Inside Conowingo


 The Susquehannock natives called the site Conowingo meaning “at the rapids”. Today, we (and quite a few other birders, nature enthusiasts, and photographers) think of it as the place with the dam where all the Bald Eagles come in winter to eat the remains of fish that don’t always make it through the big turbines alive. Well, I suppose fish do make it through…and I suppose also that some of the eagles (and herons and gulls and vultures) actually catch live fish when they are perusing the menu below the dam.

When the Philadelphia Power Company began construction of a new hydroelectric dam “at the rapids” on the Susquehanna River near the small town of Conowingo in 1926, I’m sure the intent wasn’t to provide such a magnificent winter feeding ground for the birds, but, as things happened, that is what developed…..along with a new continual source for about 500 Megawatts (MW) of electricity. (The hydroelectric plant is connected to the eastern portion of the continental electrical “grid” and how much is produced by Conowingo depends on how much is needed by the grid and the price per kilowatt on any given day.)

Building the dam had some negative effects too. And there is a website ( that lists all of them in detail. The dam changed the seasonal water flow (although I have to add, it also stops flooding downstream). It blocks the spawning runs for shad, eel, herring, and a variety of other fish. And it has, of course, changed the aquatic habitat and altered the river’s natural ability to purge itself of the sediment that now remains trapped behind the dam.

Conowingo Dam from Fisherman’s Park

It took two years (amazing feat all by itself) to build the dam. It is 105 feet high by 4,648 feet long. The reservoir created on the Susquehanna River behind the dam is about 14 miles long and covers 9000 acres. Sadly, there are no more rapids “at the rapids” on this part of the river and the original town of Conowingo lies somewhere at the bottom of the lake. It happens.

We have visited the dam many times. I mean, really, it’s a no-brainer if you love birds and especially Bald Eagles; it is the place to go. And, on top of that, it is just about two hours away and great for a day trip up to see a few eagles, grab lunch somewhere, and head home before dark. Really, it is a perfect local birding spot. Even in summer when the eagles are scarce, there are always Vultures (but take care where you park because the big black birds have a taste for anything rubber that is attached to an automobile) and Cormorants and Gulls….plenty of gulls. I have read that, of the 170 species of birds recorded at or near the Dam, there are at least 11 species of gulls. And then there are the Herons…who doesn’t like to see a beautiful Great Blue Heron fishing along the river?

Lined up to get that perfect photograph….standing room only.

Just a quick note about the photographers: If you want to see thousands of dollars’ worth of “glass”, i.e., binoculars and super-sized zoom camera lens, just head up to Conowingo in December or January. Pick any Saturday – ah, just pick any day of the week – and you’ll see photographers and birders lined up along every inch of the rails and fence line along the river in Fisherman’s Park with their gear set up on expensive tri-pods (and some not so expensive ones) just waiting for that perfect eagle flying, fishing, fighting moment. And, trust me, they get the pictures.  A quick stop by the Visitor Center at the top of the dam and you can see amazing photographs taken right there below the dam.

So, we too have stood on the banks of the Susquehanna below the dam at Fisherman’s Park (did I mention fishermen love the place too….for obvious reasons?) in the chill of winter with me freezing my patookas off watching the eagles scuffle with each other over the fish they’ve caught (or fish parts they’ve retrieved) looking up at that dam and wondering if they ever let anyone go inside and take a look around the place.

Turns out they do. If you call on a specially designated day in August (got this info from the Visitor Center when I stopped in one afternoon for a potty break before heading home), you can sign up for a tour in September when they have the Conowingo Dam festival….which is not to be confused with the Eagle Days Festival they have later (or is it earlier?) in the year. This year, I called in and signed us up. So, one fine hot Saturday in September (the 23rd), we headed up US Route 1 north of Belair to the dam and waited for our turn inside.

View from inside the dam just between Turbine Hall and the gates.

Actually, I was quite excited at the prospect of getting inside the dam. I had always admired its industrial art deco type styling sitting there straddling the Susquehanna River.  You can tell from the outside that it is gonna be pretty cool inside too.

Still looking for a retirement job.

