Yellow Breeches Creek (part 1)

River of the month #86

author: Pat Reilly
date: February 2006

Here we go with one of club’s most popular local creeks and a personal favorite of mine, the good ole’ Yellow Breeches. CCGH is lucky to have the Yellow Breeches as a local paddling resource. It’s a great canoeing creek blessed with a never ending season. The Yellow Breeches can be paddled year around. It rarely freezes and the lower reaches of the creek are never really too low to paddle! How does it do that? Limestone springs! The Breeches is fed by many springs, both large and small, enough to keep it from freezing in all but the coldest winter. And if you don’t mind a bit of scraping, you can paddle the last 15 miles of the creek even during a drought. There is so much to discuss about this creek that we decided to split it up in 2 newsletters. This month will be part 1 – the source to Williams Grove. Next month we’ll continue down the creek to the mouth.

Because the Breeches has a great deal of its water supply locked up in huge underground aquifers, it tends to smooth out weather events and mitigate floods and droughts. With its big subsurface water reservoir, the Yellow Breeches has a base level that reflects the precipitation from the past several months, maybe a half year, instead of a few weeks or 1 month like most creeks. By the ‘base’ I’m referring to the level a river will return to after the rise and fall of a rain event. An observer of the USGS online water gauges will see the spike from a storm - a sharp rise followed by a steady drop off - until the gauge levels off somewhere close to, but a little above, where it was before the rain. It’s interesting to note how the Breeches’ gauge will return to a lower than average base following a long drought, even after a few good drought-busting storms. Conversely, following a good wet season, the creek seems to flow and flow and flow long after the rains stop.

The water retaining ability of this creek make it unique. I know of no other comparable sized river that holds water so long and takes so long to recover from a drought as the Breeches - not even other limestone based creeks such as Penns, Antietam or the Breeches’ sister creek, the Conodoguinet. There are some smaller local limestone creeks that flow fairly consistently all year around – namely Quitapahilla and Big Springs, but these are very small creeks. There is nothing quite like our Yellow Breeches. It is a gem.

At 219 square miles of water shed the Breeches ranks as a medium sized stream. It runs for close to 50 miles, all in Cumberland County, with the lower section forming the border between Cumberland and York Counties. A lot of the creek flows through suburbia, but it somehow manages to do so rather tastefully.

Its headwaters roll off of South Mountain into the town of Walnut Bottom well up in the Cumberland Valley. My uppermost put-in was 5 miles below Walnut Bottom at the Huntsdale fish hatchery. The creek was frozen above the hatchery when I ran this upper section indicating that the water upstream is not primarily spring water. The hatchery is built over 9 large springs, so shortly below the hatchery, when its waters swell the flow of the creek, the Yellow Breeches becomes predominately a spring creek and remains that way to its mouth.

The first 8 miles between the Huntsdale Hatchery and route 34 at Mount Holly Springs are a bit of an expedition. This section does not run all year. The springs at the hatchery put out a fairly consistent 25 cfs of water. That may be barely enough to float a boat on, at least on a narrow flat streambed. But the Breeches is not all that tiny up here and more than the spring water is needed. The watershed above Huntsdale is small, so look for at least an average rain event on the South Mountain to get this section flowing.

This is a pretty stretch of creek, it is people populated the whole 8 miles but sparsely so. Meadows and farm fields with some back yards border the creek. But there are also plenty of wetlands including swampy woods. The creek’s banks are very low and the land is quite flat giving the paddler a feeling of intimacy with the surrounding fields and swamps. It doesn’t take much to flood this section and allow you to paddle through the trees.

The low banks and flat land make for few woody strainers on this run, but don’t think you’ll get off easy as far as portages. The upper Yellow Breeches is full of 2 pesky manmade strainers – low bridges and fences! You’ll encounter at least 8 bridges (there are so many I’ve lost count) including some you won’t fit under, and many fences – sometimes just wires. When I paddled up here one of my worst fence fears came true. No, I didn’t get shocked by an electric fence (have yet to do that), but I took a wire right in the throat! I never saw it until the last second and didn’t have time to re-act. I could actually feel my larynx collapse and spring back. It was a rather awful feeling, more scary than painful, but no permanent damage was done, just some soreness. Thankfully it didn’t affect my voice (to the disappointment of many of my acquaintances).

