Blue Mountain Outfitters    river tales

Swatara Creek

River of the month #81

July 2005

When this column began 6 years ago, its stated purpose was to introduce club members to lesser-known local waterways. With this in mind, I compiled a list of creeks that I decided not to write about because they were already known to many club members, with some of them being the subject of scheduled club trips and, in many instances, subsequent trip reports. The list includes what I like to call the big 4 – Conodoguinet, Yellow Breeches, Shermans, and Swatara. Also on the list are the popular whitewater runs of Muddy and Codorus among others.

But now we’ve covered nearly every local creek – from tiny and bizarre runs, like Cedar and Asylum, which aren’t likely to interest anyone else, to respectable waters that are worthy of more paddling, like Tuscarora and Conewago west, which now have become regularly scheduled club trips. So it may be time to take another look at the ‘don’t-write’ list, especially since I’ve already written up some creeks on the list, namely Marsh, Conewago east and Penns. After all, I’ll bet there are many club members that could use additional information about popular local creeks as well as new members that aren’t familiar with these waters. And we can talk about sections of these creeks that aren’t often paddled. For example, while a number of CCGHers have paddled the rapids of Codorus Creek, putting in at Rudy Park, I wonder how many have paddled the creek through the city of York.

So…., here we go with the ‘Swatty’, a creek near and dear to many a CCGH paddler. Home to the clubs annual slalom race, this creek drains large portions of Dauphin, Lebanon and Schuylkill Counties. Six Swatara tributaries have been written up in previous ROM columns, a testimony to the large influence of this river. There’s Little Swatara and Quitapahilla, also featured in Keystone Canoeing, as well as 4 little creeks not found in the Ed Gertler guidebook – Indiantown, Mill, Manada and Beaver. So we’ve been talkin’ ‘bout the Swatty’s waters for a long time now, just not about the river itself.

The Swatara begins in the anthracite coal region of Schuylkill County. The creek starts as white water! Simple straightforward rapids begin outside the town of Tremont near the Tower City exit of route I81 and run rather continuous for 4 miles as the creek flows through a few mountain gaps. The rapids are not big or technical with 2 exceptions. First, in the Sharps Mountain gap, about 2 miles above the I-81 Ravine exit is a slightly bigger drop over 2 ledges that is sure to wake you up if the continuous little waves have been lulling you to sleep. Then, less than a mile below the exit the creek runs right up against I-81 for a while before a quick left turn, bridge, right turn combination that signals a nice medium sized drop through some boulders and over a ledge or two. Paddle through here at a good high level and you’ll find yourself buried up to your neck in froth at the bottom of the rapid - pretty cool for the ‘ole Swatty! But that’s all, folks, it’s now just riffles and flat-water all the way to Middletown.

Two tributaries swell the flow as you paddle through the back yards of Pine Grove. Rapids are gone, although riffles remain. Shortly after Pine Grove, the Swatara State Park begins. This lovely 11-mile stretch is the first place that I ever paddled a kayak. It was in the mid eighties and I was trying out a boat that I had salvaged from the bottom of the Susquehanna and patched to barely floatable condition. Some rudimentary equipment purchased from Blue Mountain Outfitters and I hit the creek with my old pal Turkey in his open boat. The kayak was a beat up old glass boat, long and rather skinny. Not having any idea how to paddle a kayak nor a clue as to how to roll one, I swam 4 times on that first trip. The last thing I heard before going under the water each time and the first thing I heard when I came up spitting and sputtering was Turkey’s hysterical laughter. When I finally confronted him as to, ‘just what the h*ll is so d*mn funny!’, he blurted out, ‘the look of sheer terror on your face.’ Well, I got back at Turk some years later when, after his second scary swim, he declared he was walking out of the Stony Creek Gorge not knowing he was standing on an island! (See ROM #67 for that story.)

With all the mayhem of that first trip I failed to notice how special this section of creek is, but on my next trip (an overnighter) I came to fully appreciate how rare 10+ miles of totally undeveloped stream bank are in Pennsylvania (especially southeastern Pa). You have to travel all the way to Clearfield County’s Moshannon Creek to find something that compares. The reason, of course, for no creek-side development is that the Bureau of Parks bought and removed all the farms and homes (as well as some old mine tailings) along the creek to make way for a dam and 7-mile reservoir for motorboats. This project has been denied by the Army Corp of Engineers and is awaiting a re-application of the permit by the Bureau of Parks. When the second application is submitted it will include a future water supply study for the Lebanon area as they attempt to justify the dam with needs other than recreational.

