Swatara Creek Trip: Take 3!
So…Tom brings up the subject the other day of an overnight kayak trip. I ask if he and Mitch want to try the Swatara creek, lower section, possibly the weekend of the 17th and 18th of September. Right now the creek is headed for some pretty bad flooding with hurricane Lee hanging over us. It looks to let up in the next few days, leaving only isolated and scattered rains until the Tuesday before that weekend. This creek is only around 60 miles long, so that should leave enough time for it to drain it’s area and go back to a more normal flow before the weekend we want to run it. I would really like to finish this creek before the year is out. That leads me to the first two attempts in June.
I had spent weeks planning this trip out. The entire creek from Pine Grove, PA to Middletown, PA where it empties into the Susquehanna River was what I mapped out. This is almost 60 miles in length, and the rate that I paddle this is doable. The first time I tried it, we had heavy rains that morning, almost 6 inches I believe in just a few hours. Undeterred, I had decided to continue with the plan. I packed my gear, and headed out when my ride showed up. I would need assistance with dropping my vehicle and shuttling me up to Pine Grove from Middletown. I was going this alone. Tom had shown interest, but I really wanted to do this by myself. I tend to do that too much I believe, and am trying to break that habit.
My shuttle service was provided by my mom. Yes, my mommy drove me. You can always count on mommy. She was not really thrilled when she saw the creek, which I knew from checking the river gauge levels that morning was now a half a foot above flood stage. It was running, according to the gauge at Pine Grove, at 9.5 feet, where it was merely 3 feet or so before the rains. This had risen 6.5 feet in just a matter of a few hours. I packed my gear into my kayak and was off.
I’m not going to go into the full story, because it is a long one, I’ll just hit some highlights.
- Just minutes after entering and heading downstream, an entire tree came down behind me 4 seconds or so after I passed beneath it. Then it followed me for a bit.
- There were downed trees that completely bridged the creek. I was lucking in that I could get over, or under, all that I had encountered.
- I watched the creek slam off of an embankment that I was coming up on, and bring down a wall of dirt and shrubs; this was in the beginning of tight S turn that I had to try to navigate, with a partial tree down covering half of the creek on the last turn of the S turn. That was the most frightening maneuver I had to make.
- I covered 10 miles in just 2 hours, and this was including all the back paddling I had to do to find lines through debris and some of the turns.
- I found an eddy about 1-2 miles from where I planned to ditch the trip and get out before this creek killed me. Had to hike through a marsh that was maybe 200 feet or so wide to get to the trail, thorns tearing my legs up, all with around 100 pounds of kayak and gear on my shoulder.
- I lost my water shoes in that marsh, and had to go bare foot from there.
- Then had to walk the trail a mile or more downstream to where my mommy was going to pick me up.
The second trip attempt went much better. This was two weeks after the first attempt. The creek levels were normal. This was a very pleasant run without the heart pounding adrenaline of the first one. I like adrenaline, but that was a bit much for a guy new to kayaking. It was a dumb thing to attempt….I am aware. So for this second attempt I decided to simply continue from where I had pulled out the first time. I also had decided that I would quit smoking on this trip. And there in lay the mistake.
The trip was uneventful. Very relaxing minus the fact that I have a need to cover ground quickly, and if I am just floating I am bored, so I am always paddling. I went 9 hours the first day, covering 24 miles, with a few pit stops to eat, or check out things that I came across. Somewhere along the way though, I had discovered my car keys in my swim suit pocket, and wanted to put them into a dry bag. I was dumping the water out of my kayak at the moment and instead of stopping what I was doing and putting the keys into a dry bag, I set them on a rock……where they were left. I was in a fog from the lack of nicotine at this point and simply not thinking straight. I did not discover the keys were missing until the following morning, while packing up my gear to finish the trek. I once again called my shuttle service…..mommy….to come and get me.
I could go into much more detail, but that’s enough. It’s in the past and I don’t care to elaborate much. That’s why I am keeping this blog, so that while things are fresh in my head and I am still excited about them I can get them down.
I know that Mitch and Tom don’t want to go at my pace, so I am thinking of chopping the trip to a reasonable 30 miles or so total. That leaves a comfortable 15 to cover per day, and it will give me an excuse to take it easier for once.
Sounds like fun, I cannot wait!
Kayaking trip on the Swatty update:
Well, we didn’t end up running an overnight trip on this creek, which was probably for the best. It was a bit cold, and most of the islands we passed as well as the stream banks were wrecked from Hurricane Lee and the flood that ensued. The creek hit 26 feet! That was a full 10 feet above the previous record. Homes were completely destroyed to the point of being washed away. The power of the water flow in this storm left entire islands uprooted. Yes….I said Islands! We found the entire roof of a house left stranded on top of a bridge, part of a house in the middle of the creek itself, a canoe that was unregistered left hanging 8 feet up in a tree, full blown chemical spills…complete with people in hazmat suits in the process of cleaning up, and so much more. But what a day of fun it was.
