The Conewago (York County)

River of the month #1

author: Pat Reilly
date: April 1998

Now that my marital status allows for less paddling than previous years (this is not a bad thing, mind you), I find myself reading accounts of trips from years gone by in my logs. As I reminisce over these past experiences I think there may be club members that wouldn’t mind learning more about some of our less popular local waterways. (Besides, I get to relive some good paddling trips as I write). Hence this column. If anyone has any questions or would like more info about any of the rivers in this column, just give me a call, I love to talk paddling (numbers are in the membership booklet).

Pat Reilly

The Conewago

When paddlers talk of local canoe streams inevitably 4 creeks come to mind, the Conodoguinet , Shermans, Swatara and Yellow Breeches. The bulk of local creek paddling (not to be confused with ‘steep creek’ white water) seems to occur on these creeks. I’ve noticed numerous club trips on all 4. But York County’s Conewago always seems to go unnoticed and unmentioned. I can’t help but think this might be in part due to the bum rap Ed Gertler gives this waterway in his guidebook, ‘Keystone Canoeing’. He describes the Conewago as flowing ‘69 canoeable but lackluster miles’. I’ve been using Ed’s guidebooks for years and agree with him 99% of the time but I must take exception with his opinion of the Conewago. In the 73 miles of Conewago that I’ve boated, few were lackluster.

The Conewago begins in South Mountain above the town of Arendtsville. As Ed says in his book, it’s worth a drive up rt. 234 just to look at it tumble out of the mountain. At about 100 ft. per mile and with plenty of obstacles (i.e. boulders), this may be the best steep creek white water in central Pa. But, alas, it is forbidden fruit. Even though a handful of club members have run this section and gotten away with it, the fishing club that leases and posts the land has made it known that they will call the police, the police will show up and arrest you and the district justice will convict you. I don’t think he wants to hear any of that stuff about ‘navigable waterways’. So unless you’re prepared to deal with the law, this section is best left to viewing only.

After Arendtsville and down to the first dam around New Chester, the Conewago is rather typical of Pa’s small rural streams. It features pastures, wetlands and woods, plenty of riffles and, oh yeah, strainers. After the dam you have more water (hence, fewer strainers) and actually a few rapids as the creek passes through the diabase belt. The diabase belt, mentioned in Gertler’s book, is a narrow band of hard rock over which several canoeable streams in York and Adams counties flow. It’s most noted for forming the rapids in Gettysburg’s popular Marsh Creek, but I’ve also paddled through the distinct rounded boulders of the belt in Bermudian Creek and Middle Creek (Adams County, not Mary Klaue’s Middle Creek in Synder County). On the Conewago there is little gradient when the diabase is encountered but it will force you to do some hard maneuvering and spices up the scenery.

Shortly after the diabase the dams and pools start and continue for miles with remarkable regularity. Every 3 to 4 miles is an old mill dam, sometimes with many summer homes in the impoundment. A curiosity is the large amount of concrete bulkheads, steps and docks that go with these homes. The scenery is still rural but in some pools, the number of seasonal dwellings approaches the obnoxious level, especially around East Berlin. It is no doubt this section that turned off Ed. With little free flowing water between deeper impounded water, you can string together a nice summer excursion with only minimal scraping (if you don’t mind carrying the dams) when most other creeks this size are too low to paddle. But a better idea is to skip these pools and check out the lower creek, for most of us it’s closer to home anyway.

The string of dams ends at Detters Mill near Dover. From here to the river is fine paddling for 27 miles. For the first half of this section the red sandstone that gave this part of York County the nickname ‘Redland’, can be seen on the talus sloops bordering the creek, usually accompanied with cedar trees. Four miles downstream from rt. 74 on Conewago Rd., there is a canoe launch built by boy scouts. From here to the rt. 295 bridge makes an excellent 12-mile trip. For most of this section the creek winds through a long wooded gorge with almost no development. You’ve probably viewed the end of the gorge from high up on the rt. 83 bridge between Newberrytown and Strinestown exits. There are lots of riffles, but no real rapids to speak of, except for an old deteriorating dam just above rt. 295 that offers a variety of runnable routes to challenge you at trips end, with the comfort of knowing your car is near if you mess up. The best chute is in the middle just to the right of an island. Just make sure you finish your trip before dark. The next time you’re at Blue Mountain Outfitters, ask Doug to show you what can happen to your boat should you attempt to run the dam at night. In terms of its remoteness, length of paddleable season, and nearness to Harrisburg, I believe this section to be unrivaled in our area.

From rt. 295 to the river the scenery flattens out and returns to open country, mostly farm land. As you near the mouth, the creek forms the boundary between the Susquehanna’s West Shore and Bruners Island (technically not really an island). You may get a glimpse of the enormous PP+L coal fired power plant on the island. The creek finishes up right at the hydroelectric power plant in York Haven. Give it a try, when you tire of the usual runs on the ‘big 4’.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1999 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.