We donned hardhats and were issued ear plugs. There wasn’t any construction going on – we wore the hardhats because the fishermen outside were known to cast their lines out with heavy weights that sometimes broke off and came crashing through the windows in Turbine Hall. Just another hazard of working there, I suppose. The earplugs? Well, it was noisy with the turbines running.

Turbine Hall
Generator #1

Our tour guide led us into a side door and right into Turbine Hall which is pretty much as far in as they let us go. But that was okay although I really wanted to go down into the bowels of the place and see the twenty-seven (27) foot butterfly valves that were originally used to control the water flow through the turbines. Nowadays the water is controlled by something called wicket gates which do not sound nearly as impressive as humongous butterfly valves. But, alas, we did not get to go that far into the dam….guess we would have needed more than hardhats and earplugs for that.

One of the older turbines.
Going down under Turbine #2

We did get to see the big beautiful turbines in the aforementioned Turbine Hall of which there are eleven (11). Although the dam was built to accommodate eleven (11) turbines, only seven (7) were installed when the dam was completed in 1928. The last four (4) higher capacity turbines were added in 1978. Each of the new turbines drives a 65 Megawatt (MW) generator increasing the dam output to about 548 MW. The original seven turbines produced about 252 MW. In total, the plant at Conowingo adds about 1.6 billion Kilowatt (KW) hours to the grid.

East Fish Lift

We also got a look at the two fish lifts that have been added to the dam to attempt to accommodate the spawning of the shad, herring, eels, etc. The east lift is very large and essentially a large elevator. The fish swim into the bottom and then the lift is raised the 100 feet to the top of the dam where the fish are released. This lift was at the top when we visited; I did not climb all the steps up to the top to see if there were fish inside when we visited although it is not the season so I expect the lift was empty.

The west lift is much smaller and apparently used by scientists to monitor the shad, count them during spawning season, and sometimes to collect the fish and transport them to creeks and tributaries up river which could be a daunting task considering the Susquehanna runs for 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York (yep, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Our guide did tell us a bit of a tall tale about the fish coming through the turbines and then swimming over to the lift so that they could go shooting down through the turbine again….swirling around like on a roller coaster….but I think he was pulling my leg….I really do.

Susquehanna comes from a Len’api word – Sisa’we’hak’hanna – which means Oyster River or “river with the oyster beds” which probably works better for the end of the river at the Chesapeake Bay rather than the beginning up at Cooperstown. There are some who say the river still runs under the Bay and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That makes sense as the Chesapeake is basically a relatively shallow estuary with the deep parts running right through the middle, i.e., the river.  The Susquehanna is the longest river on the east coast of the US draining just about 27,000 square miles….so that accounts for quite a few tributaries to transport those shad to during spawning season.

Dam with several gates open.

With all that water, you’re gonna need quite a dam. Conowingo Dam includes fifty (50) crest gates to control water flow from the reservoir. Less than ten (10) are open to the lower river at any given time – generally. But the dam is also used for flood control so that, as the water level rises in the upper river and reservoir, more gates are opened to the lower river and the Chesapeake Bay. The flood control gates are operated by overhead cranes that basically are hooked up to a gate at the top and then the gates are raised and lowered to allow water to escape the reservoir.

Crane used for lifting and lowering flood gates. It would be operated from above the gates.
Overhead cranes.

All fifty (50) gates have rarely been needed. The last time all the gates were opened was June 19-24, 1972 after Hurricane Agnes. The water levels were so high and the water pressure so great on the dam that explosive charges were laid on the eastern side of the dam as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, with all gates open, the water levels receded to a safer level and they did not have to destroy the dam. On the other hand, with all the gates open, Port Deposit just down river was totally flooded out…all that sediment and mud just washed right into the little town and pretty much buried it in muck. But the people who lived there had been evacuated in time so came back home and went to work. The town did recover.  After all, in the past couple hundred years, Port Deposit had seen quite a few floods and, worse, ice flows being located so close to the Susquehanna. Nowadays, anytime the gates are opened, the operators at Conowingo have to give due notice to the officials at Port Deposit to allow time for evacuation if necessary.

