of the dam on either side. Considering how much time Shane and I had spent milling about on the dam that day, I am surprised we weren’t booted then and there. It also adds to the adventure that we were not booted, and that we may have been the only, or at least one of the very few private citizens to ever do this dive.
End of story, one adventure down and working on the next one! This next one could require an hour hike up the Appalachian Trail…..sweet! I am nearly certain this next one has never been done.