Muddy Creek

River of the month #108

author: Pat Reilly

Let’s imagine the old hypothetical situation where someone has a gun to your head and demands you name your favorite local creek (local being within an hour or 2 of Harrisburg). ‘Well, it depends on whether you’re talking whitewater or flat …’ Bang, you’re dead! ‘Now wait a minute, you have to consider …’ Bang, you’re dead! No qualifiers here, just name a creek. Based on a recent camping trip with my favorite partner, son Tony, I would have to say York County’s Muddy Creek.

Now I’ve always liked the creek, but there was a 6-year period when I didn’t take the 1.5 hour drive down to southern York County to visit it. So besides just wanting an enjoyable outing, I was anxious to re-visit Muddy this past spring and refresh memories before writing about the creek. What I re-discovered was such a lovely stream, it made me wonder why I left it alone for so long. Probably because I had deemed it’s whitewater insufficient. But that was then and this is now, when an aging father, a growing boy, a beautiful April weekend and good ‘ole Muddy Creek combined to make a trip that we will forever savor.

My experiences with Muddy begin at Laurel, 21 miles up from the mouth and 3.5 miles up the North Branch. A better beginning is probably Muddy Creek Forks where the South Branch joins to form a reasonably sized creek. Although we didn't have a problem with the tiny North Branch the only time I paddled it. The time was way back in ’96 when a friend and I hopped on it just as the big rains and thaw that produced the ’96 flood (the one that took out Harrisburg’s Walnut Street bridge) were beginning. So little Muddy was actually out of it’s banks. Besides the constant wave train that accompanies a flood level creek, there was not really much whitewater or outstanding features in these upper reaches. Just nice rural cruising. From Muddy Creek Forks the waters take a predictably rural route through a shallow little gorge and some farm land with no big towns along the way and not much development. The only noteworthy event of our trip was a cold swim by my partner which he promptly blamed on me since it occurred when his open canoe crashed into my K-1 as I was surfing one of the flood generated waves. Oh well, he warmed himself by a fire he built in an abandoned house in Bridgeton as I biked the shuttle.

The real fun and first-rate scenery of Muddy Creek begins at Woodbine, 11 miles from the mouth. Just below the put-in bridge the creek enters a little wooded gorge as exposed rock becomes prevalent. The rock along this creek is schist which contains flecks of mica that make the rock sparkle and may flake off on you and your boat. This rock is layered and forms attractive cliffs and outcrops out of the water and ledge rapids within the water. The gorge has sparsely spaced little ledge rapids, two of which are meaty enough to deserve a class II rating. There is also a 3-foot dam that can be run if the creek is not too high and generating a recirculating hydraulic at the dam. The schist outcrops combine with nice hemlock forest making for great scenery. But there is development lurking very near. On river right there are many homes atop the shallow gorge that are encroaching ever closer to the water, although only a few are actually creekside. While on river left an old railroad bed is now a noisy 4-wheeler path.

The creek emerges from the gorge and flows through combined pasture and woodland for 3 or 4 miles before gorging up again. The creek has some curiously high clay banks in this area as busy route 74 crosses the creek. The highway and a few houses are the only development. It was between the gorges where we chose a comfortable camp on a flat ledge about 20 feet above the water shielded by hemlocks and an overhanging slab of schist. Across the creek from a lonely meadow and far enough from route 74 not to hear it, this spot proved ideal.

When Paper Mill road crosses about 1 creek mile below route 74 the second gorge begins to envelope the creek as the scenery goes from good to excellent. A playable double ledge rapid is at the start of 2nd gorge. After this entrance rapid, you’ll be immersed in gorgeous scenery for a mile or so when a horizon line appears. Get out and scout Snap Falls from the rocks on river right. This is a fun spot and is the first real ‘water fall’ that many area whitewater novices attempt. A chute on tight right of this 4-footer gets most folks over in their boats. Never mind that I promptly fell out of our open C-2 on this spring’s trip, making Tony glad he had elected to walk. If water is high the falls forms a keeper hydraulic but the rapid will have sufficient flow to sneak over the rocks on river left.

Rhododendron, hemlock and schist at the bottom of a now fairly deep and steep-walled wooded gorge keep the scenery near perfect. Development is no where to be found. Atop the gorge there is only farmland.

Shortly after Snap Falls comes the crux of Muddy Creek. Get out well above an obvious spot where the creek gets squeezed by angled layers of schist and drops out of sight as the approach speeds up. This is truly a rapid of consequence and one that is badly in need of a proper name. ‘The Gorge’ is all I’ve ever heard it called and it is much too spectacular to have such a generic name. When I began paddling Muddy it was considered un-runable but is now being paddled fairly frequently (though not by me anymore). As the creek narrows and drops about 10 feet through jagged slabs of schist it’s not hard to imagine the potential for pinning a boat or body. To make matters worse, it’s frequently jammed with wood. If water is high it can be snuck, sort of, by dropping over some big ledges on the right.

Carry ‘Deathtrap Falls’ (there, I just gave it a name) on the right. It’s short but tough. A fisherman’s trail on river right may help. It runs down from the Paper Mill Road bridge and brings hikers, some campers, and unfortunately, some partiers and their trash along with fishermen.

After carrying the gorge, falls, flume or whatever you want to call it, the scenery actually improves! So if it was near perfect before, it must now be perfect. Even if you disagree on Muddy being your favorite local creek, I challenge you to name a prettier mile of creek than Muddy below ‘The Gorge’. When the creek bends left through a rapid, the walls get steeper and the schist squeezes the creek down to 15 or 20 feet wide as the gradient increases a bit forming what you’ve probably been waiting for, continuous rapids - about ½ dozen of them. Never exceeding a class II you’ll delight in these friendly little drops in such a wonderful setting.

Unfortunately, like most good things, it’s all too short. A near vertical wall of rock on river left with a 25-foot water fall sliding down it’s face signals the end of paradise. Depending on the level of the Susquehanna’s Lake Coniwingo above the dam, impounded flatwater will begin at or slightly below this side waterfall. And not long after the water flattens, summer homes appear as you make you way out of the gorge and into the big river, now in the land of the motorboat. Then you have a choice of paddling about 1 mile upstream to the PFBC Muddy Creek access (also the takeout for the Holtwood run on the Susquehanna, as per ROM # 15) or 1 mile downstream to public access at Cold Cabin, just down the road from the Stark Moon paddling shop.

Muddy is not a big creek at all, it has only 52 square miles of watershed making it one of the smaller creeks in Ed Gertler’s Keystone Canoeing guidebook. But for it’s size, it runs fairly frequently. I met a group of paddlers from Lancaster County who claim they paddle the lower gorge all summer regardless of rainfall! I’m not advocating that, but I find that the Codorus gauge in York gives a fair reading of when Muddy has sufficient water. I use about 2.8 for a minimum, just a little more than the Codorus minimum (a much larger creek at 278 square miles).

I’d like to conclude with two points about running Muddy. First, if you travel the 1.5 hours down from Harrisburg (or from anywhere for that matter), why not do the 11 mile trip from Woodbine and take in both gorges. I used to do like everyone else and put in at Paper Mill Road and just do the 3.5 mile lower gorge. Besides being too short of a trip there are parking issues at Paper Mill Road. I’ve heard many reports of the landowners not allowing cars to park near the bridge, although Tony and I saw 3 parked there when we boated through on April 18th of this year. Secondly, don’t head down to Muddy just to get your whitewater fix. Besides Snap Falls and The Gorge, the whitewater is pretty mild. Instead, paddle Muddy Creek for its beauty, in which case you won’t be disappointed.

Pat Reilly

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