Today the dam is owned and operated by Exelon Power Corporation and is one of the largest non-Federally owned dams in the United States.  Just shy of ninety (90) years old, it is not certain what the future holds for the dam. There are some who say the power being generated is not needed so much and the river should be returned to its original state allowing nature once again to take its course. Part of me agrees – take it down and let the river flow again “at the rapids”; but another part of me thinks it would be a shame to destroy the beautiful old dam. In the meantime, the eagles and cormorants and gulls and vultures and herons will come in winter to hunt and fish and fight. And, as long as they do, the birders and photographers will also show up to stand in the cold and watch the spectacle unfold.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Conowingo Dam –
  2. Conowingo Dam –
  3. Wildlife South Conowingo –
  4. Exelon Conowingo Dam –
  5. Harford County Bird Club – Conowingo Dam –
  6. Conowingo, Maryland –,_Maryland
  7. Susquehanna River –
  8. For great information on visiting Conowingo, Emily Mitchell‘s blog/visitor guide:

Return to Alaska (Part 1)

denali 2It is hot…..and humid….and buggy……and I’m outside weeding in a flower bed filled with weeds and plants I love that have gotten totally out of control. I really don’t like to garden in July. It is just way too hot and I can come up with about two dozen good reasons not to be out there up to my elbows in dirt and weeds. Of course, I have one big reason to be there….the weeds are taking over the flower beds and I haven’t spent any quality time lately with my flowers. So I’m there and I’m getting it done, at least some of it, but my mind is elsewhere. My thoughts drift back a few weeks to Alaska where it is cool….well, it was downright cold some days and I shivered my way through that but, right now, sitting here sweating and scratching, I’m thinking how nice it was to be somewhere cool.

I have to admit, it was buggy up in Alaska too. Our favorite of all the bug jokes was the one about us coming to Alaska because we heard they had the world’s biggest mojitos only to find out they meant mosquitos. (It is always good to get a joke in somewhere in the blog…getting it in right at the beginning sort of takes the pressure off……now back to the trip.)

We had been thinking about going to Alaska for some time and it was certainly on the old bucket list so when it floated up to the top, we figured we might as well get to it. I have to say that any delays in planning the trip were of my own doing since I had way too many ideas on what we should do and how we should make the trip. You see, I had been there before and this would be a return trip for me and there were some things I missed seeing the first time I was there so I wanted to make sure I got to them on this trip. (That’s right – it is all about me!)

It is 1978 and I had been traveling for about eighteen hours with a five year old and I was dead tired and not in much mood for anything but a good meal and a soft bed. But it was getting close to midnight and I wasn’t there yet. I had merely made it to Fairbanks. Little did I know when my husband (then) picked me up at the airport that I had roughly another hundred miles of bad road to go before arriving at Delta Junction which is a junction – a wide spot in the road per some folks.

DJ 1973The town is known for being the terminus of the Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) highway unless you side with the good folks of Fairbanks who say the road ends there. Delta Junction is also known for its location on the Tanana River and another river whose name I cannot recall. Finally, Delta Junction is the home of Fort Greely which is why I was there.

Before I go further down memory lane, let me take a short break to share something I did not learn the first time I went to Alaska. Okay, I might have learned it but somewhere along the line, I promptly forgot it. “Na” is an aboriginal (Athabascan?) word meaning “river” so adding “na” to the end of a word like “Tana” becomes “Tanana” which means Tana River (more or less). So the Chena is the Che River and the Nenana is the Nena River (again, more or less since I am not really schooled in native languages of Alaska). So, when I say, “Tanana River”, I am being totally redundant and saying, “Tana River River” but had I simply said, “Delta Junction is on the Tanana”, you might not have understood I was talking about a big ole river and you might actually have gone off in another direction and maybe thought it was a mountain or railroad or something.

fort greelyNow, getting back to Fort Greely, it is situated such that you have beautiful views of Brooks Range (which are mountains and not rivers, of course) and the view from the kitchen of our lovely government quarters was of those beautiful mountains. And the view of the mountains was something I wanted to see again.

pipelineAs you will surmise, I have digressed again. So, back to 1978, it is midnight and there is no midnight sun because it is February. In February in Alaska, you just get midnight dark for the most part….and cold. You get lots of cold in Alaska in February. I think it was something like 20 below that night and I had on way too few layers (I’m not sure I even knew about dressing in layers then) and my coat was way too small. I remember telling myself, “I have got to get a better coat or I will never survive this tour.” I remember that long drive to Delta Junction and I remember the northern lights dancing like some magical swaying curtain across the night sky. I particularly remember the lights dancing over the newly built Alaska Pipeline where it was shining silver steel ribbon suspended across the Tanana all sparkling color and silver reflected back from the frozen river below. I remember that it was breathtakingly beautiful.

