Fishing Creek (Dauphin County)

River of the month #24

author: Pat Reilly
date: April 2000

This is the second Fishing Creek discussed in this column. And it may not be the last, as ‘Fishing Creek’ is my guess for the most common river name in Pennsylvania. The first we talked about (in 5/99) is just across the river in Perry County. Dauphin County’s Fishing Creek was paddled by at least 3 club members before I got on it. I had been eyeing it up for a long time as it is very close to home, just a few miles north of the ‘Burg’. Members who paddle the club’s weekly ‘Dauphin Narrows’ sessions during the summer take out just downstream from its mouth in Fort Hunter Park.

For years I passed it up for bigger and better things, but knew that sooner or later I would paddle it. The opportunity came with Hurricane Floyd in September ’99. Now when a hurricane brings 5 inches of rain, a diehard paddler simply has to get out on some water, hopefully some virgin water. But with my son only 8 weeks old, traveling very far was not an option. Ah, the perfect time to explore Fishing Creek. With the rain falling hard all night, I drove to work in the morning with a boat on the car. As the rain continued hard all day, I was reasonably sure there would be enough water. But this is a tiny creek, probably no more than 15 square miles of watershed and it would take a lot of water.

Arriving at the selected put-in, the fourth bridge up Fishing Creek Valley Road, my first look at the creek revealed more than enough water. In fact, little Fishing Creek was in flood. Out of its banks for most of the trip, the majority of the many bridges had just enough clearance to squeeze under. However there was not enough clearance under many of the logs bridging the creek. I carried nine times in the five miles to the river.

The creek makes a big loop to the south around the Harrisburg Country Club and bumps up against Blue Mountain. There are some gorgeous hemlock woods hidden in the loop, sometimes with steep rock-studded slopes on river left. But Fishing Creek spends most of its time out of the woods and running along the edges of back yards and fields where it is enveloped with brush and vines that considerably restrict your view of what lies ahead. And with the creek racing along at flood level, I was constantly back-paddling to scrub off speed lest a strainer rear its ugly head before I had the chance to grab an eddy (or some overhanging brush in the absence of an eddy).

One notable carry was around a giant tulip tree with a 10-foot high root ball. During the portage I noticed the foliage was fresh and deduced that the tree had just fallen. The constant concentration on strainers had distracted me from the wind that had been steadily building. Floyd was now upon Harrisburg with full force and winds were screaming through the woods accompanied by the regular ‘snap’ of breaking timber. Great! now I had to be concerned about falling trees in addition to the ones already fallen across the creek.

I had not set a shuttle and planned simply to paddle the additional 7 miles down the Susquehanna to my home in Wormleysburg. With all the chaos on Fishing Creek I was relieved to reach Fort Hunter knowing I would soon be on the familiar Susky. Relieved, that is, until I saw the river! Good grief! I was now confronted with easily the biggest waves I had ever seen on the Susquehanna. And the wind was picking water up off the wave tops generating a stinging white spray above the river’s surface.

It was manageable though, barely. The most difficult part was keeping the boat pointed downwind (which, luckily, was also downstream). I was paddling a Prion Beluga, a touring K-1 built to wildwater specifications, meaning it has lots of volume and rides high in the water with a lot of surface area to catch the wind. The wind and waves kept knocking the boat sideways and I had to brace hard and sweep hard in quick succession to get the boat turned downwind again. The next hardest thing was just hanging on to the paddle. You had to really concentrate or the big gusts could easily rip it from your hands.

I never felt in danger on the river, the water was chilly but not down to where hypothermia was a threat, so a flip and swim would only have been an inconvenience not a serious risk. But I stayed upright and was able to enjoy an awesome display of nature’s power from a unique perspective. Trucks had slowed to a crawl on the Wade Bridge for fear of getting blown off. Trees were snapping off all around me at an astonishing rate. Blowing past McCormicks Island, I witnessed three in a row break off within three seconds, - ‘snap, crack and pop’. At Sheetz Island I watched as a full size silver maple crashed into the river in front of me, so big it appeared to fall in slow motion. I recall thinking that unless I retire in hurricane-prone Florida (not bloody likely) I may never see anything like this again in my lifetime.

The next morning as I biked up to get my car before work, fallen trees and limbs littered Harrisburg’s Riverfront Park and you could see where crews had worked during the night to cut and drag them from the roads. Fishing Creek was now chugging along at a nice comfortable level; plenty of water to float a boat but about 3 feet lower, a lot slower and well within its banks.

Fishing Creek will remain on my ‘hit list’ as I aim to get back to those pretty hemlock groves when I can soak in their beauty without the distraction of wondering what problems the next tree (fallen or falling) may present.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2000 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.