Codorus Creek

River of the month #99

author: Pat Reilly

Codorus Creek, another local waterway that many (the majority perhaps?) of our members will be familiar with. Codorus is best known for its final section, specifically the 5 miles from Rudy Park to Codorus Furnace that contain fine scenery and rapids. But being a medium/large creek at 278 sq. miles of watershed, this York County stream has more to talk about than its whitewater finale.

Codorus has a reputation as a polluted waterway. It is called ‘Stink Creek’, ‘Crudorus’, and many other nicknames including some that can’t be printed here. The city of York has not been kind to Codorus Creek. (Then again, Codorus has not been kind to York, flooding the city 12 times before the Army Corp built the Indian Rock Dam.) To begin with, York has contained the creek within concrete walls. Various city industries have dumped various substances into its waters over the years but most have now been cleaned up. The main problem is well upstream from York at the town of Spring Grove where the humungous Glatfelter Paper Mill discolors, warms and stinks up the water. Now before you dismiss Codorus as something you’d never want to paddle, lets take a top-down look at the creek.

Our story begins in Lake Marburg, a Project 70 lake in Codorus State Park near Hanover, Pa. When the outflow from this lake doubles the size of Codorus shortly below the lake, the creek becomes large enough to boat. There may be lots of fishermen along its banks as I discovered, via kayak, in the winter of ’98. This section is special regulation trout water and open to fishing all year. The lake has an established minimum release to keep the trout wet and happy. This mandated release can drop the level of the lake during dry periods causing the dam operators to hold back water even after big rains so the lake can refill. There is enough watershed below the dam that you usually won’t miss this water when paddling the lower creek. But there have been times after hard summer rains that left me wondering why the Codorus gauges didn’t spike like others in the area and I can only attribute this to Lake Marburg hanging on to the water to keep their motor boaters and sailors happy.

Anyway, if you elect to try and find this section with enough water and not too many fishermen, you’ll find a pleasant 4-mile trip featuring plenty of riffles and okay scenery. It ends at a lake beside an industrial complex big enough to remind one of an oil refinery. Carry the dam beside the P H Glatfelter Pulp and Paper Mill, paddle under the main street of Spring Grove and you will soon return to the woods.

The paper mill takes huge amounts of water from the creek, about 11 million gallons per day, pretty much the entire flow at low levels. The mill uses the water to make paper and dumps it back into the creek about 1 mile below town. The discharge site is not pretty. Copious amounts of dark colored, warm and stinky water drastically changes Codorus Creek from this point on. The warmed, smelly, murky water affects the ecology of Codorus, to be sure, but aquatic life still thrives. The real problem is, or was, dioxin. This chemical that comes from the bleaching process is toxic even in very small amounts. Glatfelter now releases less than half a gram of dioxin per year into Codorus Creei as the switch is made away from chlorine bleaching. If dioxin does scare you, you have the public’s demand for white paper to ultimately blame.

Back to paddling! The next 10-mile section is good rural cruising. The water and scenery may not be spectacular, it’s rather average, but there is no creek side development at all! This extraordinary and welcome feature is a result of the next dam - Indian Rock Dam. This is an Army Corp dam that normally holds back no water! It lies in wait, generating over ½ million dollars in annual maintenance costs, for the next flood to threaten the city of York. When this happens it shuts its gates and holds back flow allowing the basin above the dam to flood with water all the way back to Spring Grove! When the basin filled and the spillway overflowed during Hurricane Agnes in ‘72 the creek-side trees close to the dam were under more than 50 feet of water!

Shortly below the dam is the confluence with the South Branch Codorus (ROM # 77). As these roughly equal-sized waterways blend you can observe the difference in their waters as the relatively clear South Branch mixes with the peculiar dark brown of the Glatfelter-stained main Branch (or West Branch as it is also called). When I paddled here in the cold winter of 96, the South Branch was entirely iced over above the confluence but the water flowed freely below. The ice ended abruptly where the paper mill-warmed waters entered. So from here to the mouth, Codorus remains ice free in all but the coldest of winters – a good January paddling destination.

Below the confluence you are now headed toward York on a good-sized creek that soon pools up in an impoundment for a mile or two. Once you carry the rocky 6-foot Richland Dam you are in the city. The next 4 miles will be urban and channelized. But it is not totally without worth as a paddler destination or without wildlife. I’ve witnessed a great blue heron and kingfishers, not to mention plenty of mallards in this stretch. But mostly you will see concrete in the form of high walls and more than a dozen bridges.

