Mahanoy Creek

River of the month #93

author: Pat Reilly
date: January 2007

River of the Month number 9, from way back in December ’98, listed 8 parallel creeks north of Harrisburg that flow east to west and dump into the main stem of the Susquehanna. Beginning with Fishing Creek just north of the Burg and ending with Mahanoy in Northumberland County, these waterways are prime examples of ‘ridge and valley’ province streams. Mahanoy’s particular valley is narrow and a good one to paddle through, featuring some easy whitewater and nice remote cruising. Like most creeks that begin in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, Mahanoy has an acid mine drainage problem. And it may be the creek’s legacy of coal that has kept it rather remote as fishermen have passed it up for summer home and camp development opting for less acidic waters that support trout.

Only after I put in at the east end of Girardville, an old Irish coal mining town, did I notice what looked like steeper whitewater further up above Main Street. But the creek is already tiny here so I just headed downstream through town. Ed Gertler refers to this section as whitewater but there isn’t much to it - constant riffles with a few small rapids. Ed didn’t like the scenery up here, but I thought it was neat to paddle through small-town Girardville, taking in wooded backyards, swing sets and old garages, going under many small bridges and checking out sections of creek bank that consist of old stone work. I’d much rather paddle through quaint old towns like Girardville, with its densely packed (but nicely maintained) homes, with restaurants and stores that folks walk to, than through modern suburbs with sprawling garden-tractor-groomed lawns used only for the dog to crap on.

After a few miles the whitewater picks up approaching Ashland were the creek turns south and bops down through a mountain gap. The creek is still quite small so the rapids are sometimes technical, but the gradient is relatively mild keeping things easily manageable. Civilization is never far on this headwaters section. Roads parallel the creek, there’s sometimes junk in the water and evidence of the decaying coal industry can be seen everywhere, from huge culm piles to rusty coal shakers. So if the scenery is bad and the whitewater mild, why bother? Well, I enjoyed my tour of Girardville and Ashland for those very reasons. I found the scenery interesting if not pretty and the whitewater was at least whitewater.

Upon clearing the mountain gap, Mahanoy meanders for the next 7 miles through some scruffy bottomland woods. Marred by old mines and dumps and sometimes looking like a coal-black moonscape, this section is at least free from residential development. Rapids are gone for now, but the current remains swift. Soon after going under the high route 901 bridge, the creek takes its place between 2 mountains as one of our northernmost ‘ridge and valley’ streams. In the process, Mahanoy morphs into a quality cruising creek.

The creek’s valley is generally too narrow for heavy agriculture and thus offers a nice feeling of intimacy with the surrounding forest. For miles and miles the predominating scenery is woods on both sides of the creek with lots of hemlocks and rhododendron. River left is almost never developed, while river right has occasional old homesteads and small farms. The water is stained from mine drainage but there are no other signs of mines once down in Mahanoy’s skinny valley. However, travel over the north mountain into the Shamokin area and you’ll immediately witness the legacy of anthracite coal extraction and it ain’t pretty. The main attraction along Mahanoy seems to be 4-wheeling. In 4 trips to the valley, I heard and saw my share of ATVs and their creek-side trails.

After the bridge near the hamlet of Heifenstein, whitewater returns to Mahanoy Creek. Widely spaced easy rapids with mild gradient complement the woodsy scenery and make for good cruising for the next 10 miles. Then as the rapids subside new obstacles arise. Little homemade rubble dams start appearing at regular intervals and continue for 6 or 7 miles. Up to 2.5 feet high, these dams (6 in all, if I counted correctly) are fairly easy to run and keep the trip adventurous. My understanding is that they were built to allow the coal silt to settle out of the water where it could be harvested from the dam pools by ‘backyard’ dredging operations. Some of the pools still have old equipment beside them. Interesting!

At dornsife, Mahanoy turns abruptly south and cuts through the mountain that has been its left bank for the past 25 miles. In the process, a few nice riffles/small rapids are formed. After the gap, the creek runs by some bank-side light industry that can be rather ugly, but it doesn’t last long. Just past this industrial intrusion, I had a strange experience one March day back in ’02. While motoring down the creek in my trusty wildwater boat at a high rate of speed, I noticed the water color was changing, then I realized I was now paddling upstream! What the h…? Thinking I was paddling on a left-hand braid around an island, I had actually paddled up Schwaben Creek, a sizable tributary that does a sort of head-on collision with Mahanoy! First and only time that ever happened.

Now that Mahanoy has broken out of its isolated narrow valley for a big wide valley to the south, it seems to celebrate its newfound freedom by looping north and south a few times on its final leg to the Susquehanna. And in the process it makes for a nice paddle trip. Only sparsely developed with a nice mixture of woods, farms and pasture, this is a good little 7-miler with nice riffly water to boot. It’s not that far from Harrisburg with descent access via routes 147 (the take out) or 225 (the put in).

With no gauge on the creek, it can be hard to judge levels for a Mahanoy trip. I look at the Harpers Tavern gauge on the Swatara and the Dalmatia gauge on Mahantango for a trip in the narrow valley or the lower creek. While 1.7 at Harpers and 1.6 at Dalmatia should be minimal for the lower trip, you should probably have 2 feet on both for the middle sections in the valley, more as you go upstream. To go explore the whitewater in the headwaters, I’d look for close to 3 feet on the Wapwallopen Creek gauge. This gauge may not be much closer to the headwaters than the first 2, but it is for a much smaller creek and so should better reflect how quickly these upper waters will fall off after a big storm.

The middle section, with its remote little valley is perfect for camping. With no roads on river left and thick hemlocks shading a forest floor of soft needles it’ll seem custom made to pitch your tent. During summer of '05, heading for an overnight trip down Mahanoy, we were almost at the put in when we discovered that my 6-year old had left his shoes at home. We decided to go for it anyway and Tony had no problem going barefoot on a warm July night in Mahanoy Creek’s lovely valley.

Pat Reilly

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