Octoraro Creek

River of the month #88

author: Pat Reilly
date: April 2006

During the monthly grind of local river exploration, trying to paddle every creek, run and drainage ditch within 2 hours of your home, every now and then you run into a gem. That’s what happened to me in February of 2005 with Octoraro Creek. What a delightful surprise this creek was, featuring good scenery and easy whitewater where one wouldn’t expect it. Octoraro forms the border of Lancaster and Chester Counties, Pennsylvania before crossing the Mason/Dixon line into Cecil County, Maryland. The last major Susquehanna tributary on river left before the Chesapeake, Octoraro flows into the big river not far above tide water at Port Deposit.

Now remembering our experiences with other Lancaster County streams, we might expect Octoraro to run muddy and flat through heavy agriculture with very little tree buffering. Ah, but Octoraro breaks the mold, running through a shallow gorge for most of the 22-mile trip from Octoraro Lake to the Susky. Never deep or spectacular, this little gorge is just steep enough to prevent development on its slopes, keeping the creek’s banks mostly wooded and remote. Combine that with a rocky streambed that surprises you with some lively spots and you’ve got yourself a good little canoeing creek.

This trip starts at a reservoir, a big one — Octoraro Lake. I don’t know much about the lake, never heard of it until I saw it on the maps and only got one glimpse of it when driving to the put-in. No problem, I have no interest in man-made lakes and this one appears to be a water supply, judging from the big ‘Chester County Water Authority’ building at the put-in, and may be off-limits to boaters. I did however check out the West Branch Octoraro Creek above the lake on second-hand information that there might be some steep-creek whitewater. I found nothing promising.

A pretty covered bridge beside the water authority buildings and just below a small dam makes a good put-in. The big dam for the lake is upstream around the corner. From the beginning, a paddler realizes this is not your typical Lancaster County creek, even though the countryside surrounding the creek’s gorge is typical Lancaster County. I passed many nicely-kept Amish farms near the upper part of the creek during my bicycle shuttle.

Octoraro’s creek bed is rocky from start to finish. While this may not sound unusual, I’m talking big rocks here. Boulders, some car-sized, stick out of the water and combine with the usual twists and turns to form obstacles to navigation that challenge you and keep things interesting. There is not much gradient in the upper creek and many times you are paddling in quiet pools. But these are separated by abrupt little drops of steep cobble or ledges. You’ll only see a few creekside farms; the majority of this creek is bordered by steep wooded banks. Rocks and sometimes cliffs or outcrops can be seen if the leaves are off the trees. Exposed orange roots of mulberry trees are noticeable at water level. The scenery and creek bed make for a run that is never boring.

About halfway through, the creek can’t figure out which way to go as it does some major direction changes, twisting and turning as the gorge is squeezed by rock that occasionally forms streamside cliffs. You’ll pass a Boy Scout camp here recognized by an interesting outdoor theater. This is followed by a not-so-interesting noisy quarry, the only disappointment of the trip. After the quarry, riffles get heavier, approaching the thin line between riffle and rapid. Some homes border the creek before and after the busy Route1 bridge. (You just knew there had to be some development sooner or later.) A sloping dam above the bridge is runnable but you will abuse your boat unless the water is high. The rocky run-out of the dam is as bad as the dam itself. Below the bridge, rapids continue to build. Regular but not continuous, these rapids won’t exceed a class II. But there is one spot that I recall being more technical than anything on the ‘ole Red Moshannon, the definitive class II river. It just may give some boaters trouble at low levels. A strong chute on river left plows into some good-sized boulders.

The good scenery gets even better on this last piece as houses disappear and the gorge deepens a bit. Four old bridges, two car and two railroad, signal the end of the run. Riffles and rapids are finished with since you are now only a few feet above sea level. You can take out along the creek road that runs upstream from the Route 222 bridge. Most of this lovely 4-mile final stretch is protected by Maryland’s Susquehanna State Park. At least I think so. USGS topographic maps, the 7.5 minute quads, show park boundary lines at the top of the gorge running down each side of the creek beginning shortly after the Route 1 bridge and extending close to the mouth. But a call to the park to inquire about this got a staffer who claimed they only owned a few buildings on the Cecil County side of the river?? (The main part of the park is on the river right side of the Susky at the mouth of Deer Creek.) The staffer may simply have not known, since she also said she had never heard of Octoraro Creek!

But paddlers should hear about this creek! Now how does one set up a trip? Access is bad at the busy Route1 bridge but the next bridge upstream has parking and good access. This makes for a nice 6.5-miler that will get you the best of the whitewater. However, you will still miss out on the rocky area around the Boy Scout camp and the good scenery above. So why not do it all in one shot. It’s remote enough to pull off a small low-impact camp in the gorge. That’s the way I first visited Octoraro, on an overnight trip. Look for about 2.4 feet on the Chadd’s Ford gauge of the Brandywine River as a minimum. You’ll scrape over the riffles and may even grind to a dead stop on the dam at this level, but most of the creek will be fine.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2006 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.