PA's Best Whitewater

River of the month #49

author: Pat Reilly
date: June 2002

Quick! What’s the finest whitewater run in the state? No doubt you would get more than one answer to that question if you asked a group of Pennsylvania whitewater paddlers. Some would say the Youghiogheny, citing its reliability and numerous play spots. Others might pick an obscure steep creek, like Rock Run or maybe a big-water play spot like Holtwood on the Susquehanna. And at least a few would probably agree with my choice. For a good long run with continuous whitewater and plenty of variety, you can’t beat the Dark Shade, Shade, Stonycreek run.

Wait a minute, that’s three rivers! Yes, but it’s only one trip and that’s the magic of it. It starts off as a steep creek and ends in booming big water, with no let-up in between. You drop 800 vertical feet during a 15-mile run and that’s pretty darn good for the Keystone State, not known for towering mountain ranges or lofty plateaus. To get an idea of how much vertical that is, in a local perspective, take Swatara Creek as an example. To get in 800 feet of drop you would have to go way up to the Schuylkill county ‘coal country’ town of Tremont. Now paddle all the way down the Swatty, but don’t stop at the mouth. Continue down the Susquehanna to tidewater, a total linear distance of 120 miles. Now, further consider that over 250 feet of that drop would be taken up portaging hydro dams on the lower Susquehanna. Sounds much easier to make the trip to Somerset County some spring during snowmelt and discover the ‘Shades’ and Stonycreek.

Now we can’t very well describe all 3 rivers in detail here. No need, Gertler has taken care of that. Besides, these creeks are already familiar to some club members. I recall at least one account of a run down Clear Shade and Shade creeks in ‘Streamlines’ back in ‘97. What we’ll talk about is this unique paddle trip as it transcends the three rivers.

Picture yourself at the confluence of Dark Shade and Clear Shade creeks (the start of Shade Creek), south of the village of Cairnbrook in Somerset County. At 2000 feet above sea level, you’re already higher than any mountaintop near Harrisburg. If you were to travel to this spot via route 30, the Lincoln Highway, you would climb up and down a number of mountains as you traverse the ridge and valley region of the state. After passing through Bedford you would once again climb a big mountain. But this time you don’t go back down. It is up here, on this plateau where the Shades and Stonycreek gather their waters and here where they start cutting down through rock and forming their gorges. You may be high in the forested hills, but it’s far from pristine up here. The woods have mining scars and the creeks (except for Clear Shade) are stained that infamous Pennsylvania sulfuric acid mine drainage iron oxide orange.

From the confluence you can judge water levels and hike up to get a look at the final drops of Dark Shade. Clear Shade is also an option. But to get maximum drop in a short distance, not to mention the best rapids, Dark Shade is the premium choice. Especially when you consider that it’s going to be a long day if you go all the way down the Stony. Clear Shade is a much longer run than Dark Shade.

Start your trip down Dark Shade at the first bridge up from the confluence. It’s only a mile away but it’s 100 feet up! This is a mile of creek that you won’t likely forget. There are some great ledge drops on this stream and big boulders to negotiate as well. I remember a long sloping ledge into a pillow with a hard right turn. Neat! Then there’s a four-foot waterfall that will probably need scouted. Pick you way down carefully and enjoy it because it’s over quickly.

The gradient lets up at the confluence with Clear Shade but it still averages a respectable 60 feet per mile for 9 and a half long miles down Shade Creek. Shade is a medium sized creek with medium sized rapids, very continuous and playable. Most rapids are straightforward over numerous ledges or over boulder piles formed by a recent flood. Evidence of this catastrophic flood (1977, I think) can be seen in the creek’s ‘scoured-out’ appearance. Picking up tributaries along the way, Shade develops some nice juicy drops with big waves and holes near the bottom at the town of Seanor.

Now comes Stonycreek. With a gradient of 35 feet per mile for 4.3 miles, Stony is more big water than steep creek. When I did this run, rapid snowmelt was causing all the creeks on the plateau to rise quickly as we made our way down Shade. So by the time we hit Stony, it was smoking, big time. All the rocks were covered - and Stony has some big rocks – and the waves and holes were B…BIG. I was more intimidated by Stony than by Dark Shade, even though I had run Stony before and Dark Shade is considered more difficult. Rapid snowmelt or not, anytime you do this trip, Stonycreek will really be cooking if you have enough water to get down Dark Shade or Clear Shade. So expect some big waves and big sticky holes. The holes on Stony are especially grabby due to many of them being formed by sloping ledges.

Carry big Powder Dam at the old water plant and watch out for the large hole formed by the pipeline crossing below the dam. Take out at the bridge by the confluence with dirty old Paint Creek, plop down on a rock for a much-needed breather and contemplate this question, ‘Is there a better run in the state?’ I think not. Still not tired? Ignore its pollution and give little Paint Creek a try. If Dark Shade is up it too may be up, but beware, Paint is a step above Dark Shade in difficulty.

I was on the lookout for a particular island during that high snowmelt run down Stony. I knew it was somewhere near the end of the trip in heavy whitewater, but the island was covered that day. I remembered it from my initial run down Stony way back in 1990 and I wanted to reminisce. On that first run, Doug Gibson was leading 3 of us novices down the creek at a good medium-high level. There was former CCGHer Dave Ertel, myself and my old buddy Greg, a.k.a. Turkey. Turkey was in an open boat, an old long design, not necessarily meant for heavy whitewater. Turkey was high on enthusiasm but low on experience and equipment; Doug had to lend him a helmet. After Turkey’s second big swim we picked up the pieces and were all standing at the waters’ edge staring down at yet another gnarly rapid.

The Turk took a long look and said, ‘That’s it for me, I’m walking out’.
The rest of us looked at each other and then at Turk, ‘I don’t think so, Turkey’.
‘Whaddaya talkin’ about?’
‘You’re standing on an island.’
‘Get out!’

We walked through the bushes to show him the water on the other side, which also contained a rapid of consequence. Since he had been swimming he failed to notice the current splitting around the island. What did he do? What could he do? We all had a good laugh while the Turk shrugged his shoulders and got back in his boat, which he managed to stay in for the remainder of the trip.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2002 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.