Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — May 2005

Messing About in Boats — West Branch of the Susquehenna

by Gary Thornbloom

Mole, after a hard morning of spring chores, strolls down to the riverside and thinks this is as good as life gets. He then meets Water Rat, who astounded that Mole has never been in a boat invites him aboard, and off they go on an adventure down the river “messing about in boats.” This is the beginning of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. Just as Water Rat is astounded that Mole has never experienced messing about in boats, so too am I astounded at how many of my fellow Central Pennsylvanians have not taken advantage of the many local and easily accessible streams there are in which to mess about in boats!

If you have enjoyed paddling a canoe on one of the small lakes in our State Parks, then the next step may be to paddle in moving current on a stream. Additional caution is in order, but by accompanying a local group, or by going with an experienced friend such as the Water Rat that Mole sets out with, a whole new world of paddling can open up for you.

The West Branch of the Susquehanna River from Deer Creek to Karthaus is 16 miles on the river that at an appropriate water level offers a delightful day of paddling and exploring on one of Central Pennsylvania’s finest sections of river. For many paddlers the delight of just floating along with the current is a relaxing experience that offers more than enough reason for being on the water.

As the forested walls rise up and away from the river banks the canoeist slips away from the road and the bridge at the Deer Creek access, away from the haste, noise, and chores of daily life and approaches the edge of what water rats on longer journeys refer to as river time. The pace on the river is to go with the flow, to settle in to what the day has to offer.

On a warm summer day boulders protecting quiet pools offer convenient stopping points for a refreshing dip. Strips of sand along the river’s edge are a blank page that wildlife fills with footprints. Wildflowers, trout lilies on a recent outing, are scattered along the shore. Iris leaves flag spots where in late spring their flowers will be. Entire mountain sides are covered with rhododendron thickets which hold the promise of a spectacular July display.

The valley, at times more like a gorge, is the result of water cutting down through the rock of the Allegheny Plateau and hauling silt to the sea over the eons. In downstream sections it is over 1,000 feet to the plateau edge above. An occasional cabin, the railroad track on the river left bank, and the Rolling Stone Bridge are all that intrude upon this stretch of river.

When the railroad tracks disappear from river left they have entered the Karthaus tunnel and it is time to pay attention to the river. Moshannon Falls, named by the loggers, lies ahead and if you have any doubts about your paddling ability you should scout it first. It is a fairly forgiving rapid as it ends in a large pool. On a past camping trip friends of mine who were not confident enough to paddle the falls in a canoe filled with camping gear had no problem walking their canoe through the shallow water river right. Most day paddlers enjoy the challenge and excitement of Moshannon Falls. And as Water Rat tells Mole, in or out of boats it does not really matter, nothing really matters while you are on the river and that is the charm of it. This is true, especially on a warm spring day.

The first people, the Leni-Lenape, used the West Branch to hunt, to fish, and as an occasional water route. For these people the easier way of traveling in Central Pennsylvania was on footpaths through the typically open woodlands. Without the canoe birch that is common much further north in canoe country the local Indian used dugouts or elm bark canoes. While these canoes could haul a heavy cargo downstream in the spring waters, they were of little use in white water or on streams with many rocks. With the exception of the site of an old Indian campground at the mouth of the Red Moshannon they left little imprint on this area. One might say they left only footprints and footpaths, and now even those are difficult to find.

Impacts by white settlers have remained. Coal mining has resulted in the greatest impact to the river: red stained rocks, some red side streams, and a river that only recently has begun to show signs of life. When it is not carrying a silt load, the highly acidic water keeps the water clear. On a recent outing I observed small fish and small clams at one riverside stop. Unfortunately according to a biologist I spoke with, the small clams were likely an invasive species of Asiatic clam. The lack of sport fish in this section of the West Branch means that there is no conflict between canoeists and fishermen.

According to Lynn Frank, retired forester and river historian, the enormous amount of white pine in the watershed resulted in the West Branch being the only Pennsylvanian River that had great log drives. His writings, including 80 Miles of Wilderness Adventure, include details of this history as well as maps of the river with historical points and information.

Of interest to the contemporary canoeist are the rafting points that are listed on Lynn Frank’s maps. Raftsmen did not use maps. They used landmarks and river hazards that they fixed in their memory. The raftsmen’s “map” from the headwaters at Cherry Tree to Lock Haven consisted of 170 rafting points for the 150 river miles. In a conversation with Mr. Frank he pointed out that the rafting points on this section of river are fairly obvious if you look closely. Wood Rock, for example, is the largest rock in the West Branch and “was named by the raftsmen because wood and debris would collect on this rock as a result of the spring flood waters.” Ring Rock was where the rafts would tie up for the night.

As I float along in the current I like to contemplate the first men who followed the surge of the spring flow in their awkward dugouts and the raftsmen who came later piloting their 130’ by 27’ rafts that were maneuvered down the river by means of a 35’ long sweep with a 16’ blade at each end of the raft. A day paddling on the river can give respect for both.

White pine and hemlock no longer tower above, but the forest has come back. River life is coming back. All we need to do is give natural processes the time and the space. Our impact can return to that of leaving only footprints. The river is a good place to practice this conservation ethic. With respect for the integrity of the river, the river can again flourish.

A day on the river can lead to a renewal of spirit that each mole can experience when guided by a water rat. And like the Water Rat you too may come to believe that “there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

If You Go: South of Karthaus on SR 879 is a parking area with river right access. Park a vehicle here. Then, with canoe, drive north on SR 879 through Karthaus, west through Frenchville, turn left onto County Road 1011 (Deer Creek Road), and head south to the access river right after the Deer Creek Road bridge. From here to Karthaus it is 16 miles on the river. This can be paddled in as little as 4 hours, but you should allow for up to 8 hours if you have not canoed this before or to better enjoy the river.

The river gauge reading at Karthaus must be at least 2.0 feet or you will hit lots of rocks; most paddlers will find levels up to 5.0 feet manageable. You can find the gauge reading by going to the USGS Water Data website.

Maps, books, canoe rentals, shuttle service and good advice are available from Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Bellefonte.

Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of the Moshannon Group, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net. See this website — http://moshannon.pasierra.org — for details on a May 15th canoe outing on this stretch of river.