South Branch Codorus

River of the month #77

author: Pat Reilly
date: February 2005

A good many of our members are very familiar with York County’s Codorus Creek. ‘Stink Creek’ it is often called (along with some other names I can’t mention here), as it carries a big load of smelly brown effluent from the Glatfelter paper mill in Spring Grove. But Spring Grove is on the West Branch. The South Branch is effluent free! One only has to look at the confluence of these 2 branches, just below the big Army Corp of Engineer’s Indian Rock Dam southwest of York, to ascertain where the pollution is coming from. In fact, the South Branch supports a healthy trout fishery.

I wish I had been aware of that fact when I set out to paddle the South Branch Codorus on April 22, 2000. It was the 2nd weekend of trout season and each bridge had cars taking the best parking spots and fishermen positioned at all the choice holes. I ended up launching at LaRue Road, 14 creek miles up from the confluence, after there were simply too many fishermen at the upper most put-ins. Even launching here I was taking a chance at really getting someone’s ire up. So shortly after beginning, when I encountered a fisherman standing in mid-stream, I did something I’ve only done once since, I got out and carried around him. Once past the human strainer, I saw mostly bank fishermen and the creek widened to where it was not too much of a problem, if I paddled quickly and gently against the opposite bank and apologized when going by.

After the first dam, 2 miles below the put-in, the paddler enters a lot of posted land and disturbing fishermen is less of a problem. The scenery is all rural, with many farms and orchards. You go past the town of Seven Valleys, but you don’t really see it from the creek. What you do see is plenty of swampy bottomlands, as the creek winds back and forth almost as much as one of those south Jersey Pine Barrens rivers. The water is smooth and flat. For quite a while there is not much of a tree buffer; cultivated fields, pastures and the occasional orchard abut the creek.

About halfway to the confluence with the West Branch, the bends straighten out some as more woodlands and a few hills appear. Now the creek looks more like the Codorus we know, but without the stinky water. And with very few riffles. Your only adrenaline thrill is the dam about ½ mile from the confluence. This is an easy dam to run in spite of its medium size. I ran it in my wildwater K-1 without a sprayskirt and took on no water! It has a long gentle slope with no hydraulic.

Actually I had other adrenaline moments that day paddling under the many electric fences along the way. The same fence salesman must have visited all the farmers in this area and done rather well. For quite a few miles every electric fence had the same hanging ‘aluminum curtain’ over the water. Long inch-wide strips of aluminum hang closely together from the wires to the water. I held my breath each time I crashed through one of these curtains, but never got shocked. It may be due to aluminum’s poor conductivity or maybe they weren’t turned on? I’ve paddled under countless electric fences and have yet to get zapped (knock on wood), though I can’t help but think it is only a matter of time.

Paddlers should look for nearly 3 feet on the Spring Grove gauge for Codorus Creek to attempt a run on the South Branch. But watch the weather too, since the Spring Grove gauge (as well as the York gauge) can be skewed when DCNR holds back water for their lake at Codorus State Park near Hanover (a common occurrence). The Indian Rock Dam will hold water also, but only in the event of a real flood. We’ll get more into these dams and what they do if we ever target Codorus Creek for this column. For now, just be aware that the gauges may not always reflect the actual rainfall in the watershed.

A railroad bed is sometimes visible when paddling the South Branch. This bed is now a rail-trail that goes all the way from York to Cockeysville, MD, a Baltimore suburb! It makes a great shuttle facility. In fact, I’ve used it to bike shuttle on 4 different rivers! It was during a bike ride out of New Freedom south into Maryland that I first laid eyes on the delightful little whitewater gorge of Little Falls (see ROM for May, 2002). I also used the trail to shuttle part of Gunpowder Falls. Then, just this past summer, 3 children and myself road the trail when shuttling a short paddle trip on Codorus through the city of York. Called the Heritage Trail in York and the Northern Central Trail in Maryland, it was a commuter line as recently as 1972 when it was damaged by the Agnes flood.

The trail is perfect for a South Branch Codorus run. It is close to the creek at nearly every bridge crossing. It cuts off a few loops on the lower half of the run, shortening your ride. The scenery is nice classic Pennsylvania farmland; the surface is groomed and the gradient nearly flat. Once under way, I never changed gears on my South Branch ride! I would like to do the whole trip from York to Baltimore some day. It would be cool riding up out of one watershed (Codorus), then down into the next (Gunpowder Falls). However, it may never happen since it would necessitate taking a full day off from paddling!

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2005 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.