Blue Mountain Outfitters    river tales

Susquehanna at Falmouth

River of the month #6

September 1998

It’s named ‘Conewago Falls’ on Topo maps. York County residents call it ‘York Haven’, the name of the town with the hydroelectric plant. Those who paddle there refer to it simply as ‘Falmouth’, the nearest Dauphin County town. Whatever you call it, it’s home to the biggest whitewater near Harrisburg. From the north end of the dam at Three Mile Island to the end of the wave train by the power plant is 1.4 miles of water dropping over 20 feet - a lot of gradient for a big river like the Susquehanna.

The York Haven Dam takes a strange route to cross the river. It starts out at the powerhouse and runs straight upstream for some distance before angling east across the river and finally joining TMI. Why build a 1.5 mile long dam to hold back a river .4 mile wide? Because the increased length spreads out high flows, mitigating their impact and maintaining an almost constant water level at the powerhouse. Even as the river approaches flood stage, the pool above the dam rises just a few feet.

Ingenious, but we’ll leave the pool to the pontoon boat crowd, it’s below the dam that interests us. From 4.5 feet on the Harrisburg gauge to beyond flood stage, the water below the dam provides great ‘big water’ whitewater. Below 4 feet, practically all the water is channeled down to the powerhouse and it’s dry below the dam. This doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a trip to check it out. By hiking in the river bed one can see a spectacular jumble of smooth potholed boulders that have been featured in natural history articles about the river and the Harrisburg area.

The usual access is at the southernmost bridge to TMI. To catch all the whitewater you must round the southern tip of TMI, and then work upstream along the island (or through the trees if the level is high) to the dam. Some boaters use a no-shuttle access on the York County side of the river, via the park by the York Haven power plant. After a carry up the portage trail (installed for downriver travelers) you can put in above the dam and paddle flat water to TMI. But then you’re faced with two options, both illegal: carry around the dam, trespassing briefly on TMI or run the dam and risk the wrath of the PFC . A keeper hydro is not present below the dam near TMI under levels of 9 feet but it would still be wise to stay away. Elsewhere along the dam vicious hydros form at different levels. Near the power plant the dam is over 20 feet high and makes me nervous just getting within 50 yards of it. And, of course, it’s illegal. I know of one club member who got a 3-figure fine for standing on the dam to scout.

From the dam’s upper end at TMI to the southern tip of the island, small bouncy waves serve as a warm-up. Then comes a big fun ledge. At lower levels the ledge can be run in a number of chutes and has some good play spots. Once over the first ledge, you’re basically looking at a simple but long wave train down the middle of the river. Just good clean fun that usually elicits a few ‘Yee-has’ and ‘Yahoos’. But the adventurous generally head to river right below where the water flows over the dam (now running parallel to the main flow of the river) and then over and around some rocky islands forming a variety of play spots. You must be content to surf these holes and waves from the bottom as they cannot be attained or accessed from above. One powerful flume (dubbed the ‘death chute’ by some club members) is frequently run by first carrying up over some rocks. It’s an exciting drop, but should be run right or left at the bottom to avoid an ugly looking sieve.

You can take out at the PFC access conveniently located at the bottom of the falls. The town of Bainbridge (2 miles below) has public access also.

At 8 feet on the Harrisburg gauge the water changes character. For starters, at the dam’s upper end is a big circular eddy with whirlpools spinning off the eddyline that are great for mystery moves in low volume boats. The big ledge is no longer noticeable, it’s merely the beginning of a wave train that now contains bigger waves (up to 6 feet) that are very chaotic, constantly changing and breaking. Waves slap at you and break on you from all angles. At the bottom, big ‘brain waves’ rise from the depths lifting your boat up a foot or two before they disperse. But there are no hydraulics to worry about and all the rocks are covered. So again, it’s just good clean fun, as long as you can brace through all the turbulence.

Over near the dam the play spots are washed out with one exception. At the top of the wave train, between 8 and 11 feet, the ‘Five-0' wave forms - big, smooth and beautiful to surf. But hard to find in all that big fast water. And if you miss it on the way down attaining it for a 2nd attempt is tough in any boat but impossible in the new super-short rodeo or creek designs, so bring your old slalom boat. Once on the ‘Five-0’ wave, you can hang out indefinitely. I’ve watched one York County ‘regular’ surf it for 5 minutes. But don’t worry about wave hogs, there’s room for at least 3 boats.

At high levels, below the long wave train just when things are mellowing, the ‘Mouth’ suddenly rears up to eat unwary boaters. Forming at a spot that’s flat and quite at lower levels, the ‘Mouth’ is a classic example of an exploding wave. In a cycle lasting some 3 or 4 seconds, the wave will form, surge up, curl and crash down just like an 8 foot breaker at the seashore. It’s all a matter of timing to paddle through it. It starts out flat at the beginning of a cycle, but if it breaks on you, you’ll have to roll. But, of course, it’s benign; an exploding wave won’t hold a boat. It fact, since it’s only in the middle of the river, it’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it.

Falmouth can be a fun place but is not without it’s hazards. Like the Narrows, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re in the middle of a big wide river and any swim would be a long one, and potentially a fatal one in cold water. While the wave train is straight forward with few problems, it’s very long and would quickly fill an open canoe. Open boaters need to be able to handle their boats when full of water and to roll. A boater playing over near the dam on the rocks must be aware of boulder sieves. The rocks may look innocent enough with water flowing over them, but if you doubt the existence of potholes and undercuts, just take the low water hike sometime. If the water looks intimidating, one may be tempted to sneak down river left along the shore. This is not a good idea. Lower water near shore allows for boulder sieves and some hydraulics to form, it’s best to stay out in the wave train. If you aren’t prepared for a long swim or an open water rescue, you shouldn’t be there in the first place.

It’s surprising the number of local boaters you run into who are clearly ready, willing and capable of paddling something a little bigger than the Dauphin Narrows, but aren’t even aware of ‘Falmouth’.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1998 Pat Reilly.  All rights reserved.

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