Mill Run

River of the month #64

author: Pat Reilly
date: October 2003

Some past ‘River of the Month’ columns have talked about the geography of our locale being known as the ‘ridge and valley’ region of the state. Long continuous mountain ridges enter the state from Maryland and West Virginia and run north before curving to the east, forming a gentle arc of mountains and valleys, north and west of Harrisburg. When talking about the ridge and valley, we mentioned that, although aesthetically pleasing, with forested mountain slopes framing wide valleys checker-boarded with farm fields, this region is not known for producing good whitewater. You generally need highlands or plateaus with sufficient area to allow rivers to gather water before tumbling to sea level. So how does a paddler find whitewater in the ridge and valley region? Surely with all these mountains there must be some whitewater? Well, if you search the gaps in these mostly continuous ridges, you can come up with pockets of wilder water than is frequently found in the valleys.

In a mountain gap, there is usually some stubborn hard rock that resists erosion and is left to form riffles or rapids. The most widely recognized rapid of this type around Harrisburg would have to be the Dauphin Narrows on the Susquehanna River. This popular boating spot is located directly in the gap of big Second Mountain where the rock has held up to the river’s constant pounding forming a ¼-mile reach of play rapids.

Penns Creek in Centre County, forms its famous 15-mile stretch of easy rapids between Coburn and Weikert as it cuts and winds through the labyrinth of ridges and sub-ridges that form Seven Mountain. Kishacoquillas Creek has the rapids that make it worthy of a visit where it shares a gap in Jacks Mountain with route 22/322 north of Lewistown. More local examples include the biggest riffles of Shermans Creek where it cuts through a sub-ridge of Peters Mountain just a mile up from its mouth in Duncannon. Then there is the final mile of the Little Schuylkill that we just wrote about last month, as its waters rev up when passing through a gap in Blue Mountain at Port Clinton.

None of these are earth shattering rapids, the final 2 being merely riffles. But hopefully, you see the pattern. Creeks frequently get livelier when flowing through a mountain gap. Now if we can apply this theory to smaller creeks that are apt to have more gradient, maybe, just maybe, we can come up with some good rapids and/or some actual steep creeks. Checking back through previous ‘River of the Month’ columns we see that a few smaller whitewater mountain gap creeks have been discussed. These include Horse Valley Run, Narrows Branch of Tuscarora, Elk Creek and Indiantown Run. These are all tiny waterways and the whitewater sections are usually limited to the relatively short reach of creek that flows through the gap. But, along with Mill Run, they represent the best we can do in the Ridge and Valley region for steep creekin’.

Mill Run’s head waters would be reached if one traveled the well known rail-bed bike-path out Dauphin County’s Stoney Valley. After about 15 miles you’ll ride over Rausch Run that forms Stoney Creek’s head waters, and shortly after that water would be flowing east instead of west and you would be in Mill Run’s drainage. The waters are collected from a high narrow valley between Second Mountain and Stoney Mountain and held in a reservoir that is Lebanon’s water supply. The watershed is small, I calculate about 15 square miles, and the city steals some of the flow, but if it’s been raining like crazy up in the mountains, you can find a ‘ridge and valley mountain-gap-steep-creek’ below the spillway on which to paddle.

The first ¾ mile is in the water authority’s land and while the land is open to the public, it’s closed to motor vehicles and the sign says, to boating. But I’ve always reasoned that they mean boating in the reservoir. Since no one but serious creek addicts would consider putting a boat on such a tiny stream, the reservoir authority would not even be inclined to address boating below the reservoir, would they? After all, a creek like this is only boatable a few times a year! So twice, friends and myself have shouldered boats and hiked in for the best whitewater of Mill Run.

The little strainer-clogged creek starts out only moderately steep and curves to the left before going under a bridge. Then some good steep rapids are encountered. This section is running close to 90 feet per mile. Although there is just not enough water for these rapids to be pushy, they are not to be taken lightly. They are steep and sometimes jammed with logs, requiring scouting.

The second bridge singles the end of the ‘posted’ section and, unfortunately, the end of the best whitewater. The remaining miles are fun and sometimes steep. There’s some backyards, but it’s mostly woods. My favorite place is where rhododendron completely envelopes the creek in a fast narrow spot, creating a fairytale-like tunnel of greenery. You’ll feel like a paddling hobbit cruising through here. The creek gradually calms until, all too soon, you’ll find yourself at the mouth, entering the Swatty at Suedberg. The total distance is a little over 3 miles.

By keeping your eye on the mountain gaps, maybe you can discover some more ridge and valley steep creeks. I’m sure they’ll be small and, therefore hard to find up. But if one is always ready they can take advantage when opportunity knocks. Kris Wolpert, the man who turned me on to Mill Run, has run this diminutive little stream over a half dozen times, when he used to work in Lebanon! The level can be easily judged by examining the riffle above the route 443 bridge at Suedberg. If that riffle is a ‘go’, go for it! But don’t even head up that way unless they’ve had at least a few inches of rain and the Pine Grove USGS online gauge for the Swatara is over 8 feet.

Pat Reilly

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