Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2008

Bald Eagle Creek — Where Eagles Fly

by Gary Thornbloom

Bald Eagle Creek, in the section above Unionville, flows from riffle to pool, again and again, as the creek gently carves its way through the Bald Eagle Valley. At a modest flow level, 584 cfs at the USGS station below Milesburg on the recent day I spent paddling it, stream conditions are perfect for beginning canoeists. Much lower and you will spend some time walking the canoe through the shallowest riffles — no problem on a warm spring day, but a bit cool in the early spring. A lot higher, running brown with silt, with many sharp turns and downed trees, life-threatening strainers, and the conditions are only suitable for expert canoeists.

canoe the bald eagle creek

Canoeing the Bald Eagle Creek · Photo by Gary Thronbloom

As we pushed our canoes away from the bank my friend Betsy said “maybe we will see the bald eagle that we have been seeing near the ball field downstream from here.” Through the first riffle, around the bend — leaving the highway and railroad tracks behind — and we were looking at Bald Eagle Ridge. Soon a great blue heron rose from the side of the stream, moved downstream from us, and then repeated this several times.

Many Pennsylvanian streams follow valleys that were settled long ago. Roads and railroads also follow these valleys. The riparian embrace of the streams as they wind their way through civilization and its accoutrements provides a welcome buffer of wildness. This greenway remains the refuge of all things wild — plants and animals. This is often the sole path from watershed to watershed, from large woods to large woods, from mountain to mountain, for all things wild.

Bald Eagle Creek is the dividing line between the Allegheny Plateau, whose foothills were across the highway stream left, and the Ridge and Valley Province, marked by Bald Eagle Ridge stream right. Knobby mountains cut by streams of the Plateau are typified by the terrain of the Quehanna Wild Area. The Ridge and Valley mountains are long ridges formed by folds and are easily viewed from lookout points east of State College.

Bald eagle creek's flat floodplain

Bald Eagle Creek is buffered by a flat floodplain, often on both sides. · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

Bald Eagle Creek is buffered by a flat floodplain often on both sides. Highwater pools, and vernal pools in the surrounding wetlands will soon be teaming with life—egg masses, tadpoles, frogs, and newts. The pools and backwater sections of the creek will be great places for exploration as spring progresses. On our first of the season trip these pools were covered with a thin layer of ice and were seemingly empty of life.

As we floated past a particularly thick stand of trees I saw the dark silhouette of a deer head above low brush, ears looking huge as they extended toward us. We drifted silently and the deer remained motionless, watching and listening as we continued downstream. Attention to shapes and sounds will make you aware of what is present in nature.

Sounds along the stream are often the first clue of what to look for, of where to direct your attention. Water over rocks, even on a small stream, can sound like a great falls ahead, and draws your attention to maneuvering your canoe to avoid getting caught broadside on a rock and tipping. On quieter sections rustling leaves along the bank draws attention to wildlife — on past days a mink, today a muskrat.

Birds provide a wide variety of streamside sound. The raucous honking of geese as they first announce their displeasure at our approach, then swim downstream, and finally take off flying further downstream, only to repeat this just as the herons did. Kingfishers are another easily identified streamside resident — white and blue, bushy crest, and a long bill. Their raspy chatter often announces them before they are seen dipping and rising in flight, zigzagging bank to bank as they too make their way downstream retreating before our advance.

Mergansers, mallards, and wood ducks swim scattered along the creek. The male merganser stands out, striking with his long thin red bill, black-green head and mostly white body, while the smaller female sports a crested rufous head with a grey body. Wood ducks, multicolored and beautiful when seen up close, are often identified by the shrill whoo-eek whoo-eek of the female as she flies away.

Large carp, looking like small submarines, are easily seen in the still pools making their way around and under our canoes. Prior to fishing season these pools also have many trout including large white Palomino Trout which have been stocked. Bald Eagle Creek is a popular fishing stream and should be avoided on the opening days of fishing season. When you do encounter fishermen, you should be considerate by allowing them a few casts before you float by, and you should try to stay as far to the other side of the stream from them as you can.

Sycamores have a beautiful mottled bark of many colors—green, tan, white, lemon—and dominate the shoreline, by their presence if not by their numbers. This bark stands out anytime, but especially before the deciduous trees acquire their leaves. Their many cavities provide needed habitat for streamside dwellers.

As we paddled alongside of the grassy take out just upstream of the Unionville Bridge I realized that we had not seen any bald eagles. Turkey vultures, swans, geese, and one hawk, but no eagles. Bald Eagles have returned to Pennsylvania, a pair has been nesting in recent years further downstream in Bald Eagle State Park, and road and stream side sightings are more frequent.

Paddle Bald Eagle Creek enough times and I am confident that you will be rewarded with seeing the majestic bald eagle. And on the days you do not see an eagle? Riparian mysteries, small discoveries, and a day on the water are reward enough.

If You Go: From the bottom of Skytop — SR 322 and SR 220 — go 2.9 miles northeast on SR 220 and there is a pull-off on the right and next to the railroad tracks. It is easy to put a canoe in just on the other side of the tracks. From Julian go 1.5 miles southwest on SR 220 and the pull-off will be on the left.

A nice trip that can be done in less than 3 hours — but give yourself more time if you like to explore or have not done this before — is to paddle to the bridge in Unionville. The take-out is on the left side of the stream just before the bridge. To leave a vehicle here, turn onto Chestnut Street in Unionville and this will take you to the bridge.

As for water level, the USGS Real-Time water data website will tell you the level below Milesburg — 584 cfs the recent day I canoed — or you can call Ed Bowman at Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Bellefonte and he can always let you know local stream levels! High water levels should be avoided!

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Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of Sierra Club Moshannon Group, and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net.