Penns Creek

River of the month #71

author: Pat Reilly
date: June 2004

In many respects, Penns is the quintessential Pennsylvania Creek. Beginning in Centre County, its path is through the heart of the state. Its origins are limestone springs, like many of Pennsylvania’s finest creeks. When it flows through the wide Seven Mountain range it cuts gaps in the ridges forming simple rapids that are typical of the state’s mountain streams. As it emerges from the mountains to flatter land it cruises through wide valleys filled with fertile farms characteristic of our state. Finally, it ends as an urban creek, bordering the back yards of Selinsgrove, as it runs through the center of town. These different sections are each representative of the different types of creeks that a paddler encounters across the state.

Penns Creek is born in a cave, and that is where I first experienced it as a child with my family in a big tour boat. Penns Cave is big and beautiful, filled with water, and worth a visit. When I launched at the uppermost put-in on Penns, Swamp Church Road, I had this idea to head a mile upstream and try to sneak into the cave using the creek. But when eyeing up little Penns Creek, barely a boat length wide at this point, I realized that simply going downstream would be challenge enough. The first 3.5 miles to Spring Mills are okay with the creek cutting a wide gap through a shallow ridge. However, strainers and overhanging tangles of raspberry and greenbriar thorns make the paddling tough going and a streamside junkyard trashes the scenery. Penns has too many other good sections to make this trip a priority.

As you enter small-town Spring Mills, a culvert spills a load of fresh spring water into the creek from river right. The source are two huge springs a half block from the creek. Another block and Penns Creek more than doubles in size with the addition of Sinking Creek. Sinking Creek will actually ‘sink’ into its limestone bedrock in places during low flow, thus the name. You’re in the heart of limestone Penns Valley here, and this means that the next section to Coburn holds water well into the springtime paddling season in spite of it’s small size. Let’s hear it for limestone springs! These six miles are flat and pretty while winding through Penns Valley’s many farms, some of them Amish. Watch for a sloping dam when nearing Coburn, it supposedly has exposed re-bar.

At Coburn, Pine Creek comes in from river left. A half-mile up Pine Creek is the mouth of Elk Creek. So here we have the waters of 4 canoeable, limestone creeks (Penns, Sinking, Elk and Pine) forming a now medium sized creek with which to explore some beautiful Pennsylvania mountain scenery. The change below Coburn is abrupt. When Pine Creek joins, you immediately enter a large gap in Seven Mountain. The water changes too, as constant riffles and small rapids liven things up. Thus the norm for the next 15 miles is established – mountains and woods, riffles and rapids - and it makes for a darn nice trip, one that many club members have enjoyed. This trip is a Pennsylvania classic. Camping in this mountainous stretch is a worthwhile idea since much of the land is state forest. The trip is split nicely by Poe Paddy State Park, where you can camp while enjoying some simple amenities. The heaviest rapid of the trip is right at the park. But don’t look for ‘park’ and play, Penns has only the simplest of rapids, small and straightforward. There is nothing on the entire creek that would exceed a class II.

The creek loops back and forth around a couple of mountains near Poe Paddy. A rail trail on river left stretches from the park 9 miles downstream to Weikert. The trail tunnels through one of the mountains near the park. In summer the tunnel is used as a shuttle! Kids will tube from the park on a mile long scenic loop around a mountain, then hike the rail trail ¼ mile through the tunnel, over a trestle and back to the park. The park, the trail, the tunnel and some lovely overlooks on the mountain tops (one known as Penns View) make spending some time out of your boat here an attractive option. Come for a whole day, or two, or three. The fishing is great too!

The change from mountain creek back to valley stream is gradual and begins as you approach the town of Weikert, the first take out since Poe Paddy. Many fishing cottages line the creek for miles to come. But a mountain and usually woodlands are present on river right all the way to the town of Penns Creek. Lots of braids and islands allow the paddler to get lost and hide should they find the numerous cottages annoying. Ed Gertler complains about them in his Keystone Canoeing guidebook. But I didn’t see them as a problem. Most are vacation cottages and are only occasionally occupied. All in all, the 35 miles section from Weikert to Selinsgrove is nice rural Pennsylvania paddling. Other than the cottages, the only development are quaint little country towns – Glen Iron, Millmont, Penns Creek and New Berlin. The riffles gradually diminish and are pretty much gone by the town of Glen Iron. However numerous rock weirs (probably trout habitat improvement work) and a small crumbled old dam below Millmont keep this section from being a total flat water trip.

From Penns Creek (the town) to New Berlin, the scenery gradually opens up with rolling hills and agriculture replacing mountains and woodlands. About six miles past New Berlin the creek, which has been running east, turns right and heads south toward Selinsgrove. Soon, Penns enters the big town and flows past homes and small industry for a few miles. The final 5 miles of Penns Creek are in the flood plain of the Susquehanna as the creek runs parallel with the bigger river, never more than a half mile away, before the two finally merge. The resulting long skinny peninsula is called the Isle of Que and consists of farm fields taking advantage of the fertile river sediments. The paddling through here is compromised by busy route 11 and 15, running very close to the creek creating much noise in spite of a thick wall of green ash and silver maple trees. I’ve envisioned using the Isle of Que to set up a 10-mile no-shuttle trip using both Penns and the Susquehanna. Down Penns and up the Susquehanna, then shoulder your boat for a 3/8-mile walk across the ‘Isle’. Not unlike the tubers at Poe Paddy! But I have yet to do it.

2.6 feet on the Penns Creek’ gauge, located at the town of Penns Creek, appears to be the magic level for the popular trip through the mountains below Colburn. Any less than this and you’ll be doing lots of scraping. This level will also work to put in at Spring Mills. Below Glen Iron you could make do with just a little less water.

Courteous paddlers generally try to stay off of popular trout streams during the early fishing season. I’ve heard general rules of 1 or 2 weeks after the season starts in early April. Penns is a very popular trout stream. In fact the creek has a national reputation for its ‘green drake’ mayfly hatch that occurs in mid to late May. Besides early season, it might be good to avoid paddling Penns, at least in the heavily fished area from Poe Paddy to Weikert, during this hatch period. Fishermen go bonkers when these largest of mayflies start rising from the creek bottom, driving trout into a frenzy. I’ve met fishermen who travel from out of state to get to Penns Creek during the green drake hatch.

My best trips through the Seven Mountain section of Penns occurred in early April before trout season, when other boaters were the only people I encountered. If camping in this stretch with its alluvial wetlands adjacent to all those acres of woodlands, expect to hear hoards of breeding frogs making their traditional outdoor Pennsylvania music. You might hear wood frogs, spring peepers, American toads, green or bull frogs, depending on the season. Whatever season or section you choose for a Penns Creek trip, rest assure that you’ll be experiencing classic Pennsylvania paddling.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2004 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.