Big Spring Creek

River of the month #22

author: Pat Reilly
date: February 2000

Last January we talked about Lebanon County’s river of anti-freeze, the Quittapahilla. Well, Cumberland County also has a creek that never freezes – Big Spring. This short tributary of the Conodoguinet is a canoeable stream right from its source. Water sufficient enough to float a boat, gurgles from the limestone of the Cumberland Valley in one… well.., big spring. Most of the actual big spring can no longer be seen, it seems our friends at the Pennsylvania Fish Commission have covered it with a fish hatchery.

Trout aren’t the only creatures to appreciate clean water at a consistent 52 degrees. Another animal, the ‘desperate diehard boater’, caught in a mid winter deep freeze will also value Big Spring’s ever-flowing waters. However he’ll have to share the creek with yet another species, the predatory ‘fish-till-I-die fly caster’. Big Spring is a very popular ‘special regulation’ trout stream, meaning that it is open for fishing all year around.

Coming here to boat in the spring or summer would undoubtedly put you in conflict with the more numerous fly caster. Such is reason number one that I choose the coldest Sunday of 1997 (1/19/97) to boat Big Spring. Reason number two was that everything else was frozen. Everything, that is, except the Quitty and the Cumberland Valley High School pool, where the sane CCGHers had congregated.

The creek only flows for 4.8 miles, beginning south of Newville and traveling north toward town. As I entered the put-in parking lot just off of Springfield Road, I was surprised to see 2 fly casters stalking their quarry. Unlike most of their species, these two had obviously refused to hibernate. We eyed each other cautiously with ‘are-you-nuts-or-what?’ looks before making small talk. I couldn’t figure out how they kept the line guides on their rods from freezing shut and they wondered how I would keep my hands warm. (Ahh, the magic of poogies.)

If you’ve never boated on a limestone spring creek, all the vegetation in the water is noteworthy. Watercress and other SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) add welcome green color to winter’s drab browns and grays. The SAV also supports the cressbug and other insects upon which the trout feed. Spring creeks, with their constant temperatures do not have the fluctuations needed to trigger the common insect hatches (mayfly, caddis, stonefly, etc.) found on most other trout streams, causing fly fisherman to change strategies. Instead these creeks support a greater number of year-around insects and consequently, more trout. If you’re observant, you’ll see trout darting for cover among the SAV and along the banks.

At first, Big Spring doesn’t make for impressive boating. It may have a lot of water for one spring (It's the fifth largest in the state.) but it thins out quickly when the creek widens, making for a boney course. It appears that fisherman and cattle have taken their toll, as the creek is quite wide in spots where the banks have been trampled. There is evidence of trout habitat improvement and stream bank stabilization work, no doubt local Boy Scout or Isaac Walton League projects. But a good bit of damage had already been done.

As you approach Newville the creek narrows and deepens when streamside shrubs and trees appear. The contrast makes a good argument for riparian tree planting projects. Just before town the creek turns left and borrows through a steep hill topped by a railroad. This tunnel is fun to paddle through without being long enough to intimidate.

On the other side of Newville, you’ll have to negotiate a shallow lake, usually filled with geese, and carry a dam at a picturesque old mill. You’ve probably noticed the mill driving along rt. 641 just east of town. Below 641 the creek finds some nice woodlands for its last 1.5 miles. But to enjoy these woods you’ll have to continue down the Conodoguinet for another 1.5 miles to the Bridge Road bridge, as there is no access at the mouth.

But never fear, the warming effect of Big Spring extends down the big Cono and it will be ice free for a few miles. There is a dam to deal with though; actually 2 dams, one on either side of an island. The river left side has an exciting narrow chute if it’s not clogged with debris. When I ran Big Spring, my kayak spray skirt froze solid to the point where it lost all elasticity. It sat on the kayak like a loose Tupperware lid. And like a Tupperware lid would do if you compressed the container, the skirt popped off when I ran the dam, compressing the boat. Needless to say, I was not happy to get soaking wet with the temp in the low teens. Luckily the take out was just around the next bend. But I still had the bicycle shuttle to deal with before getting warmed up by the truck heater.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2000 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.