Elk Creek

River of the month #59

author: Pat Reilly
date: May 2003

Cumberland Valley is known for an abundance of limestone underlying its farmlands and lining its streams. But Cumberland Valley certainly does not have a monopoly on limestone in central Pennsylvania. Penns Valley, stretching from State College to the little village of Woodward also has loads (or is that lodes?) of limestone and its presence is reflected in its creeks. Near the center of the valley around Coburn, several limestone creeks converge. There’s well known Penns Creek, which is born in a limestone cave, another ‘Pine Creek’ and a ‘Sinking Creek’, both of which do disappearing acts, sinking underground into limestone aquifers when the weather is dry. Finally there is little Elk Creek, the only one with some decent whitewater.

Elk Creek is actually born in Brush Valley, one above Penns Valley, but the limestone extends up there too, and Elk has the characteristics of a limestone run from the start. Clean clear water runs west down Brush Valley and tumbles into the Millheim Narrows through Brush Mountain. This is a lively stretch, but don’t expect bone-crushing whitewater. There are some easy rapids but nothing to intimidate the boater. The gradient starts out through the gap at about 40 feet per mile, mild for a creek this small. It advances to nearly 60 feet per mile in the form of continuous, bouncy rapids where the creek exits the mountain gap and enters Penns Valley. The rapids continue and even intensify a bit after the creek leaves the gap. Although the only real hazard through here is strainers, you should be prepared for constant maneuvering.

Next Elk runs through the center of small town Millheim and on into the heart of Penns Valley as its gradient settles down. Penns Valley is heavily farmed by the Amish, but the scenery is different from the intensely farmed sections of Lancaster County. And I believe Limestone is mostly responsible. Instead of the unrelenting flat fields of eastern Lancaster County, limestone can be seen poking out from everywhere - boulders sticking out of cow pastures, rocky excavated highway edges and even some limestone bluffs on little wooded hills.

The creek runs north to south from Millheim to Coburn and while paddling this 2.5-mile stretch I noticed a sizable tributary coming in from river right. Not quite big enough to paddle, I traced its path by eyesight through a cow pasture and discovered it pored directly out of a cave set in a limestone cliff on a little hill. The cave was up on the cliff a few feet so the creek was actually born as a little waterfall. How intriguing! I was dying for a closer inspection but it would have been necessary to trespass across the pasture through electric fences.

As the creek nears Coburn a few ledges surprise the boater with play opportunities, not expected on a creek this small. The creek merges with Pine Creek and doubles its flow. But that’s short lived because in less than a mile Pine Creek merges with Penns. This final stretch flows between the village of Coburn and big Seven Mountain. There is a large athletic/picnic field at the confluence with Penns Creek just above the entrance to the Seven Mountain gorge. This spot holds special memories for me and for other CCGH members, I’m sure, as it is the put-in for the popular Penns Creek Coburn to Weikert trip.

The only dam, runnable on the right, sits directly under a bridge in Millheim. It was here that Millheim native, Ed Bowman and some friends, ran into a friendly paddler many years ago. Ed described him as a ‘hippy looking guy’ that they knew right away was not from around there. The newcomer said he was exploring Elk Creek for the guidebook he was writing about Pennsylvania rivers. ‘Yeah, right’, they thought to themselves. Ed owns the canoe shop in Bellfonte - Tussey Mountain Outfitter’s. Imagine Ed’s surprise when he looked at the back cover of his first copy of ‘Keystone Canoeing’ and there was the same guy they had talked to on Elk Creek that day, namely Ed Gertler.

Pat Reilly

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