River of the month #72

author: Pat Reilly
date: July 2004

Conococheague - yet another difficult to pronounce creek name. I used to say, ‘Con o co cheeck’, as in Assateague or Chincoteague, until I heard a Chambersburg native say, ‘Con o co jig’. Whatever. This Franklin County creek is a good one to paddle, the lower section being exceptional for fans of gentle, quiet water with plenty of soothing green scenery.

Overall it’s a sizable creek, flowing 72 miles from Caledonia State Park to the Potomac at Williamsport, MD. It drains the same valley as the Conodoguinet Creek - the Cumberland Valley. Only it flows in the opposite direction.

While the Conodoguinet dumps out of the Blue Mountain, the Cumberland Valley’s northwest boundary, and flows east toward the Susquehanna, the Conococheague’s headwaters are on the other side of the valley in the South Mountain. Two clear, bubbling mountain streams merge in Caledonia State Park to form a creek just large enough to boat. The first few miles flow west from the park through a beautiful virgin timber forest. Like most of Pennsylvania’s remnant old growth forests, this stand has many hemlocks, but it also features lots of very large old white pines. It is a lovely place to be, but not necessarily to boat. Back in ’93, myself and two other CCGH members ignored the strainer warning in Ed Gertler’s Keystone Canoeing guidebook and launched 3 kayaks at the park hoping for some enjoyable easy whitewater through the big woods. What we got were downed trees, lots of ‘em! And since these trees are big, there was no getting under or over most of them. It turned into one of those ugly strainer-fests where you are out of your boat as much as in it. We eventually developed a method to utilize the snow that lay on the ground. Dave and I took turns getting out and dragging the other two (the third member or our party being a lady) over the snow and around the obstructions. The anticipated rapids were really only riffles; the strainers were probably the reason for the class II designation. I would strongly recommend a visit to this see this beautiful stretch of creek, but without your boat!

By West Fayettville the Conococheague is out of the forest and into the Cumberland Valley. The big strainers are gone, but a number of obstacles persist since the stream now braids frequently, winding its way through bottomlands woods and swamps that form a bit of a greenbelt through the farm and orchard country of Franklin County. The creek forms a large loop first heading north to Scotland. On the way, you’ll encounter a dam split around an island near an old mill turned into a home. Too boney to run, this dam is not in Gertler’s guidebook.

You’ll encounter some groomed lawn scenery past a golf course and the Scotland School before you hit the next dam signaling your arrival in Scotland. You can clunk over this one on the right. There’s a busy street bordering the creek on river right through town. You’re not likely to experience the ‘extracurricular’ entertainment that I got when cruising along beside this street. I noticed something well up ahead, 100 yards or more, suddenly crumple and tumble awkwardly from the sky landing in the creek with a huge splash. Its size suggested a goose, but birds don’t just fall from the sky. Or do they? When I reached the spot, there was a very large brown farm goose floating belly-up in an eddy. He hadn’t met with foul play, I heard no gunshot, or fowl play, as he was flying solo. A heart attack perhaps? Since I probably flushed him from the creek, I felt somewhat responsible for his demise and figured the least I could do was make some use out of him. Anyone for road creek-kill? However it was so fat that I didn’t think I could stuff it into my skinny race boat. And I was already running behind on a tight schedule with many miles yet to paddle and the big bird would only slow me down, so I left him float in peace.

After Scotland the creek finally curves southward toward Chambersburg. The next 8 miles are a mixed bag with plenty of creek side homes and trailers, but pretty little limestone cliffs and bluffs too. Another un-announced little dam, again split around an island appears below Scotland, this one navigable. By now farms and development are starting to take a toll on the Conococheague’s clear mountain water as the quality degrades a bit. But it still looks pretty healthy and I believe these are good trout waters to and beyond Chambersburg.

