The picture at the top of my blog. That is something I have been meaning to address. So I shall. I took that picture. That is a real place, and it is more amazing than pictures can do justice. The shear size. Defying words. I discovered it by accident late last summer.
I had been kayaking after work at Gifford Pinchot State Park, then at the Susquehanna River. I’ve been doing contract work at a company located almost equidistant from the two, so I had my choice. I paddled up in the Three Mile Island area for maybe a month, just covering distance around the islands there, exploring the islands themselves a bit, and the impounded water from the York Haven Dam known as Lake Frederic. Then I started looking for more put ins. Access points both down and up river. Down river I went. I found one just below the York Haven Dam on the western shore, but the weekend was coming, and so I decided on the boat launch known as Falmouth on the eastern shore, almost directly across the river from the York Haven launch. And this is what I found…..
My buddy Tom is in a lot of the shots. I did this purposely to show the scale. Amazing. It feels like an alien landscape to paddle through it.
This was my favorite location for a long time. Almost every evening for 2 months. Occasionally I would seek out another spot, but I would always come back within a day or two.
I was here, in this spot, for Hurricane Irene…..and then for Lee. I sat here and watched the water come up to cover those boulders…..water rising a foot or more an hour for Lee. Listening as your heart begins to pound. Listening and feeling the sound of the water crashing over the dam as it gets louder. Wondering how much longer you should stay before the currents get unmanageable. Then when paddling back down, being shoved from one eddy line to the next, trying not to let the still water on the other side of that line hold you in place as her sinister sister, the current, shoves you sideways from the other in an attempt to roll you. Breathtaking. In all ways. Simply breathtaking.
I’ve been here in all conditions. Without words. Only feelings that cannot be expressed. Awed by the power of the water and what it can accomplish. Shaping these rocks. Amazed at how a few inches of extra water on the the gauge in Harrisburg can mean feet of difference down here below the dam.
Have I said amazed yet? 🙂
As I sit here writing this post, it’s late. It’s 1 am. On the floor in the living room. Hunched over a pillow, with my laptop under my fingertips. My sweet girl soundly sleeping on the couch. Cave maps spread out to one side of me from researching new places. New places to me. Several sessions of Google Chrome also open on this laptop, each filled with tabs…..more maps….articles. Putting pieces of a puzzle together for the next breathtaking thing that will leave me at a loss for words yet again.
And I realize.
I am happy. Simply happy.
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.
I was out on the Susquehanna Wednesday night (August 31, 2011), which from this point on shall be known only as ‘the river’, below the York Haven Dam. Water levels are pretty high. The boulders (see header image….yea, I took that) are submerged and there are some really strange currents, so I got a bit concerned and headed back down below the hydro plant to where I put in. There is a creek that empties into the river at this location. I followed this creek on Google Maps and found that it comes from the Pinchot State Park area, around 12 miles or more away. The map doesn’t list a name for the creek, could be Beaver creek, but I am not positive. Beaver Creek does empty into this creek, but I don’t know if the main branch has a name and Beaver officially ends where it empties into it.
Anyway, I decided to paddle up this creek, as I never had before since the river is more appealing. I got up as far as the first railroad bridge, and after crossing beneath that bridge, found a canoe lodged in a small log jam on the upstream side. It looks to be in really good shape, but the bottom two thirds is under water so I am not positive.
I sent a picture of it to several friends asking if they want to come and help me dig it out this coming Saturday. It looks like I have definite’s from Mitch, Tom, Brian, and possibly even Maura. Sweet! Mitch is looking to buy a kayak and has a line on an unbelievable deal, and Brian is also looking for a kayak or canoe, so if we can get this out, we’ll have Brian covered, and Mitch will probably have the kayak he’s looking at. If the canoe is not a one person, and it could be…it looks like it may be pretty small, but if it isn’t we would even have room for another person, Maura….or whoever. That would be nice. Right now it’s just Tom and I who paddle.
Yea ….I know, none of you know who these people are, but remember, this ‘blog’ is for me for a journal, you’re just along for the ride….if you wish to be. 🙂
Update: September 3, 20011
All of us got hammered last night, some of us went to sleep early (3am for me) and some didn’t (way after 4 for some). Only Tom and I managed to get up and get out looking for the canoe, and even then we didn’t get out until around 3pm or so (disclaimer…..that was Tom’s fault, I was up and at-em by 8am 🙂 ).
It was a good thing no one else went though….the canoe was gone, and a lot of the log jam was missing too. Tom believes the owners came looking….good possibility. I believe that, or that the railroad bridge could have shaken it loose. I had wondered why there are no significant log jams up against this bridge other than that small one that contained the canoe. And after Tom and I paddled up creek for a while and came back down, a train came rolling across while we were still a good 100 or more yards out. You could feel the vibrations from the train passing in the water quite well. We were both a bit surprised, so it’s possible, but I am leaning toward someone…..owner or not….finding and freeing it. Oh well, lessen learned. Pull it out immediately no matter what.
We found out from an old fella that had be drinking and fishing the whole day, that this creek is the Conewago creek. I always wondered where that was. We paddled up the creek until we were sick of fighting the current, there were some pretty good rains that morning, and on the way back down, discovered what looked to be the entire bed of a pickup truck in the creek with only a small portion of the very tail end sticking out. Pretty weird.