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Charitable journey: Man kayaks Susquehanna to raise veteran suicide awareness

PHOTO PROVIDED Jeff Loeffler takes a selfie while on the water during his kayak trip down the Susquehanna River.

Jeff Loeffler took his first step in what he thinks was mud. Actually, he just hopes it was mud. In fact, no matter what it was, he’s going to assume it was mud because the alternative is not really something he wants to think about.

On the banks of the Susquehanna River with only days left in his 444-mile trek of kayaking the length of the river, the 39-year-old from St. Mary’s faced his toughest test. That first step in the mud wasn’t so bad. It was by no means pleasant, but it was manageable.

Then there was the second step. Still not great. With a 16-foot kayak and 50 pounds of gear on his back, he wanted to make the the trip across this swamp of a pudding-like substance only once, so he could tough it out. Then there was the third step. That one stole one of his shoes which is now left submerged for eternity. His second shoe was lost on step four. Left to nothing but his bare feet as he tried to get to the portage phone along the river’s left bank, Loeffler finally traversed the combination of mud, driftwood and who knows what else to reach the phone.

He called the people in charge looking for portage through the dam and was told he was supposed to be on the right bank for portage. His heart dropped, but Loeffler was not to be denied. He bribed a man he saw to load up him and his gear into the man’s truck to get to the other side of the river.

It was the most challenging moment of Loeffler’s two-week journey down the Susquehanna. But quitting wasn’t an option. Loeffler wasn’t doing this just for fun. His goal was to raise money for Stop Soldier Suicide, a non-profit organization which works to offer help to veterans who are considering taking their own lives. An avid outdoors enthusiast, Loeffler had always wanted to take on the challenge of kayaking the Susquehanna, but he found a higher reason for making the trip when a decorated marine from his hometown took his own life unexpectedly.

PHOTO PROVIDED A view from the bank of the Susquehanna during Jeff Loeffler’s trip to raise awareness for Stop Soldier Suicide.

Loeffler heard about Stop Soldier Suicide while listening to a Sirius/XM radio show and it gave him all the reason he needed to make the trip. It took close to a year to plan. He had to not only navigate the river, but also plan for stops for camping for the night, understand the issues he would face along the river. He would start in Cooperstown, New York, and finish in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. He broke the trip down into three legs with a plan to take 18 to 24 days to complete the whole thing.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was going to make getting portage through the river’s dams an issue since so many public officials were not working. He battled for days with a controller in Boston over portage around Holtwood, Safe Harbor and Conowingo Dams, three hydroelectric dams in which passage around them could be as much as a mile walk. And while those portage areas were fenced off or blocked off because of shut downs, portage still had to be offered even if those in charge don’t help you through.

“Originally we had events planned along the whole route, little media events or photos ops,” Loeffler said. “But when the COVID hit, we had to cancel all those and we just decided to go for it. We didn’t know if it was going to be a good idea or a bad idea, but we decided to go for it.”

Loeffler made the first part of his journey with friend Zach Sangiorgi, who helped him plan the whole trip. On the day the two got into the river in Cooperstown, it was following some torrential rains which caused some localized flooding all along their route. It also gave them some more choppy waters to deal with. It was nothing Loeffler couldn’t handle, though. He’s been an vid kayaker for years. He does a high-adventure vacation every year and has a goal of getting to every commercialized Class 5 rapid in the country over the course of 10 years.

This whole trip was a matter of following the plan he had laid out. Unfortunately, that plan continually changed. Flood waters made some of his expected camping area unusable. There were times he’d have to travel an extra 20 miles in the river just to find a suitable spot to camp for the night.

PHOTO PROVIDED Zach Sangiorgi prepares to get in the water during one of the early stages of Jeff Loeffler’s trip.

But none of the struggles could keep him from enjoying the majesty he observed. None of it could take away from the mission he was trying to accomplish with the trip. It was all just part of the journey.

“It is an absolutely gorgeous trip,” Loeffler said. “Every day you’re on the river is different, and you see all kinds of different wildlife. I saw more bald eagles on this trip than I’ve seen in my entire life, probably 50 to 60 of them.”

He remembers one moment in particular, he was somewhere near Towanda. He came around a curve in the river to a clearing and he could see all the mountains around him. He was parked in the middle of the water just looking around and to his left was a bank which dropped down into a field. He watched a farmer in his tractor tending to his land.

“It stopped me dead in my tracks,” Loeffler said. “I took a bunch of pictures, but a camera never does it justice. That was the thing which stuck out to me most.”

Loeffler was just a couple days from completing the journey when he ran into the miscommunication at the Holtwood Dam. It was the only time during the journey where he questioned whether or not he could really finish. The thought of the mud he walked through to get to the phone still makes him cringe.

Not even when he punched a hole in his first kayak somewhere near Harrisburg did he think he was going to quit. Instead, he and a friend drove to Altoona and got a new kayak to complete the journey. But traversing the mud, he doubted whether or not he could haul his kayak and his gear through it all in one trip. It took the sacrificing of his shoes, but he made it.

And he was always driven by the cause he was kayaking for. He thought about the marine from his hometown who dressed in his dress blues before taking his own life. He was a man who had served his community selflessly upon returning from military service, Loeffler said.

He chose Stop Soldier Suicide because the organization’s mission isn’t just to help the soldier, but to help the soldier’s family as well. It’s the families which are also sacrificing during military service.

“They take a whole family approach and a military-based approach,” Loeffler said. “And they give you a caseworker who sticks with you for two to three years to make sure the help the help is working.”

Loeffler’s goal was to raise $25 for every mile he paddled. Donations are still rolling in from the trip he took from May 1 to May 15 and he believes he’s going to reach the goal of $11,100 he initially set out for. Despite the problems along the way, Loeffler finished the trip.

As he crossed under four bridges at the end of the trip, he used Facebook Live to document the final moments and his phone blew up with responses from friends and members of the military thanking him for making the journey. It didn’t sink in during those initial moments he had completed the trip. But as he took the time to realize what he accomplished, Loeffler realized he wasn’t ready for the trip to be finished. He had assimilated quickly to life on the river.

“I was kind of sad it was over. I wanted to keep going,” Loeffler said. “Everything happens so fast and everything was such a blur that I didn’t realize how much fun I had until went through Facebook and Instagram and saw what an amazing time it was.”

And then a voice creeped into his mind and he heard a question.

What’s next?

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