Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2002

Canoeing on the West Branch

by Dave Coleman

Even a fully loaded canoe glides graciously just a few feet above the river bottom. We did not pack lightly as we would for a backpacking trip or a cross-country ski adventure, but this was still “roughing it” — as it was. With my wife, our youngest son and myself — not to mention our dog — and several hundred pounds of gear and provisions, we were straining the capacity of our 17-foot Mad River Canoe.

Our trip was with seven others — in three canoes — from Karthus to Keating on the West Branch of the Susquehanna. This mid-sized river drains much of Central Pennsylvania — not only the rural sections of Clearfield and Centre counties, but also much of Centre County including State College. The West Branch has many tributaries that offer many different types of canoeing — from whitewater sections of a few — to relatively calm stretches of the West Branch itself. Many of the tributaries include sections with potentially dangerous rapids and; therefore, should not be attempted without significant paddling skills and experience and/or a trip led by an experienced canoeist.

However, the West Branch, with only a couple of exceptions, is suitable for coached beginners and novices. Several sections can be paddled from Clearfield down to Lock Haven. The most popular, is the twenty-two mile section from Karthus to Keating. From the Route 879 Bridge at Karthus to where Route 120 parallels the river just below Keating, the river valley is undeveloped without the intrusion of roadway. In fact, either state games lands or state forestlands bound the lower two-thirds of this section almost continuously on both sides. However, there are several hunting and fishing camps along the right shore on the lower reaches of this section and a railroad paralleling on the left bank. The trains don’t run the corridor frequently and the camps are not large intrusions into the wilderness setting so it is this most remote section that is the premier canoe camping section of the West Branch.

The setting for canoeing is idyllic. The river winds into what appears an ever-deepening gorge (approaching 1,000 feet deep) alternating between calm “pools” and faster moving “riffles”. Plenty of wildlife can be observed from the canoes including deer, bear (seldom seen), waterfowl, great blue herons, kingfishers, red-tailed hawks, etc.... Perhaps in the not-to-distant future, elk may be seen on the river banks as the game commission has recently moved parts of the herd to State Game Lands 321. With the improving water quality of the West Branch watershed, fish are returning to the river. Most side streams have native trout. But don’t count on fishing to feed the crew.

This Sierra Club outing was an overnighter; we camped on “river-right” — opposite the side with the railroad tracks — within the state forestlands of the Sproul Forest District. From our campsite we took short jaunts up into the state forest. Later on our paddle out the next day, we took a longer hike up Yost Run — one of several small creek tributaries whose mini-gorges are currently classified as state forest “Wild Areas” or proposed to be contained within a proposed “old growth” management area of the state forest system. Here the forest is comprised of many diverse second growth hardwoods as well as patches of pine trees well over 100 years old.

Paddling out, the canoe ran higher in the water as we had consumed both a generous dinner and breakfast, went through gallons of water and coaxed a childless and dogless couple to take one of our heavier packs in their canoe.

The takeout comes too soon with a two-day trip; one becomes tranquilized with the quietness of the surrounding forest, the gentle current, and the slowly passing scenery of the twisting river gorge. After loading gear and equipment into the vans at the takeout, we still had a scenic drive home.

Resources and Maps

River Level (should be over 2 feet at the Karthaus gauge for loaded canoes) call 888-881-7555 or visit pa.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt.

Canoe Rental/Shuttles and equipment call Tussey Mountain Outfitters, Bellefonte, 814-355-5690 or McCrackens Canoe/Kayak Rental, Shawville, 814-765-1410.

This section of the West Branch can be found mainly on U.S. quadrangles “Pottersdale” and “Snow Shoe NE”. However, the very beginning is on the northern edge of the “Karthaus” quad and the end on the “Keating” quad. A composite and laminated (waterproof) map of all the necessary quadrangles can be purchased from Tussey Mountain Outfitters. The entire stretch is displayed (although at a smaller scale) on the Sproul State Forest public use map. Visit any District Forest Office or call 570-923-6011.

Additional Information: Keystone Canoeing by Ed Gertler, available at Tussey Mountain Outfitters or local bookstores.

If You Go: March through June are the normal months for this section for adequate water level. From State College, take Route 144 through Snow Shoe. Turn right at the blinking light at the village of Moshannon, continue about 2 miles and take a left on Route 879 from the four-way stop sign. Go approximately 8 miles to the Canoe Access of Sproul District forest on the left (if you cross the West Branch at Karthaus, you have gone a quarter mile too far). This is the “put in.”

To shuttle vehicle(s) to the “take out” continue on 879 through Karthaus. After another mile you will come to a “T”. Take a right on unmarked “Quehanna Highway”, proceed about 8 miles through Piper (and the state correctional facility) turn right on Wykoff Run Road. Take this winding road (proceed slowly) a little over ten miles across the Sinnemahoning Creek. Turn right on Route 120 and follow the Sinnemahoning approximately 8 miles to Keating. Turn right and take the bridge over Sinnemahoning Creek and park right before going under the railroad bridge. This takeout involves a short paddle UP the Sinnemahoning Creek. If taking out on private property, make sure you have explicit permission beforehand.

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