(State #24/50) I’m always suspicious of places claiming to be “The Grand Canyon of…” Someone, likely from a bygone tourism board, decided to label the Pine Creek Gorge of Pennsylvania with that title. Indeed, it is a river valley cut through a high plateau, yet that is where the comparisons, for me, stop. But that’s okay. Let the Grand Canyon in Arizona be the damned Grand Canyon. Pine Creek is exceptional in its own right and one of the most scenic places I’ve floated to date.
Pine Creek flows 800 feet below ridges and peaks, coated in dense green mixed deciduous and conifer forests. The air was warm and summery and the water clear and cold when I put in on a Saturday afternoon. I took my time loading up until groups of drunk day-trippers and large families began jamming up the launch/pullout zone. A group of young women pulled up in their kayaks, singing Country Roads. I packed my canoe next to them as they chugged their remaining beers, disinterested by my presence. A few minutes later they walked past my car where I stood, working on personal hygiene. “Oh God, he’s brushing his teeth.” One said so I’d hear. With a mouth of foam, I tried to explain. “I live in my car, I’m a hobo… a transient,” I said. “A what?” one woman asked. “A tran-si-ent.” I repeated with my mouth even more loaded with toothpaste suds. They kept walking.
Another group was more receptive to me. “Who’s got the Texas plates?” A man asked. He was short, buff, tattooed and, this has to be worth noting, sporting hooped nipple rings. I claimed the Texas vehicle and talked a little about my trip; he seemed intrigued. His name was Shawn and he, his girlfriend and a buddy geared up kayaks. Though I enjoyed talking with them, I was done with the horde of restless, flabby, intoxicated people, so I pushed off into Pine Creek. “Wait for us!” Shawn called as I floated away. I stopped around the bend for five minutes until they appeared, towing a raft filled with dry bags and a cooler.
We drifted, talked and enjoyed the afternoon. They were affable and kind to let me into their group, but they were floating without paddling. One guy threw a line in to fish, while the couple cracked beers and smoked. I had to actively slow down, paddling backwards just to go their pace. