Editor’s Note: This is a column on area watersheds by Blyden Potts and guest columnists to spread awareness of the area’s tributaries and the efforts of area volunteers to keep them clean.
Years ago, we canoed the West Branch of the Conococheague. These days I see people online talk about paddling it. They start at Fort Loudon, or further downstream, but we tried the section from Fannettsburg to Fort Loudon.
It remains the strangest canoe or kayak trip I have ever been on.
Our go-to guide at the time was Keystone Canoeing by Ed “Boulderbuster” Gertler (2004; first published in 1985). He describes the hazards of this stream as follows: “trees and fences, a dam at Fannettsburg… four fords or low-water bridges, including an unusual double-decker low-water bridge.” (p. 366).
We put in at the bridge east of Fannettsburg, crossed Mountain Lake, and portaged the dam easily enough.
The man-made fords or “low-water bridges,” are concrete structures. When water levels are good, as they were, the top of each is a few inches below the water surface. They allow vehicles to drive through the stream at shallow depth, like a bridge under the water. On the downstream side of each, the water dropped a few inches.
At the first one we were cautious, but after running a couple, we got careless.
At one point, we were running down a straight chute with a steady flow of water when we spied a wire fence strung across the stream, at just about neck height. We back-paddled furiously, then maneuvered the canoe to the edge of the stream where the fence was higher and we could slide under it.
Later, we came around a turn and found a large sheet of heavy plastic, cut into vertical strips, hanging across the creek. Used in refrigerated warehouses, these sheets allow people and forklifts to pass through, while keeping in the cold air. On the creek, it allowed water and canoeists to pass through, but kept animals in. It was the upper end of a game farm. After we paddled through it, we could hear herds of hoofed animals running around in the woods near us. We never saw any of them, which was a bit creepy. When we got to the bottom end of the game farm, there was another heavy plastic curtain to pass through.
We came to what I suppose was Gertler’s “double-decker”: another low-water ford, but beneath a bridge. We decided to run this one, just as we had run the prior ones. Bad decision. What we could not see until we were on top of it, was that the drop on the downstream side of this one was much larger; about 3 feet. It was effectively a low-head dam.
Solo kayakers do those kinds of drops without a problem, but for two people in an open canoe, that was a big drop. We did not quite make it. Our canoe hung up and we got dumped into the water, along with our gear.
It could have been a very dangerous situation because the dam had a hydraulic -- the rolling water you often see at the foot of a dam. Hydraulics are a big danger at low-head dams. People can get caught in the rolling water, unable to stand up, disoriented, and drown. Fortunately, this hydraulic was small and weak enough that we were able to stand up and eventually retrieve nearly all our gear, but that was the end of our trip. We gave up, retrieved our vehicle, and drove home.
Gertler’s book is the go-to reference for many Pennsylvania paddlers. We still use it, but now we read the entries more closely than we did before that trip. “Boulderbuster” is willing to take on waterways that are more challenging and less-traveled than we are. We also picked up Jeff Mitchell’s Paddling Pennsylvania (2010). It focuses on more mellow waterways.