All in all it is sort of interesting. The city has built an access, Codorus Creek boat basin, in the middle of this section, just up from the Philadelphia St. Bridge, beside a popular restaurant/watering hole. There is a dam shortly down stream. It’s a small dam but one you don’t want to mess with due to an ugly metal structure that looks custom made to snag your boat. It can be precariously carried on river right along a concrete ledge. But maybe you won’t have to, this dam is not always there! It is a big metal flap and if down, you probably won’t notice it. The city uses the dam for recreational purposes such as the Codorus Creek Boat Parade! And, no doubt, for the Cordorus flatwater slalom, like our Fiddler's Elbow Slalom, one of five 'Pennsylvania Cup' races. Ed Gertler makes no mention of this dam in Keystone Canoeing, so I assume it was down when he went through. Be aware!

Two big highway bridges and a large sewage treatment plant signal the end of York. The creek quickly reverts back to wooded and quiet as it flows deep and slow in another dam pool. Check out the huge old 5-story mill on river left. The sloping dam that impounds this pool is easily clunked over unless the water is up good and generating a hydraulic. After this dam another mile of cruising brings you to the Rudy Park access with public parking in the lot on the other side of the road. One more mile downstream and the fun begins.

The 5 miles below Rudy Park have become a destination for not only CCGH, York and Lancaster paddlers but those from Baltimore and the Philly area as well. It is especially valuable as a training run. The rapids are mostly easy and generally forgiving – I’ve never heard of anyone getting pinned or entrapped. They begin with small ledges and little technical boulder gardens that wash out to rather straight forward stuff at medium and higher levels. Then the water builds somewhat and the creek turns left into Lead Shot, a nice double drop that throws up some stronger waves. The wave/hole on bottom left can be surfed.

Just down from Lead Shot is Dee Rapid, the crown jewel (or the curse, if you don't have a clean run) of Codorus Creek! It actually consists of two rapids divided by a pool into which flows little Dee Run via a beautiful multi-tiered waterfall. This rapid and this spot are what make this creek special. A wooded gorge with lots of hemlock on river right and a few rocky outcrops add to the beauty.

Upper Dee rapid, leading into the pool is complicated and long but since it is not very steep it is not especially intimidating. However, it is one of those rapids where you simply must make some maneuvers. It rather amazes me how many rapids (even some tougher ones like Coliseum on the Cheat) can be paddled with little directional change. Many times it is merely a matter of having your boat in the right spot at the beginning of the drop and then just paddling and bracing on through. Since I often paddle a hard-to-turn wildwater racing kayak, I’m usually looking to ‘straighten out’ the rapid. But it ain’t happening on Upper Dee. After picking your way through the initial rocky entrance, you hit a nice chute that runs you right into a mid-stream boulder at lower levels. If it’s high enough to run over this rock the current will be pushing hard straight into a bigger rock at the bottom of the rapid. Have fun!

In 99 of these columns, I’ve generally stayed away from rating rapids above class 2, even writing a column about why I don’t rate rapids (ROM #62). One of the reasons is to avoid the macho temptation to downgrade rapids from older guidebooks. Many paddlers tend to think Ed Gertler’s ratings are now too high for today’s improved equipment and skills. But I’ll go on record here saying that after dozens of trips down (and one up!) Upper Dee Rapid in all kinds of boats, water levels and conditions, I still consider it a solid class 3 while Gertler has it at a mere 2+. It’s a great rapid on a scenic stretch of creek to have so close to home!

Lower Dee looks a lot like Upper, at least at the bottom, but is easy to sneak on the right. A chute near the bottom left has good surfing. Then that’s about it, there’s only one more spot that can be called a rapid, although good scenery and riffles continue to the old historic Codorus Furnace near the last bridge where there is parking. More good riffles in the form of small ledges continue for another half mile to the river, but then you’ll have to paddle at least a mile up or down the Susquehanna to take out.

I used to emphatically state that 2.5 on the York gauge is minimum for the lower creek, even once giving that errant advise to a fellow CCGH member. This past February I was talked into running the creek at 2.25 and found it to be very interesting at that level. You will scrape hard at times and most riffles and rapids have only one feasible line. But we never had to get out of our boats or push off the bottom with our paddles. It certainly was demanding in the long plastic wildwater boats we were in that day (2 Prijon Belugas and a Perception Wavehopper). The rapids (especially the top of Upper Dee) were ultra-technical, requiring lots of precision. It was like paddling a new creek after all these years on Codorus.

While 2.25 may be a new personal minimum, the creek is best from 2.6 to about 3.8. At 4 feet and beyond it is getting pushy but still fun. Flood characteristics kick in around 7 feet. These levels mean that this lower section is runable through winter and spring in a normal year and well into summer in a wet one. So go enjoy ‘Stink Creek’ if you don’t mind the smell and a little dioxin.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2007 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.