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Black Creek (Lehigh Tributary)

River of the month #35

March 2001

The Lehigh River Gorge is one of CCGH’s most popular destinations. In any given year there are bound to be numerous trips to Carbon County by club members to run either the ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ sections of the gorge. And for good reason, both are fine river trips with great scenery and continuous whitewater. But I wonder how many members are aware of the other good whitewater runs on the Lehigh’s tributaries.

In the area surrounding the gorge, that is, between the reservoir and Lehighton, there are a number of tributaries that offer smaller, steeper alternatives to the big Lehigh. A few of these tribs (mainly the ones not in Ed Gertler’s Keystone Canoeing guidebook) are very small, very steep and very challenging (and may have private property issues as well). While others are more reasonable and ready for paddling when a boater tires of the same old run down the Lehigh.

When running shuttle for the lower gorge, about midway through the trip, one must pass through the town of Weatherly. In the middle of town you travel for a few blocks next to and then over an intriguing little mine-drainage stained creek that tumbles down through a jumble of boulders beside the railroad tracks. While I’ve never really seen this tiny stream at a runable level, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to paddle. It looks exciting. When researching this stream I found that it’s named Black Creek and, to my surprise, is in Gertler’s guidebook. Although Ed recommends starting on the slightly bigger Quakake Creek about 2 miles from Weatherly and picking up the Black’s waters just downstream from town. The combination of these two provides the paddler with enough water that it doesn’t take a hurricane’s rain to bring it up, yet it’s small and steep enough to give one a feel of real ‘creeking’.

When I finally got the chance to run it, I was chased away from the Quakake put-in at the bridge on the rt. 93 shuttle road just before the right turn to Weatherly. A grumpy man in grease stained clothes from the corner repair shop told me it’s all private property and that I couldn't launch. Well it wasn’t posted and I doubt whether he owned the land but it’s not a good idea to argue with a local and then leave your car there in plain view while you run off and do exactly what he said you weren’t supposed to do. A mental image of what my poor little Honda Civic would look like upon my return had me moving on.

I launched in Weatherly on Black Creek in less than adequate water but without trespassing hassles. I scraped down the creek for a quarter of a mile of so, pushing off the bottom when I got stuck. Just before the confluence with the Quakake, one is confronted with a very steep complex boulder clogged rapid. I somehow managed to get through it staying in my boat but with the level of Black Creek it was not so much running a rapid as pin-balling through rocks. Thank God for plastic. With Quakake’s waters the creek now had a flow of slightly more than minimum and I looked forward to 4 and a half miles of virgin creek.

If one checks the rapid ratings in Keystone Canoeing, one might be inclined to think of little Black Creek as a step up from the Lehigh. I prefer to think of it not so much as a step up as a step sideways into a different type of paddling requiring different skills than those necessary to handle the bigger Lehigh. This is ‘creeking’, so you’ll need to execute tight turns, grab small eddies and make fast decisions, but today’s ultra short boats are up to the task.

There is nothing really scary on the Black. Most drops are steep but relatively straight forward for a creek this small. There is a railroad bridge about half way down the run. The meatiest drops are in the mile below this bridge. I remember one big ledge shortly after the bridge, that runs almost parallel to the current, making it a bit difficult to determine where and at what angle to drop over it to avoid its hydraulic. This ledge could be thought of as the crux move, I don’t recall anything else that was quite as challenging.

After the meaty middle section the creek settles down a notch as the scenery continually improves. Black starts in a narrow little gorge that gets narrower and deeper as you go. Near the end giant slabs of rock slant down at a very steep, almost vertical, angle from river left into the creek. It’s quite impressive, but may be hard to observe as the water keeps you busy right to the end. There is a railroad in the gorge but nothing else. And most of the time you don’t even notice the railroad. This is 4.5 miles of very secluded creek.

But don’t think of the Black as a short 5-mile run. Can you picture a railroad bridging the Lehigh after a sharp left-hand bend about halfway through the lower gorge run? Did you ever notice the little creek dumping into the Lehigh right under that bridge? Well that’s where you’ll end up on a run down the Black and you’ve got 7 more miles to the Lehigh’s lower gorge takeout at Glen Onoko. Or, if like me, 9 more miles to Jim Thorpe, where I had left my bicycle at the Blue Mountain Outfitters bicycle shop (does that name ring a bell?).

Most trips down the Black will end with a wild flush down a high Lehigh, because if the Black has sufficient water, the Lehigh should have plenty. I didn’t have it so lucky. My trip was in late winter and I suppose they were holding back at the dam. The Lehigh was running at only 1200 cfs, making for a long paddle in a creek boat. Even if I felt so inclined, it was too cold to invite playing. After taking out in town and carrying past the old railroad station to the bike shop, I found that my eyeglasses were frozen to my helmet, which I couldn’t remove due to ice buildup on the buckle. I had to traipse into the shop and excuse myself into the restroom with all my dripping gear on and hang out in there until I thawed, leaving a big puddle by the commode.

In that respect the shop came in handy, but I had selected it as my takeout point for another reason. I wanted some information about the shuttle back to Weatherly. Think again of the lower gorge shuttle. Remember the mountain you travel up and over shortly after leaving Jim Thorpe? The one with the long, long climb and wide windswept top? With the cold air and strong winds that day, I really didn’t want to tackle that mountain on the road. I had a better idea to follow the bike trail up the Lehigh Gorge, make a left turn at Black Creek and hopefully follow the Black Creek Gorge back to Weatherly. In essence, retrace my steps along the scenic river corridors completely avoiding the bland pathways of the automobile. But is one able to ride along the railroad up through Black Creek Gorge? Is there a path or must you ride on railway ballast stones (a really pain)? Is it legal? Will the law be waiting at Weatherly to yank me off my bike?

A few positive answers to these questions and I could complete my Black Creek adventure in style. But they were not to be found in the bike shop. I didn’t bother to ask the first employee; I could see by her physic that she spent little or no time on a bicycle. The other worker was no better:

‘Do you ride the Lehigh Trail?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Can you turn off the trail at Black Creek and ride to Weatherly?’

‘Where?’

‘Black Creek.’

‘Going to where?’

‘Weather…, Oh forget it.’

I took my chances and lit out for Glen Onoko and the bike trailhead at a high rate of speed, racing the coming darkness. When reaching the turn off I discovered a trail equal to the Lehigh’s bike path following the railroad right up the narrower Black Creek Gorge. No problemo! Who needs advice, go with your instincts!

I had been saving my bike light until it was totally dark, as I was unsure of the batteries. But to my delight I never needed it. It was one of those crisp clear winter evenings with a full moon creating light enough to cast razor-edged shadows. I pulled into Weatherly with my water bottle full of ice. The temperature dropping into the teens was a fair price to pay for the ghostly moonlit views of Black Creek’s Gorge.

During this past year some club trips to the Lehigh occurred after significant rainfall, when some of the Lehigh’s tributaries were likely up and running. But I’ve not heard or seen reports on anyone taking advantage of the smaller creeks. When I ran Black Creek, the USGS gauge for the Little Schuylkill at Tamaqua read 2.9 feet. I believe this to be a good gauge to use for the Black, as both creeks drain adjacent watersheds. So check your gauge readings and if you have adequate water, consider some alternatives on your next trip to Carbon County.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly.  All rights reserved.

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