Your arrival in Chambersburg is signaled by a 5-foot dam that can be easily carried on the left. The pool for a 7-footer starts shortly below. This second dam is right in town and presents a real problem. There is simply no place to get out to carry. Both banks are built up with sheer concrete walls and/or fences. I was able to crawl out right on the dam structure at river left by a spillway gate. I then climbed down 7 feet of concrete wall into a 20 X 20 foot ‘stilling room’. I had to lower my boat, climb in and shoot out of the room through an opening on the right riding a 6-inch deep tongue of water slipping out from under the spillway gate at a high velocity. Luckily it re-entered the creek just downstream of the big dam’s boil line, keeping me out of the hydraulic. Weird! Skip this section or get out well above the dam unless you have a small light boat and are feeling rather nimble.

The rest of Chambersburg goes by quickly and then the Conococheague settles into its true character – one of quiet cruising. From here to the Potomac are over 50 miles of very lonely stream banks. The creek continually loops back and forth like the Conodoguinet, shortening your shuttle. However, unlike its Cumberland County counterpart that gets more developed the closer you get to the mouth, the Conococheague remains amazingly free of streamside homes all the way to its end. In all the miles between Chambersburg and Williamsport the creek flows through only one town, and it’s a small one, the town of Conococheague, Maryland at the route 40 bridge – just a handful of houses. You’ll see no endless stream of suburban homes, like on the Conodoguinet, no barrage of vacation cottages like on Penns, no paralleling railroads or highways like on the Susquehanna or Juniata, and no dam every few miles like on the Yellow Breeches.

There are plenty of farms, usually buffered from the creek by woods or steep slopes, but seeing a farm building is rather rare. Summer cottages are nearly nonexistent. I did notice about a half dozen picnic groves with tables and pavilions. One could theorize that the reason for this scarceness of development may be land use laws. But the creek is virtually the same in both Franklin County, Pa. and Washington County, Md. Neither can you blame it on degraded water, the reason for a lack of summer homes along Pennsylvania’s Moshannon Creek.

The Conococheague has the normally murky water associated with creeks in farm country. But a constant influx of spring water (limestone springs persist all down the valley) and lack of development keep the water healthier than the Conodoguinet’s which has something like 10 sewage treatment plants between Carlisle and the mouth.

Now don’t expect spectacular or even special scenery, you’ll see lots of woods, some open farms, wooded slopes, but nothing real steep or high. Exposed rock cliffs are rare. You will go under plenty of bridges, some old limestone arched, some modern. The special feature of this creek is the lack of visible buildings for mile upon mile. This makes camping a possibility. I camped in this section, no doubt on private land. But I saw or heard no one, save for a distant dog’s occasional bark, and left nothing but a tiny pile of ashes on a gravel bar, inches from the water’s edge.

Riffles are rare but so are dams. A third undocumented dam comes up shortly after Chambersburg, a simple 1-footer in the middle of the woods. Then, no more dams until a few miles from the mouth when you encounter a sloping and deteriorating 6-footer. This dam is tough to carry, unless you trespass on river left at the old mill. After hauling out in poison ivy on river right and finding rock blocking my portage, I noticed an easily runable chute in the center. Just be sure and scout, the consequences for missing the chute are hydraulics or rock piles.

Around Chambersburg, the creek is pretty small, about ‘Yellow Breeches-at-Lisburn’ size. You probably need 2.7 feet on the Fairview, Md. online gauge to ensure enough water. 3 feet ought to be enough for the area around Scotland. 16 miles below Chambersburg, Back Creek enters and substantially increases the flow. Now you’ll only need 2.3 feet on the gauge. Another 12 miles and the West Branch enters down in Maryland and doubles the flow making for a good size creek. From here down should have quite a long season, probably well into summer during a wet year. 2 feet on the gauge ought to do it for this section.

Limited development is seen around and below the last dam - a parallel country road, the mill and some homes at the dam. The edges of Williamsport are visible when approaching the mouth. A big parking lot at the C and O Canal National Park visitor’s center just above the old canal aqueduct at the mouth, makes for a nice takeout.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2004 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.