Marsh Creek

River of the month #70

author: Pat Reilly
date: May 2004

I have a special fondness for Adams County’s Marsh Creek as it is log number 1 in my books. Not the first creek I ever ran, but the first after I bought my first whitewater K-1 and started taking the sport serious enough to write down experiences. It’s a nice little stream with cool little rapids that can be rather tight and technical. Marsh is a well-known creek and has been run by plenty of club members. I remember another CCGH party on the water as we were running our shuttle for that first trip. If you haven’t heard of Marsh Creek it is probably because it is so hard to find at a runable level. Yes, it is small and drains farmlands and the town of Gettysburg making for quick run off. But when one of those frequent Adams County thunderstorms lets loose, the quick drive down route 15 may well be worth it.

The whitewater section is short and to run it you need only commit to a 3-mile trip. The common put-in is at the old route 15 (the business route, not the new highway) bridge over the creek south of Gettysburg. At least it used to be, as we would drive around back of the store and park in a flood plain field. The field was turned into a campsite and the last time I was there they were charging a fee to park and launch. The campsite has since been flooded and I’m not sure what is there now. The next bridge upstream has only limited side-of-the-road parking. At least the take-out is easy at the Mason Dixon Road bridge near the (where else?) Maryland line.

The whitewater run starts out in a dam pool. The dam can be scraped over if you can find a spot deep enough on the other side. Scout by rubber-necking near the dam’s edge, it’s only about 2 feet high. Then you’ll encounter simple rapids and riffles as the creek braids a bit and makes it way toward the diabase belt, where the real rapids begin shortly after the new route 15 bridge. At normal flows these rapids are not pushy or intimidating, but will challenge you with lots of twisting and turning. The crux move is a narrow little chute through the rocks dropping about 2 feet. I managed to negotiate this mini falls upright on that first run but floundered through without my boat a few weeks later at a higher level. The boaters I was paddling with waited until I dragged my soaking carcass on to the rocks to inform me of their rule that says swimmers must buy a round of beverages for all trip participants after the run. ȁWell now, if I’d known that before hand maybe I’d stayed in my boat!’ Yeah, right!

A fun little play hole is waiting at the bottom of the rapids. Then another dam pool begins. This dam is a masonry-capped ledge, a natural ledge that was enhanced with some concrete to create a 4-foot drop. Just to the right of a little slab that juts out from the dam you can plunge over and get the feel of a big drop on an otherwise little creek. The Mason Dixon Road take out is just downstream from the ledge. There are no more rapids, only placid farm country for the next 3 miles to the confluence with Rock Creek and the beginning of the Monocacy River down in Maryland.

While most paddlers head to Marsh for the whitewater, flatwater paddlers and history buffs can enjoy these waters too. Wanting to explore more of the creek, I launched at the Pumping Station Road bridge during the very rainy June of 1996. Right below the put-in I paddled under a nicely restored covered bridge, closed to vehicular traffic, before enjoying 4 miles of well groomed farm country above the rapids section. A few days later, after yet another big summer storm pounded Adams County, I was taken back by a picture in the Patriot News of a covered bridge that had been sweep downstream in a Gettysburg area flood and now lay trashed on the side of an unnamed creek. ȁHey, that’s the bridge I just paddled under’. Or was it? I wasn’t sure but it looked like the one.

So 7 years later, during another incredibly rainy June, I was anxious to see if the bridge was indeed gone, as I headed back to Adams County to complete Marsh Creek. After dropping off the boat at the route 30 bridge, 5 miles west of Gettysburg, I drove to the Pumping Station Road bridge to begin the bicycle shuttle. Lo and behold, there was the covered bridge, looking very sound and spiffy with fresh paint.

I walked across the bridge to a little park-like area and commenced studying a large plaque. I discovered the bridge, built in 1852, is named Sachs Bridge and has been called the ‘most historic bridge in Pennsylvania.’ It was crossed by both Union and Confederate troops in 1863. The bridge is preserved by the National Park Service as part of Gettysburg National Historical Park. It is one of only 3 covered bridges left in Adams County and only 200 left in the state. In 1930 there were 900 covered bridges in Pennsylvania, the most in any state. Then I read where the bridge had washed downstream on June 18th, 1996. Ah-ha! I thought so! It was rebuilt by the NPS in ‘96 and ‘97.

The run from route 30 to historic Sachs Bridge makes a nice 6-mile trip when you can find it with enough water. The first half of the run is mostly in the woods, good old bottomland hardwoods, getting rare this day and age. There’ll be some braids and strainers but the run is flat enough to make them easy to handle. Easy with one small exception - a scrapey little rapid bounces you through 20 or so yards of rock just above the Knoxlyn Road bridge. The second part of this run is less woods and more pasture. It remains pretty with farms being the only development save for a little campground below route 116.

So here we have a nice little creek with something for both white and flat water paddlers not far from Harrisburg. But how to catch it up? You really have to be a weather watcher for this one. There are no close online gauges. I’m not sure if weather history would bear this out, but it seems that the Gettysburg area gets hit with more than its share of thunderstorms. But these storms can be so fickle, dumping 3 inches here and only a trace there. Twice I’ve raced down to Marsh Creek only to return not having taken the boat off the car. (And believe me, I hate to take a boat for a ride.) However, twice it has worked the other way, where we made the trip with questionable precipitation only to have a cloud burst save us. The first time we launched on the whitewater section with Marsh at a sub-minimal level, very boney. Halfway through the run, two of us sat in an eddy just below the crux chute, waiting for another member of our party who was waiting out a drenching downpour under the new route 15 bridge. As we pondered why a whitewater boater doesn’t want to get wet, we watched a rock in front of us steadily submerge in the rising water until it was completely out of sight. By the time the rain subsided and our buddy paddled out from under his cover to join us, the creek had gone from barely boatable to bank full in 15 minutes! Now that’s fast run off!

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2004 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.