It was this kind of experience I wanted again and that I wanted to share with my (now) husband. So I had lots of ideas about going to Alaska again and what to see and do. But Alaska is HUGE…I mean really BIG. They say you can set Alaska inside the continental US (i.e., lower 48) and Alaska will reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Okay, that’s tip to tip if you lay it sideways and include all the islands. It would be difficult to do…. so just trust me that this was said to give you an idea of how big the 49th state really is.)

The more I planned and budgeted and ciphered and figured and planned some more, the more I realized that maybe I couldn’t possibly do everything in one trip. It may be a once in a lifetime trip but you just have to whittle down the options available and do what you can. Now, isn’t that the way it is with most vacations?  Ultimately, we settled on taking a cruise and land tour which would hit most of the items on my list in about 15 days. It wouldn’t get it all but it would cover a nice mix of things I (we) wanted to see and do.

Up front, I realized that we’d not be doing too much birding although I’d heard so many stories about all the birds to see in Alaska. But birding Alaska was going to need more thought and planning specifically to take advantage of the locations where birding is best….and off the main tourist routes, as it were. So, we decided to go with the basic tour this time and maybe plan a birding trip later in the future…..if possible. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us from looking for birds along the way anyway….which we did.

But I definitely had a few things in mind I definitely wanted to see and do.

ONE: I wanted to see Mount McKinley, or as it was always known to the natives, Denali, “the great one”.

denali heliIn the two plus years I’d spent at Fort Greely, I had missed the opportunity to get to Denali National Park and to see Mount McKinley. Well, I actually got to see the mountain briefly from the air on a business trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks but I hadn’t gotten to see it “for real”. I mean a brief flyover really doesn’t give you time to really experience the moment. I’m not sure why I never got to Denali back in the 70’s. It was quite a distance to drive but no further than we drove on other trips we took while we lived there. We did get to the Yukon and to Matanuska Valley and to Anchorage and to Seward and to Valdez but for whatever reason we did not get to the area between Fairbanks and Anchorage or drive down the Parks Highway. If I had to guess at this point, we just ran out of time. The Army sent orders and the tour was over. It is the way it always is when you are stationed somewhere with the military… spend your time working and living there and get to be a tourist when you can slip a trip in here and there.  It was the same in Germany. How do you spend over three years in Germany and not get to Paris? It happens. And it gives you plenty of reasons to try again someday.

denali from parkSo I was going back and I really wanted to see that mountain. I had some concerns about seeing Denali because it is summer and less than 30% of the people who visit Alaska in the summer get to see the mountain. It is just too high and is cloud covered most of the time. Winter is a different story – I’ve heard the view is clear as a bell and cold as well…..heck in the winter time. But, then again, not too many people (tourists, that is) visit Alaska in the winter time.

TshirtThis time, I thought, I am going to see Denali. And I’m going to visit that National Park. Done. Discussion over. No doubt about it. It was going to happen. And it did. We were delighted with the views and amazed at the beauty of the mountain. We even took a helicopter ride (my first except for a medivac ride that I was told did not count as being a real helicopter ride) and so I got views of the mountain from the ground and, again, from the air. It was amazing. I might have said that already. I took tons of photos….and, like everyone else, said “oh, my gosh” and “awesome” and “cool” way too many times. The mountain was enormous and beautiful and, well, just amazing.

denali busesWe also enjoyed our time at the National Park and saw all the things you’re supposed to see – Grizzlies, Dall Sheep, Moose, Ptarmigans, Caribou – all except wolves. Okay, we didn’t see wolves but, we saw plenty of Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles and lots of wildflowers. But we didn’t really enjoy going 50+ miles in a converted school bus…really, National Parks Service……if you’re going to make everyone ride your bus through the park, at least get a decent one and wash the windows each morning! (You ride an NPS bus so they can limit the number of visitors and vehicles in the park in order to protect the wilderness and animals. It is a good thing to do….I’m just saying, get a better more comfortable bus.)

