HOLTWOOD WHITEWATER PARK
By Michael Keeney and Topher Smith
The Susquehanna River is the East Coast’s longest and largest watershed tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. For many years it has been home to the watermen and recreationalist of all types. It was the growth of kayaking in the 1970s that brought the first whitewater pioneers to the river. When I started kayaking at Holtwood in the early 2000s, there was a solid crew of boaters who had the river dialed in. They shared their knowledge with me. I bookmarked Jeremy Lauck’s Chasing Rain website on my computer and whenever the levels were good my phone would start to ring. I headed up to the mighty Holtwood dam. Flows were consistent. Despite the power company’s efforts with plywood board to hold more water, we all knew how, when, and where we needed to be to enjoy this special place. Holtwood was our backyard run.
In 2009, PPL (Pennsylvania Power & Light, the power company) applied for a FERC license to install an extra generator in the powerhouse. This re-licensing would take a lot of the water from the places we loved, and divert it to the tail race. The local group of kayakers, along with Brad at Starrk Moon, and other members of the local community challenged the company’s bid to expand. It became rather apparent that we were not going to be able to hold off this project. We needed to do everything possible to work with PPL in an attempt to benefit our community. A committee, representing the entire community formed and negotiations with PPL began. Early in the efforts, documentation of recreational use proved to be key in securing a fair mitigation for the losses. And it was the website Chasing Rain that proved instrumental. To fast track the licensing, the PPL agreed to construction of a facility, while also improving a an antiquated fish ladder. Holtwood Whitewater Park was born. Construction began in 2012 and the park officially opened this year.
The park is designed for intermediate to advanced kayakers, with three features that mimic ones on the natural river. The top feature, located at the base of the old fish ladder, is a big standing wave that has a foam pile on top. It is fast and bouncy at the best levels and is invigorating even just to front surf. It can be sticky at times - good for more retentive moves, bad if you are trying to get out - and can wear paddlers out. The run out of this feature is a big wave train with squirrelly eddy lines. Rolling is a matter of timing and patience. There have been quite a few swims here. The hike back up is a little bit of a rock scramble at times, but doable. The second feature is a retentive wave-hole that is a great place to work on spins, cartwheels, etc. Many paddlers are able to roll back up in the hole and continue their surfs! The eddy lines here are tricky also but you have more recovery time below this feature. The last drop created is more of a standing wave, and varies with flows in the actual river. The higher the river, the more it is a green wave. The lower the river level, the incoming water is steeper, making it more of a defined V wave-hole. This is typical of many natural flow features on the Susquehanna.
The Holtwood Whitewater Park is a great resource for the local paddling community. It is also a great example of how energy companies and grassroots organizations can come together for the common good. If you are looking for great surfing waves, or you want to up your skills - catching eddies and running drops - Holtwood Whitewater Park has a little something for everyone. The park will be running every Wednesday 3-6pm, Friday 3-6pm, and Saturday/Sunday 9am-6pm during release dates. The release levels have been consistent - around 1100 cfs - and it will run through November. Come on up and check it out.
The release schedule will be posted here when releases are scheduled to begin again.