Pequea Creek

River of the month #55

author: Pat Reilly
date: December 2002

Unlike most rivers discussed in this column, Pequea Creek is well known to a number of CCGH members. I recall it being the subject of a trip report many years ago in which the author described the trashing each participant took at the hands of the rapid. The rapid (sorry, I don’t have a name for it) is the distinguishing feature of the creek and is probably what comes to mind when local boaters hear the name, ‘Pequea Creek’.

Having 40 miles of boatable water described in Ed Gertler’s ‘Keystone Canoeing’ guidebook, Pequea certainly has a lot more to offer than the rapid. It begins east of Paradise, near the Lancaster/Chester County line. Its headwaters are very near the Conestoga River’s headwaters. Since these 2 rivers drain the majority of Lancaster County, one is inclined to make a comparison of the two and it becomes apparent that there are many similarities in the upper halves of the two rivers. We discussed the Conestoga River way back in August of ’98. At the risk of repeating some of that write-up, let’s list the similarities of the two rivers’ beginnings:

  • It’s not like you’ll pass some Amish farms on the upper portions of these streams, virtually all the farms are Amish. When biking the shuttle for the upper 15 miles of Pequea, east and west of the town of Paradise, for many miles every time that I looked at a mailbox it had the same name on it – ‘Stoltzfus’! What’s up with that? Wouldn’t you hate to be the local postman? Which Stoltzfus?

  • There are no tree buffers on the upper parts of these creeks and the banks are not high, giving you a unfettered view of the farms, the livestock and the folks tending to them.

  • The farmers utilize these rivers within their cow pastures and feed lots, meaning that you’re likely to find cattle standing in the middle of the creek and encounter lots of fences. And while the Amish may shy away from electricity in their homes, they sure use it in their fences. Looking for a put-in on the upper Pequea, I had to settle for the 4th bridge downstream, about 2 miles below Gertler’s uppermost put-in as the first 3 bridges had no access with electric fences tied right into the bridge abutments! Even with all that ‘security’, there was a breech at bridge number 2 where a young bull was standing in the middle of the road!

  • Besides many dams, you’ll encounter countless weirs, mostly hand made with sharp boat-busting rocks and/or broken concrete. The upper 16 miles of Pequea has 3 regular dams to carry and I counted 10 little weirs. But only one that I noticed had an operating waterwheel. It turned a reciprocating arm that was connected to 2 wire cables that operated something out of sight, probably a water pump. Such interesting contraptions were more prevalent on the Conestoga.

  • In addition to dams and weirs, expect to see some low water bridges and fords. I counted 4 low water bridges on Pequea.

  • With all the weirs and dams most of the water is slack water, what lies in between is usually flat and runs over a simple cobble bottom.

  • When you do find the occasional woods, you’re likely to encounter tree strainers.

Running the upper section of Pequea is tough going. Besides the physical hassle of carrying or ducking under the many obstacles, I found it a bit unsettling when coming face to face with Amish farmers. As you portage across their land, lugging your strange watercraft, dressed in your weird paddling clothes, they seem to regard you as some sort of an alien. But a smile and a nod will usually bring a response in kind. And I’ve never had anyone refuse me passage on Pequea or on Conestoga. ‘No trespassing’ signs are rare.

Around route 896 north of Strausburg, Pequea begins the slow transition from cow pasture creek to nice rural canoe stream. For about 20 miles it ambles through East and West Lampeter townships. Make no mistake, this is still Lancaster County farm country, but there are more wood lots and less fences as you make you way downstream. And the stream banks get higher and higher as you go taking away some of the view but allowing more privacy. There are still 2 dams and 2 low water bridges to contend with.

And the Amish are still present. When setting the shuttle on the stretch just below rt. 896, I noticed a big volley game in progress at a large Amish gathering on one of the farms. It was still going on when I bicycled by an hour later and they were still playing late in the evening when I finally paddled by after another couple of hours. Looks like these ‘plain folk’ play as hard as they work.