TWO: I wanted to go to Glacier Bay National Park.

glacier 1Pretty much the only way to do this is to do the cruise (take your pick, Princess, Holland, Carnival, etc.). Okay, I’m thinking you can fly or boat or maybe even try to hike into the park but that is going to take more time and more roughing it than I care to do so the cruise it is. You can always drive through Canada and over the mountains into Skagway and then get on a boat to see the Bay…but, again, more time and effort. I have to say the cruise lines have a bit of a monopoly going in making it easy to see Glacier Bay. The only problem is that I get seasick.

ferryWhen I came back from Alaska in 1980, we took the Alaska Ferry. Great Ferry system and I loved the trip…but hated getting seasick. So, I spent about five days getting sick every time that ferry went through open waters. As long as we were in the inland waterways, I was fine but open water and ground swells laid me out. So I knew I would have some issues with this trip and I packed the Dramamine but I never expected gale force winds on our first day out as the ship crossed Alaska Bay and open waters.

mist cruiseThe land tour had gone very well (another blog on another day) but the first twenty-four hours of the cruise were excruciating for me. And, being pill-phobic, I put off taking the Dramamine until it was too late.  Ultimately, it hit and I got sick…..well, I had been queasy and nauseated the whole time but full force sea sickness did not hit until evening. I dare not gross you out with the details but I have to tell you about the HAZMAT team that came in to clean up the cabin. All my “sickness” had been in the bathroom but the cleaning team (gloves, masks, and the whole shebang) wiped down the whole cabin. Anything I might have touched had to be cleaned and disinfected. And, just to make sure it was all done properly, they did it again the next day. Of course, the next day, the ship was in the inland waters so there were no white caps or winds or rolling seas and I was perfectly fine but, no matter, the hazmat boys came back and wiped it all down again.

room serviceOne more little note on my seasickness – we called room service for ginger ale and some saltines. I guess they just could not even consider just bringing a couple packs of crackers….they brought a tray with a plate filled with crackers……and utensils because I couldn’t possibly eat crackers without a fork, spoon, and knife!

But, at least the hazmat boys didn’t quarantine us and we were able to fully enjoy the trip through Glacier Bay and we got to see glaciers and more glaciers and scenery like you wouldn’t believe even existed.

marjorieAnd the glaciers were beautiful and way bigger than life and, well, dare I say it again, just amazing? I could have stayed there for several more hours watching Marjorie Glacier… wasn’t doing much, calving now and then, but even so, I could have sat there watching this blue wall of ice until past dark if I could have. (And we did get midnight sun here so dark would have been a good long time coming.)

JH glacier

THREE: I was determined, in spite of the potential for another bout of seasickness, to go whale watching.

And, what can I say but it turned out to be marvelous? We took the boat out of Juneau and had a great afternoon. We spent the morning at Mendenhall Glacier in what we thought was never ending rain. But, by afternoon and the time for the whale watching, the rain was mostly gone except for scattered showers. But the whales didn’t care about the rain so why should we? We were able to see Humpback Whales and Sea Lions and Dall’s Porpoises (no relation to the sheep), and Bald Eagles. And I did not get even a whimper of nausea.

whale tailAnd I would have liked for the boat to have gone on chasing those whales for hours but time ran out way too quickly. Just as an aside, the best way to find whales is to look for other whale watching boats…they seem to congregate once a whale or two is spotted. (Or, maybe that is how whales find humans when they go out human-watching.) We got one last “whale tale” before the boat turned and headed back into shore.

Mountains, whales, bears, moose…..we got a good sampling on our trip. And, yes, I will tell you more in later blogs. And, yes, I will admit that getting a second taste of Alaska does make me want to go back again.  And, finally, yes, if I go back again, I would like to stay longer and do more roaming around on my own exploring the wilderness and looking for some of those birds I missed on this trip.  I’d want to do it all…… long as I can find places to stay with running water and hot showers and electricity and a warm comfortable bed to sleep in once my roaming is done each day.