Conowingo Creek

River of the month #41

author: Pat Reilly
date: September 2001

Long ago we talked about how the lower Susquehanna differs drastically from the river that most club members are familiar with. In the write-up about the Susky’s whitewater at Holtwood (see ROM, June ’99 on the BMO web site) we discussed the ‘fall line’ and how the mighty river cuts a bit of a gorge on it’s final descent into tidewater. The gorge’s steep walls prohibit the paralleling highways that plague the remainder of the Susquehanna. The heavily forested shores of the lower river would provide for a nice remote atmosphere if not for all the motorized watercraft plying the impounded waters.

But this column is not about the river. It’s about the creeks that flow into the lower Susquehanna. Knowing now that the Susky is dropping through the Piedmont Plateau, the last uplands of the East Coast before tidal marshes, an exploratory boater finds him/herself wondering about the creeks that drop off of these same uplands into the river.

First reference in this research project is the old standby, Ed Gertler’s ‘Keystone Canoeing’. We find 2 creeks in Ed’s Pennsylvania guidebook that flow into the lower gorge, one on either side of the big river, York County’s Muddy and Lancaster County’s Pequea. Now both of these are fine runs, featuring some easy whitewater and great scenery as they cut through steep-walled mini-canyons on their way to the river. But both of these creeks are already familiar to many club members and neither one is the small steep creek that we’re looking for, one that tumbles wildly over the edge of the Susquehanna’s gorge rather than cutting it’s own little gorge.

So for the next stage of research we break out the topographic maps. Hmmm, at first glance we find lots of possibilities, but upon following the thin blue lines away from the river, we notice that most are quite short. This means that they have precious little watershed and will be extremely hard to find up. The best possibility looks to be Otter Creek in York County. I’ve fished Otter Creek, a long time ago; I remember some big drops near the mouth. And I’ve talked to one club member who has run it. I was even at the creek once when it was running. But my partner was not willing, so we ended up on Muddy. Otter remains for now on my ‘hit’ list, waiting for 3 inches of rain in York County, a 6-hour window of time and a willing partner. Stay tuned, hopefully we’ll address Otter again some time.

Back to the maps. Uh-oh, what’s this gathering water in Lancaster County and heading across the border for a rendezvous with the Susquehanna’s gorge in Maryland. It’s Conowingo Creek and it seems to fit the bill, having a sufficient sized watershed and ending with a steep plunge into the river. Upon breaking out Gertler’s Maryland guidebook, lo and behold, there it is, near the back, in the book’s smallest chapter. (There’s not much Susquehanna drainage in Maryland.) Wow, the description is almost scary – ‘reaches 200 feet per mile’, ‘only postage stamp eddies’. Yep, this is what we’re looking for. Now, when can we run it?

The opportunity came with big summer rains in 1994. Rich Ertel was available for an after-work run. The nearly 2 hour drive to Conowingo brought us to the creek with little daylight to spare. The take out is in Lake Conowingo, the large impoundment created by the 101 foot high Conowingo Dam, so we couldn’t see the free flowing creek from where we dropped the car. But we could see glimpses of it while biking the shuttle and yes, it was up; up good! However we didn’t really have time to properly scout it. Thankfully, as we were putting on our gear at the put-in bridge, 2 miles up the creek, a local paddler stopped and told us that 1) there are no strainers presently in the creek and 2) there are eddies to catch, if you’re quick.

So away we went. At first the creek appears to be typical Lancaster County – very muddy and rather placid. But then short sharp drops started appearing. Just a few at first, then increasing in frequency, then increasing in intensity until you come to a small dam talked about in Ed’s book. I eddied out and looked long and hard at the complicated break-out on the right side of the dam. You had to paddle through a folded flow of water (usually problematic) and avoid being washed back into the dam’s hydraulic (always problematic). Finally I blasted through, followed by Rich. After the dam, the proverbial bottom drops out. From here to the impounded river water is one long rapid. ‘Yee-hah’! Down, down! Splash, sploosh! Then it was over. ‘Whadda rush’, as they said back in the sixties. That last ¾ of a mile is one of the more intense pieces of water I’ve been on and one of the steepest.

We probably caught it at just the right level, enough water to cover the rocks but not enough to wash out all the eddies. At 34.4 square miles of watershed Conowingo is not a big creek, one of the smallest you’ll find in Gertler’s books. I don’t believe I would consider heading down to this creek without at least an inch of rain in southern Lancaster County if in winter and 2 inches if summer.

Conowingo ends near the Susquehanna’s biggest dam, where the water is really deep. One can’t help but wonder what lies under Lake Conowingo. The whitewater ends so suddenly, it no doubt continued on before the dam was constructed.

If you happen to be lucky enough to catch this wicked little jewel up some time, use caution (dis be da disclaimer). You’ll need some experience with steep little creeks. Do as Gertler recommends and scout the whole creek before putting on. Trusting a local’s advice as we did is probably not wise. I hiked this creek once a year or so before we ran it. I was in the area running Muddy Creek and although Conowingo didn’t have near enough water to run, it made a good side trip. A nice old beech forest surrounds the creek and the land was not posted. I noticed that the creek bed was full of some type of layered rock with the strata running up and down parallel to the creek. This left it mostly free of undercuts, but the vertically layered rock may increase pinning potential. A blunt nosed creek boat would be the best choice of craft.

Three and a half hours (1.75 each way) is a lot of travel time for 30 quick minutes on the water. Being a 'steep creek' there’s really no play spots. To make the best of a trip to Conowingo Creek from Harrisburg, I would suggest also paddling the Susquehanna’s whitewater below the Holtwood Dam if the river is up. What a combination that would make, steep creek and booming big water all in one trip! Although he said it was, I wonder if Rich really thought the drive was worth it. For me there was no question. It may be a short run, but it’s long on excitement. Now, when is the next big storm coming to York County so I can get down to Otter Creek?

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.