Tom, Mitch, and I put in near RT 39 in the Hershey park area. We dropped our kayaks, then Mitch waited with them while Tom and I ran my truck to Middletown where the Swattara creek ends by spilling it’s contents into the Susquehanna River. This would be a 17 mile trip. This was when we saw the Hazmat suited people in the water at the boat launch ramp. We asked a fella that was standing around in the parking lot what was going on. He told us that up creek there was a chemical storage facility that was flooded. Some of the totes containing different caustic materials broke through the chain link fence that surrounds the property and many of these totes were washed away. The men at the dock were pulling some of these out of the water. Surely many of these washed all the way into the Susquehanna, and hopefully they never made it past the York Haven damn, since passing over this damn would lead to a boulder filled area below that would surely split these containers open if they had survived the trip that far, as well as down the 23 foot dam.
<insert the totes pics>
We did the car drop and were back in Hershey and in the water by 11:30AM. We were only in a few minutes when I spotted a canoe up in a tree. Tom started yelling to ‘get it’ and paddling like a wild man for shore, and of course I followed. I somehow reached the bank and was out first, and up the small hill to where the canoe was. It was a good 8 feet off the ground, just hanging in the limbs of the tree. All in all, I would say it was a good 12 to 17 feet off the water, which was still running around 2-3 feet above normal. As Tom was coming up the embankment to help, I yanked at the canoe, which came crashing down with ….I swear…half a tree behind it. There was a HUGE limb hung up above it. Tom went careening back the direction he had come screaming obscenities at me and laughing. Good stuff. We got the canoe in the water, all laughing like little kids at our luck. We had lost the canoe that I found weeks ago and here was another, seemingly almost identical to the first one, and in perfect condition. We floated it behind me for a little….perhaps a mile, and I knew this was going to make the trip a pain in the ass. We had a long way to go yet with unknown obstacles. We all decided that we would stash the canoe at the next bridge we came across and come back later for it. It ended up being the Pennsy Supply bridge, which we didn’t know was somewhat private property. I got out, and dragged the canoe all the way up to the bridge and shoved it up to where no one would see it. Then we continued on, spotting canoe’s left and right and joking about grabbing all of them, taking them later to the pub, laying them out in the parking lot, and telling everyone we know to ‘pick one’.
<insert a canoe pic>
We continued on. I don’t remember exact order of events, which would make for too long a story anyway, so I’ll just hit highlights.
- This was Mitch’s first time in a kayak, and he loved it. He totally gets why Tom and I do this when we can. He did really well too. My first few times out were in currentless lakes, and we thrust him into a still slightly swollen creek. Really funny watching his reaction to strange currents that shoved him into tree branches. He has been after me to mountain bike with him. Since he was such a good sport about getting a kayak and finally coming out with us, I decided to give in. I jumped on his bike one day after work and just putzed around in the alley by his house for a few minutes, but I was hooked. I had forgotten that childhood feeling of being on a bike.
- Tom going up a side creek, wondering where it leads. We kept going down the Swatty. We encountered a current around a slight bend that almost shoved me into downed tree branches. I had enough experience to see it coming and paddled hard to avoid it, Mitch did not, and ended up in the branches. Then Tom caught back up and ended up in the branches too. Too funny.
- Mitch attempted to sneak up on a ‘duck…..or….whatever it is’ (his words not mine). It was a Heron, white one. I don’t think he had ever seen one before. I said they are like the sparrow of the waterways. They are everywhere around here, both white and blue. I believe the blue are or at least were protected at one time because they were going extinct, but they are fine now. He of course didn’t get anywhere close to getting one, which I knew he wouldn’t, but him trying was an awesome laugh.
- We found a cave, and of course went in it. It’s just down creek from Indian Echo Caverns. I knew it was there because it was on the map I had, and had been talking about it most of the way. After we passed Indian Echo, Tom started yelling about this cave, where is it….you promised….I’m gonna kick your ass….how much further?!!? Too funny. Then we spotted it, couldn’t believe we found it. We got to shore, three little boys freaking out over our adventurous fortune. Tom and I were out in no time, pulling our boats ashore, getting ourselves together to go up to the cave, and I noticed Mitch was still in his kayak trying to get himself beached enough to be stable and get out. At this point he was struggling and it just got funny. I started in on him “dude, we’re getting out here”…..”Mitch get out of your kayak” … then Tom started chiming in. “Seriously dude….get out”…..me again “Mitch, get the fuck out of your kayak!”…..he’s laughing at this point, still struggling to not flip it and get out…Tom “Get out of the kayak or I’m gonna kick your fucking ass!” ……me again “What the fuck are you doing…..get out dick!”. He eventually did.
- The cave was really cool, small, but cool. None of us had ever been in a cave that you didn’t pay to go to. The inside of the first room was pretty big, with a tall ceiling, then there were a few openings that went away from the main room. One of them was a narrow slit that just kept getting more narrow. Two of them were up high, 15 feet or so off the floor, with ropes hanging. One had a thin rope that started pretty high, and we didn’t really trust. The other I managed to get up after I talked myself into it. Didn’t want to fall in here and get hurt, not really dressed for this sort of thing, had flashlights but they were handheld, etc. I got up in as far as I could go in that on, then we eventually got back on the water and continued to the end, which wasn’t much further. Maybe 5 more miles or so.