Mahantango (East)

River of the month #38

author: Pat Reilly
date: June 2001

Ma-han-tan-go? Here I’m writing for the second time about a Mahantango Creek and I still don’t know how to pronounce the name! I’ve only ever seen it in print; maybe I should talk more to the local residents. The first Mahantango we talked about, in July of last year, is an obscure little Synder County creek with its mouth on the Susquehanna’s west shore above Liverpool. This Mahantango enters the Susquehanna on the east side nearly opposite its smaller ‘twin’. Being much larger, paddling the east shore’s Mahantango is a much different experience. For starters it’s certainly easier to find at runable levels. The 17-mile trip from Klingerstown to the Susquehanna will often be up in winter and spring.

I’ve never paddled such a two-sided creek as this section. Yes, of course all rivers have two sides, but I’ve not seen such consistently different scenery as on the 2 banks of Mahantango. The south side (river left) is mostly wooded with Mahantango Mountain rising quickly up from the creek bank and hemlocks often towering over the creek. It’s also all Dauphin County. The north bank is mostly lined with farms, sometimes with wooded buffers, sometimes without, and it’s all Northumberland County. The contrast can be nice, the best of both worlds - forested mountain and wide open pasture.

Hardly any cottages or development line the creek. The waters are equally placid; not many riffles or features to keep you on your toes. Even this stretch’s only town won’t be noticed from the water. The only way that you’ll know you’re at the village of Pillow is when you get out to carry (or line) the run’s only dam. This all makes for relaxed paddling on a remote medium sized creek not too far from Harrisburg. Sound good?

I’ve always felt that each river should be continuous from source to mouth. To put it another way, there should be one tributary that carries the river’s name all the way to its origin. I never liked a scenario like that found below Gettysburg where Marsh Creek and Rock Creek combine to form the Monocacy River. This means the Monocacy has no real source! Same with the Ohio formed by the Allegheny and Monongahela at Pittsburgh’s three-rivers area. Three rivers? I only count two, it’s either the Allegheny or the Mongohela joining the Ohio. One has got to be the tributary and the other the main stem, which is it? I suppose going with ‘branches’ or ‘forks’ is acceptable, as in West and East Branches of Antietam or North and South Forks of the Payette. Now all this may seem trivial to you but it’s one of many river mysteries that I ponder when solo cruising a leisurely creek like Mahantango.

At first glance one would think that I would have no complaint with Mahantango, since the name goes with a branch from Klingerstown all the way to unnamed (and unboatable) rivulets west of Rough and Ready (yes, that’s the town’s name). But an unstated (because it’s so obvious) amendment to the ‘River-Naming-Decree’ is that the tributary caring the name must be the largest or, at the very least, a major tributary. Mahantango is clearly in violation here. At Klingerstown, at least 2/3 of the water is coming from Pine Creek. What’s left of Mahantango upstream of Klingerstown amounts to a micro-stream, seldom up and a far cry from the wide cruising creek below town.

That’s not to say that we’ll simply dismiss the ‘Upper Mahantango’, it too is a good run, when you can catch it up. It’s just that Pine Creek should carry the Mahantango name. Heck, there aren’t any pine trees along its banks anyway! But we’ll get to Pine Creek in a latter column.

While the mouth of Mahantango is not that long of a trip from Harrisburg, being a few miles north of Millersburg, by the time you get to the head of navigation for the ‘Upper’, around Rough and Ready, you’re out in the ‘boonies’, big time. There’s nothing up here and that should suit the exploratory boater just fine. I never really did see Rough and Ready, unless the name goes with a lonely crossroads just west of where I put in on Little Mahantango, which was just north of the confluence with the ‘main’. This crossroads has one (count ‘em, one) house. But another house, a barn and a church are nearby. I suppose the church and the accompanying cemetery qualify it as a town, but where did the founding fathers come up with that name?

I was surprised by how quickly this run went, the creek being nearly constant riffles but without real rapids. You go under 3 bridges in the 6 miles to Klingerstown, but that's about the only time you notice any roads. Farms and other structures are noticeably absent too. This is a real lonely trip, a fast riffly trip through the woods.

There used to be a gauge for the upper run at Klingerstown, but it's been taken off the web site. Using the lower gauge near Dalmatia, I would want to see at least 3 feet before going up to look at the upper. But 2.1 feet ought to be sufficient for the lower portion.

So what we have here is really two runs that should be two different river names, but we won't get back into that. A really out-of-the-way fast little creek for the exploratory boater or a nice 2-sided cruising creek. Give one of 'em a try some time and let me know if you find out how to pronounce the name.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.