A group from the Onondaga Nation started paddling down the Susquehanna River on Friday with the goal of reaching Binghamton in three days. Their leader, Hickory Edwards, planned to finish a trip he started eight years ago.

Edwards said that as a child growing up on the Onondaga Nation south of Syracuse, he felt stuck there, not knowing what was outside his nation’s borders. He’d sit beside Onondaga Creek but didn’t know where it went.

“It was my whole life until we started paddling, that I found out what’s around that bend,” he said Friday morning, standing on Cooperstown’s Main Street as members of his group slowly got organized.

In 2008, after a 12-mile paddle to Onondaga Lake, he founded the Onondaga Canoe and Kayak Club, a nonprofit organization created to “relearn the ancient water trails that were once common knowledge to our native grandfathers.”

Over time, their trips got bigger and more ambitious. In 2013, they paddled from the Onondaga Nation to New York City to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Two Row Wampum, a landmark treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. Some days they had up to 300 paddlers out on the Hudson River.

The next year, Edwards and a group paddled from Tully to Washington D.C. for a National Museum of American Indian exhibit opening. They travelled via the Tioughnioga River to the Chenango River to the Susquehanna, then down to the Chesapeake.

Now, Edwards said, he’d come back to the source of the Susquehanna to finish paddling that river. Joining him on the trip were six other adults and four children, a mix of Onondaga and other Native Americans, friends, and river experts.

David Buck, who gave his address as “river mile 245.3,” lives in Sugar Run, Penn., where used to run a river outfitting company. He founded the 444 Club — named after the distance down the Susquehanna from Cooperstown to Havre de Grace, Maryland. There are about 50 members, people who have paddled the entire river in one year, or in sections over many years.

By paddling to Binghamton this week, Edwards hoped to join the club. It’s about 115 miles downriver to Binghamton — Buck complained he couldn’t give a more precise figure because there are no good river maps of the Susquehanna in New York, compared to those he uses in Pennsylvania.

The group launched from Brookwood Point then paddled down Otsego Lake towards Cooperstown. They stopped at Council Rock for a brief history lesson about General James Clinton and the river flood he caused in the summer of 1779 when they broke a dam to wash their 200 boats down the river.

Unfortunately, the Onondaga group only traveled 2.5 miles before they hit their first obstacle. The upper Susquehanna was clogged with downed trees, making it impassable. They had to turn their boats around and load them on cars to portage downriver. They relaunched at Compton Bridge, a few miles downstream.

Edwards sounded sanguine about having to skip a section of the river, unsure what that would mean for his eligibility in the 444 Club. “I’d like to do every mile, but some people are not experienced. I’ve got to keep everyone safe,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have to come back next year.” *

“Any river that is out there, I want to know it. It's what was really connecting me back to my ancestors,” Edwards said. “It was their land that we used to roam as free as the wind, and that's the same thing I'm trying to do now.”

Friday night, Buck reported by phone that the group travelled 11 miles, as far as the Crumhorn fishing access site in Susquehanna State Forest. Along the way, they saw a bald eagle near Milford, so close that it made the kayaks feel small. Saturday, he said, they hoped to make it to Bainbridge.

Mike Forster Rothbart, staff writer, can be reached at mforsterrothbart@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow him at @DS_MikeFR on Twitter.

* Updated May 13, 2022, at 1:15 p.m. to correct quote.

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