Chickies Creek

River of the month #19

author: Pat Reilly
date: November 1999

I haven’t run into many people who have heard of Chickies Creek, but quite a few know about the popular climbing cliffs called Chickies Rock. The cliffs are found in Lancaster County’s Chickies Park (where else?) overlooking the Susquehanna between Marietta and Columbia. The creek is small to medium sized, originates in the Manheim area and drains northwestern Lancaster County to enter the river just north of Chickies Rock.

There seems to be two consistencies one notices when boating small creeks in Lancaster County - a certain smell in the air and a distinctive color to the water. When paddling Chickies it occurred to me that there is a connection between the two.

It doesn’t take a research biologist to determine the source of the smell, one whiff will tell you it’s cow manure. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says that Lancaster County has the highest ratio of cows per acre of any county in the USA. This is not hard to believe when paddling in the county; the smell is always present but not necessarily always disagreeable. The farmers will tell you it’s the smell of ‘good country air’.

To describe the distinct look of the county’s creekwater, I’ve used the term ‘chocolate- milk brown’, as they always seem to run thick with silt that is a rich tan in color when at boatable levels. While the tan hue comes from the make up of Lancaster County’s soils, the thick consistency is from the tremendous load of sediment that runs notably heavier than the average Pennsylvania creek. This extra load of dirt can be attributed to the high concentration of cattle. With very little forested land remaining and many of the farms old and without adequate stream- side buffering to keep the cows from trampling the creek banks, the county is bound to suffer more than it’s share of erosion and soil run-off.

At runable levels, Chickies’ waters can be so loaded with silt that it has only an inch or two of visibility. This makes rocks especially tough to spot but like most of the county’s creeks, Chickies is quite flat and has few rapids or obstructions. That is, if you don’t count fords and dams. Chickies has more than its share of dams as well as a few fords.

Let’s take a look at three methods of crossing our state’s rural waterways:

  • Bridges, of course, are the most common and most bridges are built high above the water to prevent flood damage. You’ll notice that many bridges are considerably higher than the surrounding landscape. They are ‘ramped up’ above their floodplain to accomodate periodic high water episodes.

  • On the other hand, ‘low water bridges’ are designed to be flooded. As the name implies, they only function as bridges when water is not high. And they almost never have enough clearance for a boat, making them extremely dangerous. They can create menacing whirlpool/suckholes on their upstream sides and should be treated as what they are - permanent manmade strainers. Fortunately, Chickies has no low water bridges.

  • Fords differ in that no water flows under them. Hence they are always flooded. You have to get your tires (or feet) wet to cross a ford. Some are merely areas where the stream bottom is flat that farmers use to drive across. But the kind you encounter on Chickies are concrete pads laid across the creek that may be hard for boaters to distinguish from tiny low head dams.

Chickies has 9 dams and 3 concrete fords. If you’re paddling glass or Aramid Fiber, you’ll want to carry all of these to prevent boat damage. If in plastic you can run the fords and possibly a few of the dams.

So with all the dams, fords, dirty water and smelly air why would anyone want to paddle Chickies? My first inclination is to simply say, ‘because it’s there’, that’s reason enough for me. But Chickies is a good creek in its own right. Its course is often wooded in spite of all the agriculture (the ‘chocolate milk’ comes mostly from tributaries). The creek is usually pretty and mostly lonely. And isn’t that what we want in a flatwater creek? You pass under some attractive old hump-backed stone bridges. I remember at least one covered bridge and an interesting old ‘see-through’ mill. Down near the mouth, there are often pretty little limestone cliffs on one side or the other. This is Pennsylvania Dutch country so the farms are usually well kept and appealing. And if you’re biking the shuttle you may get a chance to race an Amish buggy. I did!

Skip the town of Manheim if you paddle the upper part of Chickies. As seen from the creek it isn’t very pretty and there’s some ugly industry just downstream from town. There’s not much water up that far anyway.

The last access before the mouth is busy rt 441. Just beyond the bridge is the last dam, a big one. During my first trip down Chickies, we were able to paddle right over the dam. This may be hard to imagine if you see the size of the dam, but the Susquehanna was 3 feet above flood stage and backed up into the creek, making the dam a mere riffle. By carrying this dam and taking out at the town park 2 miles down the Susquehanna in Columbia, you can explore the narrows above Wrightsville and Columbia, not unlike our own Dauphin Narrows. With this option you’ll get a good view of the ‘rock rats’ clinging to the side of Chickies Rock. Be sure and wave.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1999 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.