Conewago (East)

River of the month #68

author: Pat Reilly
date: March 2004

Conewago Creek was the first River of the Month article, back in 1998, but that was Conewago west, entering the Susquehanna from the west shore in York County. Now we’ll discuss another Conewago, one that flows into the Susquehanna via the river’s east shore just a mile north of its ‘twin’. I say twin but there is not much these 2 creeks have in common, other than their name. This Conewago is much smaller. At 65 square miles of watershed, it ranks as a one-day river, meaning - after a good rain you get one day to run it before it drops off again.

Conewago begins in the Mount Gretna area and gets pooled up briefly in the town’s swimming hole -Conewago Lake - before meandering through flat farm country. Upon exiting Lebanon County, the creek forms the border between Lancaster and Dauphin Counties for the remainder of its run to the Susquehanna. The landscape is mostly rural; there are no housing developments or strings of cottages along Conewago’s path. But there is an industrial park and the creek flows under a number of busy highways. The scenery is mostly pastoral with usually only a thin streamside buffer of trees. In all respects, Conewago would be typical of Lancaster County streams that lie to its south, were it not for two very notable exceptions.

The first begins above the bridge at Aberdeen Mill where the quiet little Conewago meets the diabase belt, forming a significant rapid. Totally unexpected for this type of creek, this is not a rapid to be taken lightly. It is tight and pretty much demands a genuine whitewater craft. Trying to bluff your way through this drop with a recreational or touring K-1 or the family C-2 could very easily result in a pin. Diabase boulders fill the creek bed while the river drops 4 or 5 feet in a short distance. Sycamore trees growing in the middle of the drop add to the complications. But with scouting the rapid is easily manageable in a proper boat, i.e. a creek boat. Run down a cool, very tight slot through big boulders on river left or run a bit of a ‘sneak’ route on the right pinballing down a relatively straight chute.

This is one of those rapids that, even if you never intend to run it, deserves an inspection if you’re an inquisitive lover of local creeks. It’s not far from Harrisburg. Going south out of Middletown on 230 (the pre-Interstate route to Lancaster) take a left just before you go over the creek and follow that road about 1.5 miles and park when it crosses the creek. Walk upstream on well-worn trails and have a look at this unique drop and contemplate a feasible route. Most boaters access this rapid by carrying upstream on the old rail-bed bike-trail – the Conewago Trail – instead of paddling the bland miles above the rapid and encountering farmers’ fences (not to mention livestock).

After Aberdeen Mill Rapid you’ll have a few miles of flat water to deal with if you want to hang on for the next (and last) rapid. I call this one Conewago Cut Rapid, as the creek cuts through remnants of an old ridge, in an area locally known as Conewago Cut. The ‘Cut’ is actually a short series of rapids that, taken together, are no less exciting than Aberdeen Mill Rapid. Get ready about a quarter mile past the Deodate Road Bridge. Some abrupt, steep drops of a foot or two start slamming your boat around. Then as you approach a high railroad bridge, you’ll encounter a mix of ledges and boulders, including another big abrupt ledge just past the bridge. A bit further on, Conewago Cut climaxes with a tight steep drop of several feet past some big boulders. This last rapid often has a tree bridging the bottom of the drop, beware! You can find a play wave in here if you’re good at catching micro eddies.

Then, that’s it! Just more placid farm country until the Susquehanna. You’ll find yourself wondering how a creek can change character so quickly - a true Jekyll and Hyde stream. The common run is to carry up the bike path above Aberdeen Mill Rapid and run down to the first bridge past Conewago Cut, about a 5.5-mile trip. Seems like everyone that I show this trip to has the same comment, ‘too bad it ain’t all like those two rapids’. Yeah, well, this is Lancaster County not Colorado. If you can tolerate the flat water, a good idea is to stay on the creek for another 3.7 miles and run to and out of Conewago’s mouth. This will put you at the top of the big water of Falmouth in the Susquehanna. If the river is running at least 4.5 feet, you can get a great contrast of Conewago’s tight rapids with Falmouth’s big waves.

Conewago is well known to local boaters, including many CCGHers. How many club members are familiar with American Whitewater’s River Pages on the Net? This is an online inventory of all whitewater rivers in the USA. Each river has a ‘stream keeper’, a local volunteer that keeps tabs on the creek and provides information. Last time I looked, the stream keeper for Conewago was our own Lee Thonus. I’ve talked to a fair number of other club members that have run the creek. But being so small and having a mostly agricultural drainage, it rises and falls quickly and consequently doesn’t lend itself to scheduled trips. Unfortunately, there are no close online gauges that can give a clue as to what is happening on Conewago. I use Ed Gertler’s advice and examine the riffles above the Deodate Road Bridge. But I wouldn’t even travel down there for a look if there hadn’t been at least an inch of rain. There is also a gauge painted by folks from the old New Wave kayak factory on the upstream north abutment of that same bridge. If it’s not totally faded by now, I believe zero is the minimum. For real fun, take a ride on Conewago when the gauge reads 3 feet. But take care, at this level the creek will be out of its banks in many places and very pushy through the rapids!

Conewago has its fair share of ‘whitewater tales of terror’ for a small creek. The first I’ve heard involves a low water bridge a short distance below Aberdeen Mill. Doug Gibson talks about some tense moments when he almost got sucked under this bridge. I’ve since run this bridge at minimal level and it had water going over the top and no real suction. I believe that the culverts under the bridge are now clogged enough that they no longer create a suck holes. But be aware, this potential death trap could return should the clogs ever blow out.

Then there’s the story about our club safety chair being run over by his buddy (another club member) as he was pinned upside down in the rocks and some logs at Aberdeen Mill. The buddy wasn’t even aware of his trapped friend’s predicament and continued downstream looking for him. Another time we rescued a pinned open C-1 at the first drops of Conewago Cut. The clueless owner was quite appreciative. Then there was my own swim at Aberdeen Mill, embarrassing but not particularly noteworthy.

The incident that I remember most is my very first run down Conewago, it was one of the few times I had to abort a trip. A pin against a downed tree in the flat water below Aberdeen Mill caused us to loose too much valuable daylight. As my buddy Turkey and I approached the ‘Cut’, total darkness was nearly upon us. Our fearless leader (Doug Gibson) kept yelling at us to ‘just follow me’. However, we couldn’t very well follow him if we couldn’t see him. Heck, I could barely see Turkey in his big open boat only a few lengths in front of me. And then, suddenly, I didn’t see him! But I heard him yell and heard his boat hit the rocks as he disappeared over the first big ledge. A moment later, the bottom dropped out from under my kayak as well, as I heard a stream of cuss words that I realized were coming out of my mouth. That was it; we ended our run right there. After a lot of scrambling around through the woods and bumping into trees we found our fearless leader who had finally given up too once he realized that he no longer had anyone to lead.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2004 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.