Little Swatara Creek

River of the month #25

author: Pat Reilly
date: May 2000

Some of us use a general rule when we head out boating after a significant rain event. We try to paddle the smallest creek that water levels will allow. The reasoning behind this philosophy is simple. Small creeks are hard to catch at runable levels, so we jump on them when we get the chance. Exploring Pennsylvania’s waterways is an opportunistic pursuit.

This viewpoint may indicate that smaller creeks are better. Not necessarily, if all creeks were runable all the time, preference would no doubt even out somewhat, although I believe a lot of us would still prefer smaller creeks. But the fact is small creeks are seldom boatable so we take every opportunity to paddle these intimate little gems when we can.

One may wonder if an ideal little creek exists that’s up, if not all the time, at least more than the norm. But what’s the norm? I would say from 10 to 40 days per year for creeks less than 100 square miles of watershed and even less for streams under 50. Considering that most of these days will be from mid winter through spring, the ‘norm’ doesn’t leave much time for comfortable boating.

Enter the Little Swatara. Now I’m certainly not saying that this creek will always be up. But, with the exception of spring creeks, it does seem to hold water better than most creeks its size. Why? I’m not sure, but there may indeed be springs in them-thar-hills north of Bethel from whence the Little Swatty gathers its waters. Maybe its lack of riffles render it navigable with less water than similar sized creeks that have more rocks or gradient. Or, at 99 square miles of drainage area, it may just be a bit bigger than what I’m used to calling a ‘small’ creek. But it sure looks small at the put-in bridge just off route 501 near Bethel, and it remains small in character all the way to its rendezvous with its larger namesake in Jonestown.

Actually there are 3 Little Swataras. All three flow east to west and all are indeed tributaries to the Swatara. There is Upper Little Swatara and Lower Little Swatara, both in Schuylkill County and both entering the main creek near Pine Grove. We are discussing the plain vanilla ‘Little Swatara’ found south of the Blue Mountain in Lebanon County and also found in Gertler’s ‘Keystone Canoeing’ guidebook. It runs south of and roughly parallels Interstate 78 and old route 22.

There are 17 very peaceful miles between Bethel and Jonestown. Other than the tiny hamlet of Greble and just a few cottages you’ll find nothing to disturb the tranquility of your paddle down this quiet creek. The scenery is nice and soothing if not spectacular. You’ll see no deep dark woods of hemlock and rhodadendrum, nor sharp turns up against overhanging cliffs, just plenty of serene farmland and pasture. There are lots of woods, but nothing expansive, usually just a buffer between you and the fields.

Little Swatty’s waters are equally passive. Barely a riffle disturbs the flow. Strainers are relatively few; the only carry I can remember was a beaver dam. And dams? Again the Little Swatara is easy on you, what I thought was only one small runable dam on the lower half of the run, turned out to be a low water bridge when I saw it at a lower level.

So, tired of that stomach-in-knots anxiety you get approaching Dee Rapid on the Codorus? Don’t like biting you fingernails in anticipation of the Susquehanna’s big waves at Falmouth or monster holes at Holdwood? Or maybe you’re simply tired of portaging dams on the Yellow Breeches or the monotonous suburbs of the Conodoguinet? If any or all of the above and if you have at least 2 feet on the Swatara’s Harpers Tavern gauge, check out the Little Swatty for some really relaxed small creek paddling.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2000 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.