author: Pat Reilly
Last winter we reported on the West Branch Brandywine with a promise to talk about the main Brandywine the next month. Well, it’s been a year now, so we’d better get talkin’. Last year’s discussion of the bottom half of the West Branch, was about a popular Yellow-Breeches-like steam meandering through small farms and groomed estates in affluent Chester County, Pa. This character continues after the confluence with the East Branch a few miles southwest of West Chester. The now bigger river opens up more with houses and lawns replacing some of the woodlands.
In many respects the main stem Brandywine is about dams. You’ll encounter 3 on the way to Chadds Ford. Although I was able to clunk over the first 2 dams at a medium level (2.5 ft.at Chadds Ford gauge), you should beware. In June of ’09 after a big storm, 2 kayaking brothers drowned at the first dam as helpless onlookers watched from the creekside Brandywine Picnic Park. Be sure to give these dams a good look whatever the water level. The 3rd dam, right before the route 1 bridge at Chadds Ford, might not even be recognized as a dam. It’s no problem through a breakout on the right.
After Chadds Ford and the creekside Brandywine Museum (showcasing Wyeth family art) the scenery gets very soothing for the next 6 miles with woods and quiet pasture to and beyond Thompson Bridge State Park in Delaware. If you remember last year’s write-up, you’ll recall that there’s an outfitter at Northbrook that puts boats on the West Branch all summer long! Well, there are outfitters down here too. And at least one, “Wilderness Canoe Outfitters” (wilderness?), rents canoes, kayaks and tubes all summer regardless of flow. And like Northbrook, they too get the customers. This section actually is not too bad in low water. There are reportedly only a few spots that may require dragging over simple cobble bottom. It was my intent to check out this lovely stretch of creek at minimal flow firsthand last June (I had paddled it in Feb. 2006 at a medium level). But as luck would have it a summer storm hit a few hours before I launched and there was plenty of water. Dang, the one time you’re looking for low flow and …
Again referring to the West Branch discussion, whitewater was mentioned at the beginning and the end of the West Branch/main Brandywine. While the beginning of the West Branch is tight steep creek at Hibernia Park, the main stem’s ending in Wilmington is a combination of boulder garden rapids and dams. Lotsa dams! This creek has the highest concentration of dams I’ve ever encountered. In addition to the 3 already covered, there are 12 more between Thompson Bridge and tidewater making this 7-mile ‘end run’ of the Brandywine a bit of an expedition.
We’ll list the 12 dams in order and discuss their navigability as per my experience back in that February ’06 trip. I was in my Prijon Beluga, essentially a short (13.5 ft.) touring K-1 built to wildwater specs. The level was 2.35 at Chadds Ford, about medium. The boat was loaded with some camping gear making an already heavy plastic boat quite burdensome and giving me incentive to stay in it rather than carry.
1. 1.5 miles of scenic cruising below Thompson Bridge brings you to the next bridge and the first dam. It has a runable, but nasty looking breakout on the right that I took a hard look at before carrying. In a true white water boat it would probably be fun!
2. Soon you’ll see the next dam as a sign on river right warns of private property and tells you to ‘Turn Back’. Turn back? I don’t think so! I stayed in my boat and paddled down a mill race on the left past the dam that led to a short easy drag over a wooded hump of land. From below, this 3-footer looked okay to run.
3. Just downstream is an easily runable 5-foot sloping dam that leads into a nice long technical rapid as you pass the Hagley gunpowder museum. Check out the little 3-sided stone buildings that were used to make explosives. The missing wall, facing the creek, was made of wood. That way if there was an ‘incident’, the blast would blow out the wooden wall facing the creek while adjacent buildings would be protected. I guess paddlers (not to mention plant workers) were expendable in those days.
4. The next dam is vertical, about 4 or 5 foot and should be carried. Below, the creek splits around an island with more rapids on the right.
5. Now comes a sloping 5-footer that I ran in the middle and slammed into something embedded in the dam that had me thankful I was in that tough German made, injection molded Prijon boat.
6 + 7. This looks like maybe a 10 or 12 foot drop at a 30 degree angle with no hydraulic at the bottom, just some rocks to miss and a lot of froth! It looked like good clean fun, so I went for it but was surprised to find # 7 hidden in the foam. And it did have a hydro that surprised me! Luckily, it was punchable. If you have time to look up, you’ll notice you are now in the city of Wilmington and many of the creekside buildings are historic large old mills and probably represented the pinnacle of construction technology in their day.
8 + 9. These next 2 are vertical, fairly high, and both with nowhere to take out on river right. Approach with caution and carry left. Number 8 has big rocks and number 9 a fish ladder that you must negotiate on the carry. They are followed by more fun boulder-garden rapids, perhaps the biggest of the trip, and early-industrial scenery now mixed with more modern cityscape.
10. A fun dam runable via a slot in the center. It feels more like a rapid than a vertical 4-foot dam.
11. Smaller, 4 foot or so, but I carried on the right since I couldn’t see a soft landing anywhere.
12. The final dam is another small one that can be run in the middle. It’s followed by a boney class 2 rapid that carries you to sea level.
You are now close to (or in?) downtown Wilmington, Delaware. But the creek corridor is nicely surrounded by parkland here. If you continue to the mouth you’ll paddle 1.5 miles of flat tidewater past rotting warehouses and brown fields with public parking at the end.
Besides the dams and whitewater (the whitewater will not exceed class 3), you’ll have to negotiate more ‘no trespassing’ signs than the one mentioned above. I don’t know the overall legality of running this stretch of river. I do know I wasn’t bothered that February day, but probably wasn’t noticed either. It was a Monday morning (President’s Day) and quite cold.
NOTE: BMO Webmaster, Kris Wolpert, has recently put up 31 more of these river reports from “Streamlines”, formerly called “River of the Month”, on the Blue Mountain Outfitters website. These most recent 31 (there are 108 in all) represent most of our popular local creeks like Yellow Breeches, Conodoguinet, Codorus, Swatara, Shermans and more. Check ‘em out if you need info on Harrisburg area creeks.
Copyright © 2012 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.