The original permit was denied when the Army Corp listened to the US Fish and Wildlife Service as they pointed out the rarity of the many acres of mature bottomland forest, 150 years old, that border the creek. These beautiful old woods, containing many large hardwoods and rare forested wetlands, combine with fallow farm fields, and less mature forest to form a variety of contiguous habitats that, taken together, are unequaled in this area. Observe your surroundings as you paddle through here and plan to get out of your boat. The most impressive forests are on river left toward the end near some old canal locks. Then ride your shuttle on the rail-bed bike trail on river right. This trail is downright gorgeous in spots where it burrows through the deep green woods with rock on one side and views of the creek on the other. The only blemish in this otherwise ideal flat water trip is the highway noise from I81, usually not more than ½ mile from the creek.

Since it is still undeveloped it’s hard to tell when you actually enter and exit the park. Use the two I-81 bridges over the creek to gauge the approximate boundaries. The 2nd bridge is located where the creek passes through big Blue Mountain, the final mountain gap. Now you’ll notice streamside homes re-appearing and some really trashy spots along with them. After the Lickdale area, you cruise under the I-78 bridge and into farm country. Then just as the highway noise fades away, you enter Jonestown and the pool behind the first dam. This dam is only about 2 feet high but can have a frightening hydraulic, carry left.

Next is another trip that has become a personal favorite. The creek forms a big 10-mile ‘V’ dipping south from Jonestown, then returning north to Harpers Tavern. The ‘V’ is nice and quiet with only farmland for development, and the creek is buffered nearly the entire distance with big trees. Near the end you’ll see some impressive limestone cliffs on river right, a perfect rest spot with most of the trip behind you. With the influx of the Little Swatara in Jonestown, the Swatty is now big enough to allow this section to be boatable much of the year. But what really sells me on this trip is convenience. It’s far enough out in the country to have the feel of a real getaway, yet it’s less than 30 minutes from Harrisburg via a quick blast up route 81. And the shuttle is a pleasant 5 miles on the old Jonestown Road – flat and quiet – an easy bike ride.

Farmland and quiet paddling continue from Harpers Tavern to Hershey but now you’ll see some cottages along the creek and a canoe livery too. You’ll know you’ve reached the Hershey area when the water pools up in an impoundment. You may see some motor boats as there is a public ramp at Sand Beech just north of the big hill where the famous Hershey Hotel sits overlooking the town. The dam for this impoundment is shortly below the route 39 bridge and just above the town of Union Deposit and must be avoided. At certain levels it has a hydro that looks to be absolutely inescapable! Carry right.

A few more miles of good cruising brings you to Hummelstown. You may need to search out a good spot to run the ruins of an old dam at the end of town. It seems kids are constantly rearranging the rocks here making some spots boney and un-passable. A few more miles and you hit the place where CCGH volunteers rearrange the rocks every year for the club’s annual slalom race. Many club members are intimately familiar with every riffle and rock within sight of the Fiddlers Elbow Bridge south of Hummelstown.

From Fiddlers Elbow, the final 7 miles to the mouth make for a pretty good cruise and here’s a bonus – this section runs all year if you don’t mind a little scraping. Most of this stretch has a limestone bed that allows for long deep pools, separated by little riffs or short sections of lower water. The limestone is also present on the riverbanks in the form of rocky slopes and cliffs that hide caves. Besides commercial Indian Echo Caverns there are other caves among the rocks that can be explored. Travel the creek in winter when the leaves are off the trees to find the cave entrances. That is what a gang of us did for our annual New Years Day paddle trip a few years ago. We found that our paddling shells and camping headlights are also ideal for squirming through narrow muddy caves.

On this final leg you may see the excursion/dinner train that cruises out of Middletown chugging along on river right or crossing the creek on a trestle. The limestone ends a few miles above the route 283 bridge. Then a dam pool begins with the little dam at the mouth of Iron Run. It is hardly noticeable as it’s filled with rubble on the downstream side. It makes for an easy fun rapid but has been targeted for removal by the Fish Commission for its shad restoration project. Since it is feasible to paddle upstream and attain this dam at higher water, I can’t believe they want to remove it for a fish! These shad must be pretty wimpy, the dam would be mere child’s play for a spawning salmon.

The last 2 miles through Middletown get a little urban with some industry and warehouses on river right. Then comes the mighty Susquehanna and your tour of the Swatara is complete. While I would attempt this final section at any level in a plastic boat (I’ve done it as low as 1.45 on the Hershey gauge), you should have at least 1.0 on the Harpers Tavern gauge to run from Jonestown down, possibly a little less near Hershey and Hummelstown. For the State Park section, I use 1.2 (Harpers Tavern) as a minimum plastic boat level. For the whitewater, I wouldn’t even go up to look at the Ravine rapids without at least 3.3 on the Harpers gauge.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2005 Pat Reilly.  All rights reserved.

Top of page
Copyright © 2000-2017 Blue Mountain Canoe Outfitters, Inc. All rights reserved. Policies Page. 717-957-2413
Last Page Update: Saturday, September 3, 2016