Shortly after the route 34 bridge in Mount Holly Springs, Mountain Creek enters the Yellow Breeches and nearly doubles the flow as the creeks braid around a big estate. Farms and fences return until the Mount Holly/Boiling Springs road bridge where a park provides good access. Shortly below the bridge, the creek pools up in the first of many dams - the scourge of the Yellow Breeches. Yes, dams are probably the only legitimate complaint about this otherwise excellent flatwater stream. There’s a lot of ‘em. This first dam is runable, it drops no more than 2 feet. But debris buildup below the dam usually has me carrying on river right through some extensive riparian wetlands. The channel on river left is an old millrace and will lead right into the town of Boiling Springs where you’ll have to carry around a culvert before rejoining the creek.

In Boiling Springs, the Breeches picks up a fresh infusion of about 30 cfs of cold spring water from… you guessed it, the Boiling Spring, via Children’s Lake. I say cold water but that is a relative term. Actually, it’s 52 degrees year around - cold in the summer but rather warm in the winter. An old paddling friend, Greg (Stubby) Stone used to live in Boiling Springs and would jump into the lake on New Years Eve. Everyone thought he was nuts, but he didn’t get half as cold as those other ‘polar bears’ jumping into the river on City Island. The Susquehanna runs in the 30 – 40 degree range at that time of year.

Water from the lake enters above and below the old humpback limestone bridge where the Appalachian Trail crosses the creek and the ‘special regulation’ trout waters begin. Special regulation means that these waters are open to trout fishing all year. Like other spring creeks, you will see fishermen on the Breeches any time of the year. The creek used to (and still may) rank as one of the top 40 trout streams in the whole USA. I try to give the fishermen at least the first 2 weeks of the season and so stay off the creek the final 2 weeks of April (regular trout season begins in mid April).

Those 2 weeks certainly won’t exclude all fishermen encounters. One Saturday in mid January, I ran into numerous fishermen in the section between Boiling Springs and Williams Grove. I didn’t know that the fish commission had just completed a winter stocking and anglers were out to snatch up the fresh supply of fish. At one point, already out of the boat to carry a strainer, I walked an additional 100 yards to get below 2 wading fishermen. Expecting that to be the end of it, I was surprised when I saw the 2 again as they pulled in beside me while I was loading my boat at the takeout, 5 miles downstream. They made it a point to thank me for carrying around them. Most fishermen will not get belligerent if you do your best to not disturb them. Just glide by quickly and quietly on the opposite side of the stream. If they are mid-stream, determine which way they are casting and maneuver to their opposite side. Anglers realize that this is also a very popular canoeing creek.

Two dams linger in the 7 miles between Boiling Springs and Williams Grove. The first is split by a large island. It is only about 2 feet high and I’ve run the dam through a flume in the left channel. The next is maybe 3 feet high and filled with riprap on the downstream side making a very rocky drop. At higher levels you can probably find a doable line for a plastic boat. I usually bump up against it on the right, line my boat down and then climb over the rocks. It may sound hairy but it’s not, I’ve done it twice with my toddler son in the boat.

My boy Tony and I like this section of creek and do it at least once every summer. It ends at an amusement park. Old Williams Grove Park is never crowded (some would say for good reason). We like it just fine and love to visit it via canoe. Built over wetlands, the park features a spring-formed pool of crystal water. Paddling the Breeches after a storm in 2004 at 3.4 feet (a good high level) Tony and I unintentionally snuck into the park while exploring a narrow 1/2-mile long flood channel that runs around the back of the park, joins the outflow from the spring pool and exits through the adjacent trailer court. Fascinating!

Next month we’ll cover the rest of the Yellow Breeches as it winds its way to the Susquehanna.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2006 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.