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West Branch Mahantango West

River of the month #69

April 2004

Now what kind of a creek name is that? Well, as it has been noted before, there are two Mahantango Creeks, one on either side of the Susquehanna. This is a weird situation that I have no explanation for. But it occurs 4 times down the main stem of the Susquehanna. In all 4 instances, there are pairs of creeks with identical names that enter the Susquehanna within a mile or 2 of each other, but on opposite sides of the river. Starting at the mouth of the Susky, the first pair is Muddy Creek in York County with Muddy Run, impounded and used as a pump storage facility, on the Lancaster side. Next there are the two Conewago Creeks, both reported on in ‘River of the Month’ (Conewago east just last month). Then little Fishing Creeks enter the big river at Marysville and Fort Hunter, practically opposite each other. Again, both have been subjects of this column. Finally, we have the Mahantangos, which have both been written up as well. In the case of Mahantango west, we talked about the main branch, also called the North Branch, and focused on how this river gathers it waters quickly since it drains a wide area instead of a narrow valley. It was noted that this main branch merges with the West Branch just two miles up from the mouth. I got a chance to explore the West Branch during the unbelievably rainy June of 2003. And being much more remote without the paralleling roads of the North Branch, the West Branch is a better paddle trip.

I launched at a lonely spot off of an insignificant country road about a mile from Aborgast Church in Snyder County. How lonely was it? Lonely enough to change clothes on the side of the road after the bike shuttle. This spot is a few miles north of the insignificant town of Oriental in Juniata County. Ever heard of these places? I sure hadn’t. If you get the idea that this creek has a remote watershed, you’re catching on. So how did I end up here? Well, it started with route 104. When traveling on this popular road north toward middle-of-the-state destinations like Middle Creek, Penns Creek or the West Branch of the Susquehanna, you pass over a cute little creek just a few miles after you turn off of route 11 and 15 north of the Perry County town of Liverpool. I used to look over at this inviting waterway as it paralleled the highway north of the bridge and anticipate a paddle trip. After a partner and I finally bagged this creek in 1998, we noticed a tributary (the West Branch) of equal (or possibly larger) size joining Mahantango right at the route 104 bridge. I knew then that if I really wanted to get a handle on Mahantango’s basin that I would have to return and paddle the West Branch.

I was glad when I did. The West Branch forms the border of Juniata and Snyder Counties draining a mostly forgotten section of each. Only the quietest of farms and the loneliest of roads contact the creek. This is ridge and valley country, but Mahantango’s West Branch drains a jumble of smaller sub-ridges with name like Dresslers Ridge, Frymoyer Ridge and Hooflander Mountain. Scattered over and between these ridges are little farms and big wood lots with the West Branch spending a lot of time in the forest. Its wooded path is stepped in a south, then east, then south again, then east again pattern with each leg being about 2 miles. There are two covered bridges along the way, one in use and one deteriorating badly. The creek bed has only mild gradient and no features that create anything more than easy riffles. There are no dams to carry. The creek frequently braids and occasionally makes sharp turns up against steep sloping hemlock woods creating that classic Central Pennsylvania streamside scenery.

My particular run down the West Branch Mahantango was in flood. The creek was in its natural channel at the put in, about 7.5 creek miles from the confluence with the main branch. But as soon as I started down the creek it left its banks and was out of them for a good portion of the trip. Strainers on floodwater can be lethal. And one would expect a lot of strainers paddling a little creek like this in a mostly wooded setting. But I carried not a one! Besides the usual creative strainer dodging that includes limboing under, banging over and crashing through, I was able to detour around many jams by paddling through the flooded woods. I realize that this sounds reckless and, to be honest, it was a bit dicey at times. But as we’ve noted before, safety is a lot about knowing your capabilities and honestly evaluating each situation. I used care and never allowed myself to paddle past a questionable ‘point of no return’, where you commit to a route that you weren’t sure you could make or bail out of. So I had a good run and was quite amazed to reach the take out not having gotten out of the boat once when I was fully prepared to carry a half dozen times or more. Wow!

Shermans Creek gauge read 7 feet when I paddled the West Branch Mahantango, but you wouldn’t need quite that much water. A closer gauge would be Penns Creek but that gauge is too far downstream in its watershed. By the time the Penns gauge spikes, the water would already be out of a small creek like the West Branch. Just look for 2 or 3 inches of rain in Snyder County. Now with that much precipitation you would have many options, and the West Branch Mahantango west would be a good one.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2004 Pat Reilly.  All rights reserved.

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