Little Schuylkill

River of the month #63

author: Pat Reilly
date: September 2003

I had this river targeted ever since I paddled the lower section in January 95. I thought it was an exceptional river then and was anxious to finish it. It took over 8 years until I finally got in the upper half. And, I was right, it is an exceptional run. The Schuylkill basin, with most of it’s watershed heavily mined or heavily populated (or both), isn’t known for good paddling rivers, but the Little Schuylkill would be a good paddling river no matter where it was located! I know of a few other club members who have also been targeting this creek. I would encourage all members with an exploratory nature to make the trip to Schuylkill County and look up the Little Schuylkill. It’s a goody.

You can get to the mouth of the Little Schuylkill from Harrisburg in one hour, driving out Interstates 81 and 78 to Pa route 61. You’ll face an additional 40 minutes if you’re going all the way to the top. And you should go all the way to the top - to route 54 north of Tamaqua - to get in the best of the best of the Little Schuylkill. Another option to reach the upper section would be to go up I81 to the Mahanoy City exit and head toward Hometown.

However you get there, you’ll be glad you did, if the creek is up. The four miles to Tamaqua are among the most pleasant I’ve ever paddled within 2 hours of Harrisburg. Barely a boat length wide, the little creek gurgles over continuous easy rapids through a beautiful hemlock and rhododendron woods. These rapids are not difficult; the gradient up here is less than 40 feet per mile, not much for a creek this small. They can be a bit technical, and will have you slaloming from side to side at times. But they are not pushy at reasonable levels. As is normal for small heavily wooded watersheds, the real danger is strainers. Keep an eye down-creek for logs.

Seldom does a Pennsylvania paddler have the opportunity to explore 4 miles of undisturbed woodlands. This upper section is through state game lands and it’s pretty special. I would love to visit the creek in late June when all that rhododendron is in bloom. White birch trees mix in with the hemlocks and other hardwoods, frequently enveloping the creek in a lovely canopy of color. There are 2 tall cliffs to complement the woods.

The little rapids peak when civilization comes back into view above Tamaqua. They continue through town, subsiding a bit, but Tamaqua throws some other obstacles in the creek (like numerous bridges and retaining walls) to keep you on your toes. The stinky gray waters of Panther Creek gush in from river left reminding you that this is the Schuylkill basin after all.

Tamaqua goes quickly and afterward the creek settles a bit more, but remains amazingly continuous. For the next 3 miles to the impoundment at South Tamaqua, the creek is very fast flowing with constant riffles and small rapids. I was very surprised by the constant gradient of this creek. If you have acceptable water levels, the whole upper 8-mile section from route 54 to South Tamaqua, will go quite fast. There are no pools. But there are no big rapids either, nothing like ‘Dee Rapid’ on our local Codorus Creek. Thus, this would make a great novice whitewater cruise, doable in recreational kayaks (with spray skirts and helmets, of course) and tandem open boats (with experienced paddlers).

After Tamaqua the scenery is wooded on one side with a highway and sometime a retaining wall on the other. The saving grace is that you can’t see the highway, but you can here it. The lake at South Tamaqua is a de-silting basin, common in the Schuylkill watershed. These impoundments were built to allow the huge amounts of coal silt in the rivers to settle out and be recovered by dredging equipment. The equipment, in the form of pipes and pumps, is visible in the lake.

After the dam, the creek leaves the road behind. This is unusual because the creek is cutting through the remnants of a mountain. And here in the ridge and valley region of Pennsylvania, roads most always accompany river courses through the mountains. But in this case the road takes a different path to New Ringgold and leaves the Little Schuylkill alone for us paddlers to enjoy. There is some development, and a railroad along the creek (although it may be abandoned), but this is generally a very quiet and lonely 8 miles. It is mostly woodlands, sometimes with steep slopes, but has some fallow fields also to add variety and allow for many deer sightings. The rapids are gone, but the creek continues to move along very quickly with almost constant riffles. Great paddling!

Even after the quaint little town of New Ringgold, the Little Schuylkill remains more remote and more riffly than comparable creeks. For the first half of these final 11 miles, the creek is still pretty much constant riffles. And there are still no paralleling roads; just lonely farms, some open countryside and a few bridges. The scenery on river left is dominated by the folds of the big Blue Mountain as you look at the backside of the popular Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

The final 2 miles cut through Blue Mountain as busy highway 61 now borders the creek. Constant riffles return helping to mitigate the highway noise. Down in the town of Port Clinton, there are some nice river wide ledges to bounce over as you complete your trip. Good paddling continues after the confluence with the main Schuylkill, but that’s another story (or column). Check out the Canal House in Port Clinton for a unique antique dining experience. And stop in and say high to Vern at Appalachian Outfitters.

Levels? For the top section above Tamaqua, 2.9 on the USGS Tamaqua gauge is ideal, 2.8 is probably minimal. For below Tamaqua, I’d look for 2.7. Down near New Ringgold and below 2.55 is about minimal. Keep in mind that the Tamaqua gauge is rather touchy, that is, a tenth on this gauge can make a big difference.

Yep, from start to finish, there is nice paddling on the Little Schuylkill, in an area of the state where you might not expect to find it!

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2003 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.