River of the month #3

author: Pat Reilly
date: June 1998

Coal mining; you don't have to go far to find the effects of digging for coal in Pennsylvania. And locally, you need go no further than northern Dauphin County, home of Wiconisco Creek. Black Creek, the locals call it, because for years it ran black carrying a heavy load of coal dust. The dust is still there in the sediment, but the waters run clearer, since the coal is mostly mined out. The creek is much healthier these days and even supports trout.

Dispute past abuses, 'Black Creek' makes for some good boating. Around the town of Lykens and in the last few miles, there is mild whitewater. Let's face it, central Pa. is not blessed with an abundance of white water, so even though it's easy, I believe there are a good many paddlers who would find the 'juicy' sections of Wiconisco to their liking. Quite a few professed 'flat water' paddlers have confided in me that they wouldn't mind a little more excitement in their paddling, but they just weren't ready to re-outfit their boats and head for Codorus or Muddy. Maybe Wiconisco is for them.

Skip the top part above Lykens unless you don't mind carrying. It's flat and swampy, full of alders and birch, and twists back and forth like a New Jersey 'Pine Barrens' river. But unlike the well traveled Pine Barrens streams, Wiconisco's strainers are not cut out.

I like to put it at Arch Street right in Lykens. Then you catch all the white water and can get a glimpse of what acid mine drainage is all about. Just before the riffles kick in, Bear Run enters from the right, orange and stinky. This little tributary is as full of iron oxide as any creek you'll ever see, including Muddy Run, that infamous tributary of the Cheat at Albright. The contrast of the two waters is striking. If you're curious about the source of the pollution or want a firsthand lesson on mine damage, drive up Bear Run about a mile to a parking area used by hunters. Just below an odd manmade waterfall there are some old mine shafts oozing orange slime and wafting enough rotten egg odor from hydrogen sulfide gas to knock you off your feet. As long as you've come this far, hike up the creek just around the bend to the east and see where a now pure Bear Run careens down through the rocks, off of Big Lick Mountain at a rate approaching 500 feet per mile. Now let's see, if you recruited some crazed creek boaters and it really really really rained, you could make a video.

Acid mine drainage, with it's accompanying iron oxide, looks awful and does nothing for aquatic life, but other than tasting bad, is harmless to the paddler. And once in Wiconisco, it is diluted enough to cause little damage. The town of Lykens does nothing for the creek either, as the scenery is bland. But riffles are continuous and get rather steep where the creek turns left to go under rt. 209 by an old black coal shaker.

From here on you can hopefully forget about coal and concentrate on paddling. The next few miles are spicy with plenty of riffles. In 'Keystone Canoeing' Ed Getler calls this water class 2. I believe this designation comes from the sharp turns and fallen logs as much as from the water. There are a few decent drops, yes, but quick turns, overhangs, and probably a few logjams will all add to the challenge. Just take it slow and watch well ahead.

Before you go back under rt. 209 at Loyalton the water eases off and the creek returns to easy cruising. While maybe not spectacular, the next 16 miles are pretty and have a more rural flavor than do creeks closer to Harrisburg. I remember startling a herd of cattle into a stampede while cruising a few miles below Loyalton. As the creek was making a slow 180-degree bend to the left, the bulls, on river left, couldn't seem to get away from the water. I sprinted hard to keep them moving and slapped the surface with my paddle if they slowed. They looked like they could use the exercise. The creek is now large enough that strainers are not usually a problem. A restored white covered bridge complements the scenery.

When Wiconisco passes under rt. 209 for the third time the action picks up again. Riffles add fun to this last section as more homes and cottages take away from the scenery. The town park at the confluence with the Susquehanna makes a nice take out. Check out the huge tulip popular trees in south end of the park, only slightly smaller than the state record directly across the river (take the Millersburg ferry).

I normally never have a problem with Gertler's gauge readings, but the ones he lists for Wiconisco, I've found to be high. I've paddled the section above Loyalton at levels just above 2 feet on the Swatara Harper's Tavern gauge, and the lower section of the creek with just 1.5 feet. Now these levels were boney and since the Swatara is a different watershed, it's best to inspect on site. Check out riffles below the Rt. 147 bridge in Millersburg to judge the lower section and the riffles below the Rt. 209 bridge in Lykens for the upper whitewater run.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1998 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.