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Deer Creek

River of the month #105

What is it with rivers just south of our border down in Maryland? It seems that the 6 rivers discussed in previous ROM columns that originate in (or near) southern Pennsylvania and flow south through Maryland seem to be of exceptional quality. Is there some common formula that affects northern Maryland rivers? Let’s review for a minute, working west to east, we’ve reported on:

Sideling Hill – A top-shelf river with a wilderness section, its location in the western mountains and a Maryland wildlife management area keep it very secluded.

Conocochegue – A quiet river that has way less development along its banks than its counterpart, the Conodoguinet, which drains the northern end of the same valley.

Antietam – This popular paddling stream probably benefits as much from its limestone base as from flowing through scenic Antietam National Battlefield.

Monocacy – A soothing flat water river, the Monocacy is notable for its lack of paralleling roads.

Gunpowder Falls – Exciting whitewater and scheduled releases keep paddlers coming to this river while a state park keeps the river scenic.

Octoraro – Flowing out of heavily farmed and populated Lancaster County, Pa. this is another creek that is more remote than one would expect.

Two main reasons allow for greater peace and quiet when paddling Maryland rivers. First is the fact that Maryland has laws requiring any soil disturbance to be set back well away from the water's edge. This keeps not only structures from lining the creeks, but plowed fields as well. These Maryland laws have been on the books for a number of years while in Pa we are only now proposing setback (aka steam buffer) laws. And developers are fighting hard against them.

The second reason is that Maryland appears to have a habit of locking up long sections of their rivers in state parks. Sideling Hill has a vast Md. wildlife management area, comparable to a Pa. state game land, keeping it preserved and Antietam has the battlefield with the stewardship of the NPS to guard it's lower reaches. But it is Maryland state parks that protect most of the paddleable sections of Gunpowder Falls, the lower section of Octoraro and much of Deer Creek.


Three parks help protect Deer Creek's corridor, situated between Interstate 83 and the Susquehanna River (into which it flows). Deer’s headwaters are in Pa. while the boatable creek is in Baltimore and Harvard Counties, Maryland. You’ll see little streamside development paddling Deer Creek, but remoteness is not the only thing this waterway has going for it. A rocky streambed makes for plenty of riffles and small rapids while two spots will take the paddler by surprise with serious rapids. Add good water quality and pretty woods to this mix and you’ve got yourself a great paddling creek lying just below York County, Pa.

To paddle the upper waters of Deer Creek you'll need to find a small but boatable sized stream flowing east through the meadows of Gorsuch Mills, just below the Maryland border southeast of Stewertstown, Pa.  The creek initially snakes along bordered by unusually high clay banks as you paddle under many foot bridges from a summer camp trail.  The meadows and clay slowly give way to woods and rocks as numerous riffles and small rapids take form.  Streamside hemlocks appear as the creek takes on a pretty woodsy setting with plenty of rocky outcrops.

Watch out for a low water bridge in the woods. Then some real fun comes after you pass under a power line and approach a horizon line where the creek is squeezed by huge boulders. This rapid took me by surprise! Three ledges of about 2 feet each, spaced rather close together, delightfully spiced up my trip but nearly swamped my boat. The boulders, whitewater and woods made a lovely picnic spot on a warm April day as I stopped to dump water from my boat..

The creek reverts back to its smaller stuff - riffles, some just big enough to be called rapids.  All along, almost no homes are visible from the water, just pretty woods.  A hiking trail parking area 10 miles into the trip at the Carea Road bridge makes a good put-in/take-out.

Not far after Carea Road the creek gradually flattens until it becomes evident that you are in an impoundment.  The woods now give way to some pasture.  But there are still few buildings to see from the creek, until you practically run into one – Edens Mill, at the dam site.  While carrying the 15-foot mill dam be sure and stop to check out the superb nature center that now occupies the old mill. My son and his young friend had a ball checking out all the stuffed critters and hands-on displays when we boated through.

You’ll have some wide open lands with no streamside tree buffers to contend with after the mill.  But at least they’re farm lands and not a housing development. When the woods return you enter The Rocks State Park.  This is one section that does have some paralleling roads. As you’re paddling along side busy route 24 through the park and through a small mountain gap, be sure to get out and scout where the creek narrows and the gradient picks up.  The increased gradient signals a rapid of consequence.  It’s long, very narrow and bordered by sharp rock just waiting to grab your boat. A pool below this rapid is followed by a 4-foot chute dropping onto a submerged boulder.  Although this rapid is no real problem (it’s a lot of fun, actually) in a proper whitewater craft with an experienced paddler, I’ve shied away from the jagged upper drop in touring and open boats.  When out of your boat to scout or carry, be sure to take the short steep hike up the park trail to the rocks that give the park its name.  In half a dozen trips to the park, I’ve never failed to see numerous climbers roped off and enjoying the cliff faces high above the creek.

From the Rocks State Park to its mouth Deer Creek just continues to be a great stream for paddlers.  The remaining 25 miles just has fewer homes and development, more rocks and riffles, cleaner water and prettier woods than the average creek. I’ve pulled off two camping trips in this section, no doubt on private land but we weren’t bothered.

There is a lovely wooded section with technical but easy little rapids below route 1 where the creek ‘gorges up’ a bit. This section lies in Palmer State Park but there is no way to tell it other than maps. Like some other Maryland parks, Palmer is undeveloped. There are two dams in the final miles, one runnable through a break-out on river left. Then Deer Creek serves up some more simple rapids as a finale when it enter yet another park – Susquehanna State Park – where it dumps into the big river just above tide water.

Levels? For the upper creek near Gorsuch Mills you'll need 3.0 at the very least on the USGS online gauge. But consider that the gauge is pretty far downstream below The Rocks State Park, so you'll need even more than 3.0 if the guage is falling. For the area around the park and downstream, look for 2.5 as a minimum and that would only be a plastic boat level. This is a rather touchy gauge, meaning a little difference can be a big difference on the water. The rapid at the park could probably be run at any level since it is so constricted.

Deer Creek’s clean clear waters invite you to 'come on in!'. On a July Saturday in ’06, son Tony and I awoke camped along Deer Creek above the pretty gorge near route 1. After packing the canoe we were hot and took a morning plunge. Halfway down we stopped for another refreshing dip. At trips end we unloaded the boat, and proceeded to jump off the route 136 bridge pier into a deep clear pool. After the bicycle shuttle we cooled ourselves again with a swim at the put-in. Back to the take out to pick up the boat and we couldn’t resist more jumps off the pier. Then we drove to the Rocks State Park to hike up and check out the rock climbers. This was followed by many more jumps off the shoreline boulders into a pool above the big rapid. We just couldn’t get enough of Deer Creek’s cool invigorating waters that memorable hot July day.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2010 Pat Reilly.  All rights reserved.

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