River of the month #30

author: Pat Reilly
date: October 2000

I have a good deal of fun with my paddling logbooks. Over the years I’ve compiled a lot of statistics and get a kick out of playing with the data, forming lists and putting rivers into different categories. I’ve come up with some lists of paddled rivers that are truly useless to anyone, even myself. Lists such as rivers that begin with ‘Con’ (there’s a lot of them), rivers that are named after animals (lots of them too) and big and little rivers (like Big Sandy and Little Conewago). But the most dubious list has to be the list of rivers that have swallowed up my eyeglasses. Pathetic, but true, I’ve logged 5 bodies of water that contain at least one pair of my glasses settled in amongst the debris of their silty bottoms. They are: the Susquehanna (multiple pairs), the Atlantic Ocean (while kayak surfing in, where else? Surf City, NJ), the Conodoguinet, western Maryland’s Youghiogheny and eastern Pa’s Tulpehoken. Yes, I know about those straps that hold your glasses on to your head, but I have a tendency to lose track of such things and are forever losing them. No, I don’t have a list of rivers where I’ve lost eyeglass straps.

Like on the Conodoguinet, on the 'Tulpy' my glasses were stripped off by a tree branch strainer and were not lost as result of a roll or swim. Again like the Cono, it occurred during a mid-winter trip so searching for them was a freezing proposition, although I gave it a try until my feet went numb.

It happened on what I call the ‘upper’ Tulpehoken, that is, the section above the Army Corps’ Blue Marsh Lake. This section becomes boatable a few miles above the Berks County town of Womelsdorf. This is lovely rural Pa countryside, not spectacular, just quiet and pretty. The creek is about the same, gentle and soothing without complicated riffles or troublesome carries. You’ll encounter 1 dam, at a strange spot that looks like an old camp with an even stranger name – ‘Charming Forge’. After the dam the creek curves left against a pretty cliff, followed shortly by a downed tree at a spot that we’ll call ‘lost-spectacles riffle’.

I didn't see much of the next 5 miles down to the bridge about 3 miles above the lake, but I’m sure the creek retained its rural charm. This bridge lies near a large retail shopping complex called ‘Christmas Village’. It had me wondering what they do the other 11 months of the year. It sure was quiet in February when I paddled by.

From the bridge to the slack water of the reservoir is still nice creek, now with more woods and less pasture. The whole upper Tolpy reminds me a bit of the Yellow Breeches (though smaller). It seems to have limestone origins and therefore, may hold water better than comparable streams.

If you’re going all the way on the Tolpehoken, you’re faced with 7 miles of lake paddling. I wouldn’t totally write off Blue Marsh Lake. The first half of it (the upstream half?) is a no-wake zone. If it’s the boating season, you’ll see plenty of motor boats but they’re only permitted to putt-putt around. The no wake area includes an attractive finger of water that juts a few miles north of the main lake. I generally try to avoid impoundments, but if it’s a dry year and you’ve had your fill of the Susquehanna, Blue Marsh is an option.

Now we come to the Tulpy’s finest section. The upper and the lake are okay but when someone travels from Harrisburg (the epicenter of CCGH) to paddle the Tulpy, it will probably be for this final section. This is a nice stretch of creek. The first 2 miles are attractive woodlands contained within the Blue Marsh Lake Recreation area. You can put it right at the dam’s stilling basin. The final 5 miles are all parkland as well, sometimes landscaped and groomed. You won’t be alone, as the parks are very popular with fishermen, hikers, bikers, picnickers and the like. With a college nearby, there are plenty of young folks taking advantage of this pleasant setting.

My favorite feature is a bike path paralleling the creek, making for a great shuttle. But there’s also big trees, a covered bridge, a gracefully arched limestone bridge, spacious lawns and an old wagon factory turned museum.

So what more could you ask for? Reliable water, perhaps? Got that too! Last fall I was browsing the USGS river gauges on the Net. (As a genuine paddling addict, I browse river gauges same as I do guide books) It was October and the drought was in its 2nd year. Even though there had been some horrendous September storms, it was still hard to find water. I had wandered over to the Delaware River watershed gauges and noticed that the Tulpehoken gauge at Blue Marsh Dam was running over 500 cfs. Checking the graph, I saw that for the past few days it was a virtual straight line at the 670-cfs mark. This could mean only one thing, a release! Ah yes, that’s right, they have to dump water from that monstrous reservoir or its value as a flood control dam come spring would be nil. I was able to take advantage and rushed down for an after-work cruise.

Calling the Army Corp at Blue Marsh, I learned that the release goes on every October for a few weeks. The usual 500 cfs is more than enough water for the lower Tulpy. There are some nice long riffles in this section, mixed with pools and fast water.

The ‘lower’ has a dam to carry, directly under the arched limestone bridge. The dam is slopped and each section of dam between the bridge piers is concave making their hydraulics very sticky. Adding to this, the piers block exit from either side of the hydraulics. When I first ran this creek in 1991 it was early in my paddling career, and I was quite naïve about such things. I scoped it out and figured with water levels low, I could boof the dam and clear the hydraulic. (Even though the word ‘boof’ hadn’t been invented yet, the concept was.)

Actually it might have worked if the water hadn’t been too low. I scraped hard on the top of the dam, ending forward momentum and plunging the bow straight down the dam face into the hydro. In an instant I found myself in one of paddling’s worst nightmares, sidesurfing a low-head dam. Like I said, this is a crowded park and I soon had quite an audience. I managed to get out by popping my sprayskirt and as I was collecting myself on the riverbank a women informed me that her husband had just gone for help. Uh oh, time to move on and quickly. I really didn’t need the added humiliation of a river safety lecture from a volunteer fireman. My advice - stay away from this dam at any level.

If you run all the way out to the Schuylkill River, you’ll have an additional dam to carry. Keep an eye out for this one, it can be hard to see. Most will end their trip above the dam anyway, unless you want to see the city of Reading from the river (not very attractive).

Other than some Monacacy tributaries near Gettysburg, the Tulpehoken is the closest water to Harrisburg that is not in the Susquehanna’s watershed. You can reach the put-in for the lower in little over an hour heading out interstate 78 and Pa rt. 183. Once you’re past the Lebanon area water flows east toward the Schuylkill and away from the Susky. This October water levels are not looking too bad, but if we’re ever in a situation like we’ve had the previous two Octobers, and you find yourself looking for some water to paddle, head east past the Susquehanna and its tributaries to Berks County and the Tulpehoken release.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2000 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.