River of the month #2

author: Pat Reilly
date: May 1998

Perry County has been the butt of hillbilly jokes for years, I guess because it is thought of as genuinely rural countryside. There are still no traffic lights is Perry County. But if you drive around the county you'll notice more development and less open space than in years past. Many of the new homes springing up are owned by commuters to Harrisburg who want, like mostly everyone, to get away from the city and own a piece of the 'country'. It's called suburban sprawl and it's running rampant, eating up open space across the USA.

So, if one wanted a creek to paddle in which to experience the Perry County of old, I believe the best choice would be to leave the county and go one further north to Juniata County and Tuscarora Creek. Juniata County reminds me of Perry County 25 years ago. Most farms are still being worked; half the vehicles you see are work trucks and not family minivans, and sometimes, people you don't even know wave hello.

With Shade Mountain forming the northern border and Tuscarora Mountain forming the southern border, Juniata County (at least the half west of the Juniata River) is Tuscarora Valley. This is classic central Pa. ridge and valley country, but don't picture a narrow ribbon like Clarks or Stoney valleys. Tuscarora is a broad valley with many sub-ridges and smaller valleys between the two big mountains. The creek takes full advantage of the landscape winding through and around some of the smaller hills to make for a scenic and truly rural Pa. stream.

There is no special stretch of Tuscarora that is a favorite; it's all good, from Blairs Mill to the mouth at Port Royal. As Ed Gertler describes in his guidebook, there is a bit of whitewater in the Narrows Branch, above Blairs Mill where it cuts through Tuscarora Mountain. But it's short (3 miles) and a long way to take a whitewater boat which you'll be stuck with on the flat water below Blairs Mill. A better idea might be to load your cruising craft and settle in for a long trip.

The first 11 miles to East Waterford are in a rather straight narrow valley, between Tuscarora Mountain and a hill to the north called 'Creek Ridge'. The creek shares this little valley with rt. 75 but most of the time is far from the road. With farms as the only development it's remote and quiet.

After East Waterford, the creek takes a left turn and starts exploring the nooks and crannies in the remainder of the Tuscarora Valley. Now the scenery undergoes constant change as the stream frequently turns and bumps up against the hills and alternates from woodland to lonely pasture. Care should be taken where the creek sometimes makes abrupt turns up against cliffs with layered shale rock, there may be undercuts.

Although there are no public lands along the creek, I have often thought this section would be good for camping. Rt. 75 is now a mile or more away and only country lanes are sometimes visible. The stretch below the rt. 850 bridge looks especially inviting. It's doubtful anyone would bother you or even know you were there.

But if you're concerned with landowners, choosing an island to camp on is usually a safe bet. And Tuscarora has lots of islands. This is the most braided creek I've ever paddled. Much of the time (at least on the upper half) you'll find yourself paddling on only a portion of the water. All these braids make for lots of choices. But it's easy if you remember the rule - Always take the braid with the most water. Don't be tempted by that appealing little path that you think will offer some challenging maneuvers. Most likely the only maneuvering you will be doing is over a strainer. Braiding makes a creek interesting but can mean more strainers and lower water.

About 3 miles below the rt. 850 bridge you encounter a few summer homes (a rarity on this creek) and a low water bridge. There is also a low water bridge above East Waterford. Approach both these bridges with caution. They both use culverts and at certain levels can create suckholes and whirlpools. One of my worst paddling nightmares is the thought of being sucked down under a low bridge. It's a toss up whether you'll come out the other side or not.

Just below the second low bridge is an island that must be a mile long. Here it's a coin toss as to which side to take. They appear to be equal volume. I've paddled down both and neither had a strainer, but river right is more secluded. This big island would no doubt make a good safe camp spot.

Tuscarora opens up just a little as it flows toward its mouth with more pasture and less woods, but it remains pretty and quiet to the end. There is a nicely restored and exceptionally long covered bridge at Academia. Picturesque talus sloops dotted with cedar trees make their appearance in the second half. Don't forget the camera. Access near the mouth is a little tough, you may want to head down the Juniata to Mexico.

The Conodoguinet can be used to gauge the Tuscarora. The Conodoguinet's levels are conveniently listed on the call-in recording (1-888-881-7555). As Ed says, you want at least 2.5 ft. for the lower creek, and 3 or more for up near Blairs Mill. These minimums are about the same for Tuscarora's counterpart in Perry County, Shermans Creek. Shermans remains a nice creek to boat but when I want to paddle the Perry County of legend, I'll head out of the county and up to Tuscarora.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1999 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.