So what about the rapid? All we’ve talked about is a rural flat water creek, typical of Lancaster County. Well, as discussed in the Coniwingo Creek write-up (Sept., 2001) the Susquehanna River cuts a bit of a gorge as it drops down through the Piedmont on its way to the bay. As Pequea nears the river it too must cut through the rock of the Piedmont. The transition is rather sudden.

The paddler encounters some welcome woods on high slopes shortly after passing under the rt. 324 bridge north of Marticville. Then the creek goes back to farmland for a mile until it runs into, then turns and parallels a wooded ridge for another mile. Now comes the abrupt change where the creek turns 90 degrees to the south and digs right into the ridge cutting a steep gorge. An old fashioned steel railroad trestle, quite high, spans the gorge and adds to the dramatics. Rock outcrops of schist appear sticking out through hemlock and rhododendron on the precipitous slopes of what is now clearly a different river. This schist is the same rock that is dominant in Muddy Creek’s gorge on the other side of the river.

The change is so complete that one may decide on 2 different boats to run Pequea Creek. I did. The first time I ran the lower part, I started with a wildwater boat to make good speed on the pastoral section. But I had a play boat stashed under the River Road bridge at Martic Forge, just downstream from the high RR trestle. This bridge is where the hoards that only wish to run the rapid put on. You may be able to use the parking lot of the bar located at the bridge. Downstream from here is one beautiful mile of creek.

The heavily wooded banks continue, along with the schist outcrops until the rock closes in from river right and pinches the creek down to barely a boat length wide! Here the water dumps over a vertical 3-foot ledge and pools for just a second before turning abruptly right and dropping over another 3-footer. This time with a hidden rock at the bottom and an undercut ledge to boot! Sound ugly? Not really, it’s manageable and a heck of a lot of fun. But a little too tight for a wildwater boat, hence the switch. It would also be a very tough move in a tandem open boat.

There’s a portage/scouting trail on river left in Pa. state game lands. First timers will definitely want to have a look at ‘the rapid’. The rest of this magic mile contains some easy rapids and riffles, some that may be playable if the creek is up good. It ends at a pretty covered bridge. In spite of what looks like a parking area on river left at the covered bridge, access is not allowed here, so continue further down to a picnic/camping area. The remaining 2 miles of creek are pretty - being in an ever-deepening gorge. But it’s paralleled by a road now. And it soon becomes backwater from the dammed up Susquehanna at Lake Aldred and contains homes with motorboat docks.

The short trip from Martic Forge to the picnic area is quite popular. Due to the constricted nature of the rapid it is, for all practical purposes, always runable, even if the approach and follow-up aren’t. That makes this section popular with tubers. There was a tube concession located, I think, in Martic Forge. I’m not sure if they are still in existence as there was a toddler drowning incident a few years past. The parents apparently went through the rapid in a tube with a small child and no PFD. The trail on river left is popular with swimmers, partying teenagers and the like making this a crowded summer spot.

Want more fun after a good run on the creek? Check out the easily accessible Wind Cave a few miles south of the town of Pequea along the Susquehanna River on the Mason/Dixon Trail. Before I visited this cave, I was under the impression that caves only existed in limestone. Wind Cave is known as a ‘fracture’ cave and is rather extensive in spite of not being limestone. However, you’ll see no stalactites or stalagmites.

Water levels? The Conestoga River has some gauges at Lancaster and near the mouth at Conestoga. I’d look for at least 4.0 feet on the Lancaster gauge to run Pequea below route 896. You can probably get down the creek below Martic Forge with as little as 3.6 feet. Since the Conestoga gauges are well down in the watershed I believe you’ll do better with the West Branch of Brandywine gauges to get a truer reading of the upper Pequea. I’d consider 2 feet at Honeybrook or 4.2 at Coatsville to be minimal to visit Amish farm country via boat. Keep in mind that Brandywine gauges are not in the Susquehanna watershed, so you might need a different USGS web site. Check the levels and go have some fun on Pequea. But do me a favor and let me know if you find out the name of that rapid.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2002 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.