Conodoguinet Creek - Part 2

River of the month #107

author: Pat Reilly

The second half of our discussion of the Conodoguinet begins at the Burnt Mill Bridge, north of Shippensburg, deep in the heart of the Cumberland Valley, and as we learned 2 months ago, in the middle of the Great Appalachian Valley. A sizable spring creek, Middle Spring, gushes in on river right from Shippensburg adding water to go along with numerous little tributaries running off of Blue Mountain and entering on river left. So here we have a decent sized creek that is no longer hard to catch up. And it flows 70 more miles before it reaches the Susquehanna.

Farms now dominate the scenery for many miles until you approach Carlisle. And up this far, these are lonely farms, old and peaceful. There are a few creekside cottages, old homesteads and camps, but the suburbs have yet to appear. About six miles downstream from Burnt Mill the creek makes a big loop of about 3 miles, the first of many. This loop is around a state game lands and the scenery here reverts to deep quite woods for a while. But it doesn't stay quiet for long, in another few miles the Conodoguinet nears the Pa turnpike and parallels it for many miles to come. Most times you won't notice it as you're often a half mile or more away. But on those moments when you slow down and tune your ears to take in some nature, you'll hear the unmistakable drone of distant semis.

After the route 233 bridge north of Newville, Big Spring enters on river right. This spring creek, the subject of the February, 2000 River of the Month column, will keep the much bigger Conodoguinet ice free for a few miles even in the coldest of winters. The Big Spring write-up talks about tangling with a dam on the Conodoguinet about a mile below Big Spring's mouth. I'm happy to report that this dam is now a 'victim' of Pennsylvania's dam removal efforts, as I found out last winter paddling a camp gear laden touring boat after dark! That was one carry I was happy to avoid.

Another bridge, a summer camp, the turnpike bridge, more old farms, some creekside homes, another big loop and you get the idea that this ain't a bad creek. Nice rural cruising, if you like flat water. The Great Valley section of the Conodoguinet is about as flat as water can be in a free flowing stream. Any flatter and you'd be in a lake or on tide water. You'll sometimes paddle miles between little riffles.

After the second big loop, you'll encounter a dam that, as of this writing, is still there beside an attractive old mill. There is an easy portage, featuring steps, on river left through a nice little nature preserve. After the mill a road parallels the creek for a few miles as you begin seeing modern homes in addition to older streamside cottages.

The scenery holds out for a while (there are some attractive limestone cliffs) till you go under the route 74 bridge and enter a large impoundment. This pool is lined with homes on river left, some with motorboat docks and even a few boat houses! You can chose a narrow channel down river left that divides a half-mile long island from the shore. You'll literally be paddling through back yards, as you cruise by this groomed island, under numerous foot bridges. The channel ends right at the dam which can be carried on river left by taking out on someone's lawn. If you don't take the narrow channel and are continuing downstream, you best make sure you get to river left as soon as you're past the island since it's quite close to the dam! Hug the island if water is high. Running this big dam would likely be lethal! It is a water supply dam and the intake plant prevents portaging on river right. There is a cool little park just above the intake plant that provides river access and features an interesting cave cut into a limestone cliff. Check it out!

Below the dam Carlisle's suburbs are now evident on river right where a park with river access signals the start of the Conodoguinet Creek Water Trail. The next river trail access is over 13 miles downstream at Willow Mills Park. But there are plenty of bridges and proven access at the Middlesex Road bridge at the mouth of Letorts Spring Run and at the Appalachian Trail center at Bernhesil Bridge. These 13 miles are decent flatwater cruising. There are 2 golf courses, some new homes, a large trailer park and more highway noise, now from I81. But there are also nice wooded slopes, pastures and some old farms.

By the time you hit the next official water-trail access at old Willow Mill Park near route 114, the suburbs have come to stay. For the remaining 24 miles the creek weaves back and forth through the Great Valley executing continual loops all the way to it's mouth. Productive farms surrounded on 3 sides by the creek once took advantage of the fertile alluvial soils lying within these loops. As I've aged in Cumberland County, I've watched these farms slowly give way to housing developments, one after another until all the loops were filled with big suburban homes. As a teenager my first full time summer job was working at a sod farm in one of the loops, now Indian Creek development, tending grass that was cut and rolled up like carpet to 'green' golf courses and many of these new suburban lawns.

Not that the boating through here is all bad. Just think, you might see some exotic species of animal life, like a Norwegian elkhound, a dalmatian or even a Portuguese water dog. You could take in some local inhabitants out exercising their limbs with the stearing wheels and pedals of their riding mowers. Or even witness the suburban version of the campfire, the gas grill blackening large quantities of smoking meat. The scenery is not all monotonous, it varies with big houses giving way to bigger houses, then back to slightly smaller homes only to return to bigger ones.

Sorry, there I go, making fun of a creek that is enjoyed by many area boaters and a good training grounds for rookies. Truth is, you only see the big 'McMansions' about half the time. Many times wooded slopes buffer the creek from the burbs on top. Summer foilage helps hide many big homes and there are a lot of creekside lanes with older, smaller homes. It varies enough to be okay. Access is certainly plentiful with ample parks. The Conodoguinet Water Trail map has a complete list.

A few heavy riffles finally appear in the final miles, including a manmade one that you should be aware of. A bulldozer-built dam of rock and rubble just above Orbs Bridge (8 miles from the mouth) has the potential to bang up your boat. There's a smooth line just inside the 1st pier on river left. I'm told this dam was built by the local suburbanites to accommodate their peddle powered paddle wheel boats.

In the last few miles wooded buffers do an okay job of closing out the surrounding development which is businesses as much as homes down close to the mouth. These final miles are not a bad little stretch of creek that I've been down more times than I can count due to it's closeness to my home. There's a narrow island in here, a rarity on Great Valley streams, that I once camped on with my 5 year old. That little adventure was the subject of the October, 2004 ROM. Right at the mouth a cliff-sided hill once provided a rather dramatic finish to the creek. But if the railroad and highway didn't spoil this majestic little knob, the 5-story condominium recently built on top of it sure did.

So what is the impact of all those homes? There's something like10 sewage treatment plants dumping into the creek between Carlisle and the mouth. That's a lot of effluent and during times of low flow in the summer, over half the water coming down the creek to the mouth is sewage effluent! That gives you something to think about when enjoying a summer dip in the ole' Cono. It certainly gives me reason to pause when my son and I are enjoying the water in the Susquehanna in front of my home, a mile and a half downstream of the Conodoguinet's mouth. So when there is talk about overdue sewage plant upgrades on the Conodoguinet, like there has been in the past few years, you know I'm not going to be one of the complainers griping about higher sewage bills. We must all pay to to keep our waterways clean.

The Conodoguinet is unusual in that if there is enough water to float the final few miles, there's enough to float the final 40 miles - all the way to and above Carlisle! This creek has a very consistent bottom making it tough to escape the low water when levels are down. Riffles tend to be creek wide with few deeper channels. So I stay off the creek on composite boats when it's below 1.9, while Ed Gertler gives 1.7 as a minimum. Unfortuneately, these levels can be illusive in the summer and fall.

Pat Reilly

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