Kayaking the “Hidden Creek” (Schuylkill River) By Cindy Ross
Young Daniel Boone once roamed the woods that pass by on either side of my kayak. His homestead, where he lived until he was 10-years-old, is located right here in Pennsylvania's Americana Region, near this section of the Schuylkill River. After his chores were done he took every opportunity to be in the wilderness, hunting, and tracking and honing the skills he was so famous for…even fishing this very same stretch of river. He preferred this to sitting in a classroom. This stretch hasn’t changed much in the past 250 years since he ran these woods…only the addition of a summer bungalow and a bridge or two.
My family and I have come to this pretty stretch of the Schuylkill River to paddle from the villages of Gibralter to Monocacy, a distance of a little over 6 miles. (The village of Birdsboro and the Daniel Boone Homestead lie just west of the river.) We have chosen this stretch because the river’s difficulty is rated A-1. And, we have chosen this stretch of river to paddle because of the spirits of those who came before us. This particular piece of river is steeped in history.
Before we put in at Gibralter, we stopped to see the massive Allegheny Aqueduct, located upriver just a few tenths of a mile on the Allegheny Creek. This arched “bridge for boats” was part of the Schuylkill Navigation Company that was responsible for moving coal from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia back in the early 1800’s. It was originally lined with clay to hold the water in. Adjacent to the aqueduct is the Beidler House that housed the mill operator back in the late 1700’s. The mill was destroyed in a fire but the race is still clearly visible. Both historic sites make up the Allegheny Aqueduct Historical Park, located on Old River Road off Rt. 74 in Gibralter.
Pennsylvania rivers are rated on a scale of A-5; Class 5 being life-threatening; Class 1 has short, straightforward riffles with waves less than 1 foot high; a Class A rating is flat water. The lovely thing about this stretch of the Schuylkill is that you don’t have to wear yourself out paddling, as the current is lively. You can relax and concentrate on steering, make adjustments in your boats’ course, learn to control where you go.
The river is fairly wide here- about 50 yards, except where the river braids and gives you a choice of going around islands. At these spots, the riverbanks move in closer and the land feels more intimate. You can examine huge gnarly tree roots as the trees struggle to remain upright while the river cuts beneath them. The roots look like intertwined arms and legs, extending five feet down from the tree. It gives us a better idea of what a tree’s root system looks like beneath the surface.
My daughter paddles ahead, chasing a great blue heron off its nest and then continues down the river. There are a few sets of riffles on this stretch which are just enough of a challenge to make you focus and paddle and steer and make you feel exhilarated. We whoop it up but a train whistle from the bank competes with our joyous hollering.
Before the European settlers arrived at the banks of the Schuylkill, there were Native American encampments on both sides of the river. Longhouses and smoke from wood fires curling through the air would be the sight a river traveler would see back then. Those early river travelers used hollowed out trees as their boats, however. Even now, if you plow the fields along the Schuylkill, you can turn up arrowheads. William Penn’s diaries spoke of traveling to this part of the river to trade with the Indian chiefs.
But it was the Swedes, who first came to live along this stretch of the Schuylkill, arriving in 1701. The oldest house in Berks County is the Mavis Jones House, 1716, still standing tall along the river near here. The Swedes were water people, they used the river to fish and to float goods down river on flatboats.
A train passes by on the riverbank, blowing its whistle as it approaches Birdsboro. Hay Creek comes in here, a well-known trout stream. There are lots of fish in the Schuylkill, particularly famous for its large quantity of smallmouth bass. Before the river was dammed, shad ran up the river from the ocean, which is what brought the Boones and the early settlers onto the river.
The town of Birdsboro evolved into a steel town when founder William Bird, an early Irish immigrant, established a forge here. It grew into a flourishing and prominent iron industry, the Bird Iron Works. His son, Mark Bird, built Hopewell Furnace. The pig iron manufactured here was taken in heavy carts to the Schuylkill River to be floated downstream to Philadelphia. The Schuylkill River contributed a huge part to fueling the Industrial Revolution, moving the coal from the north to Philadelphia and it was a very necessary means of transportation. Today, we are on it chiefly for recreation and to reminisce about the past.
The only “hazard” on this stretch of the Schuylkill River is the bridge at Birdsboro. You must stay to the left when you go under the bridge abutments, not the extreme left and never the center or the right. The last famous person to inhabit this stretch of river is the great great grandfather of Abraham Lincoln. Mordechai Lincoln built a two-story farmhouse in 1725 and raised his family on the homestead. It is still standing near Loraine up the Monocacy Creek in Exeter Township, on the east side of the river.
Learning about all the famous people who lived along these shores and getting a little insight into the history of the Schuylkill, just made this stretch of river our favorite. What better place to make a little history for our own family.
Fall rains often see higher water levels and enable the paddler to once again get out on the river. This section of the Schuylkill River is usually runnable at this time of year. If you are new to paddling, it might be best to wait until summer to begin practicing when the water and the air temperature is warmer, in the event of capsizing. Before you set off down a moving river, you should feel very comfortable paddling and steering around a lake.
There are other tame stretches of the Schuylkill to paddle if you are a beginner. Secure a copy of Keystone Canoeing, by Edward Gertler, the bible of paddling in Pennsylvania. Detailed maps, hazards, access points etc. are listed.
A wonderful resource for advice, workshops and a schedule of outings is the Keystone Canoe Club.
If you’d like the company and the security of a group, join the Schuylkill Sojourn, a 6- day river trip sponsored by the Schuylkill River Greenway Association, that takes place every June. Participants can sign up for a day, a few days, or the entire trip.