Pine Creek (Center County)

River of the month #76

author: Pat Reilly
date: January 2005

This is ROM’s second Pine Creek and neither one is the Pine Creek that most members are familiar with, the one of ‘Pennsylvania Grand Canyon’ fame. This one lies in Centre County’s limestone rich Penns Valley. As discussed in the Penns Creek write up last spring, it joins Penns at the town of Coburn, the start of the popular Coburn to Weikert trip on Penns.

Pine is a small creek, just big enough to make it into Ed Gertler’s Keystone Canoeing guidebook. Starting at Woodward, where there is decent access, you have a trip of slightly more than 7.5 miles in length. The area is not particularly remote, but it does seem set back in time. Woodward is found at the foot of Seven Mountain on a main thoroughfare, route 45, that runs from the Selinsgrove area to State College. But once off of that highway, only narrow and lonely country roads follow Pine Creek’s path as it parallels the base of the mountain on its way to Coburn.

Peddling these back roads for my Pine Creek bicycle shuttle was a pleasurable experience remembered almost as fondly as the paddle. Getting passed by cars on narrow country roads can sometimes be a bit harrowing. This is just one reason I try to bike shuttle on simple back roads where traffic speeds are slow and volume light. Many times I count the number of cars that pass me as a sort of ‘remote road index’. Less than 2 cars per mile is considered a good index. Well, on a fine early Sunday morning in March, I had the ultimate index on the Pine Creek shuttle – 0 cars. In fact, I only had 4 vehicles pass me going the opposite way – 1 car and 3 Amish buggies. Yes, as we talked about in the Elks Creek ROM, Penns Valley has many Amish.

I don’t know how many of the farms and homes along Pine Creek are Amish, but nearly all are old and most are quaint and nice to look at. New development is non-existent! Why is old better than new when it comes to rural scenery? I enjoy looking at modern city skyscrapers and pondering the new technologies that built them. But when it comes to the countryside I, like many, seem to enjoy it more when things aren’t changing. Can it be that we like to think rural areas of our state are always going to remain the same - without sprawl and with hardy inhabitants embracing the upright values that it took to homestead these places years ago? Or maybe old homes just look cooler. Some along Pine Creek are really worn down and haggard looking. Yet there was not a building that was displeasing to my eye. Not like rounding a bend on the Conodoguinet and seeing a big new quarter-million dollar ranch house beside the creek. Ugh!

These old homes are spread out and many are surrounded by pastures or cultivated fields. There’s plenty of woodlots too. It’s all bottomlands though, as the creek often seems to be flowing through swamps. Many black willow trees line the creek and stick out from the soggy fields. There are riffles but no ledges and few rocks in the creek. Grassy islands, tight bends and of course strainers (remember this is a small creek) are the prevalent obstacles. Pine is mostly a smooth fast flow of fairly clear limestone spring water weaving in and around wetlands, woods and old farms. Sound nice? It is!

Less than a mile below the put-in you come across something Ed Gertler talks about in his guidebook, a spot where the creek disappears underground. This is not uncommon in limestone valleys. However, you won’t be able to actually see the water sinking into the limestone bedrock with the creek at a boatable level. This disappearing act only occurs at low flow. What you will see is the creek bed suddenly become filled with trees! Bushes and saplings of alder and willow, up to 3 inches thick, present a challenge the likes of which you are not likely to have encountered before. There is not much space between the saplings (about 1 to 3 feet) and trying to find a straight route is a real problem. You can paddle between trees for a while but sooner or later there will be one right in front of you, necessitating some extremely tight squeezing. You must use your hands in spots! This goes on for quite some time, at least 100 yards, to and beyond the first bridge over the creek. I thought it was fun simply because it was so unique. Somehow I got through without getting out of my boat, but I had a narrow kayak. Recreational and open boaters are likely to be carrying at least some of this section.

The next bridge below the mid-stream trees is the entrance to commercial Woodward Cave. I’d stopped for a tour had the cave been open.

Your next challenge on Pine is a dam about a mile and a half up stream from Coburn. The dam has a nice runnable breach on the right into a benign pool. At high levels it will be powerful and about 3 feet high – a tough plunge for tandem open boats and rec kayaks.

Shortly below here Elk Creek enters and doubles the flow as Pine Creek comes into the town of Coburn. Now the creek is right up against big Seven Mountain. Soon it enters Penns Creek and turns left directly into the mountain. Abruptly, the wonderful swampy bottomlands of Pine with its smooth twisting waters changes to the equally wonderful mountain lands of Penns with its constant riffles and rapids. Ya gotta love Pennsylvania paddling up in Centre County, the heart of the state!

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2005 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.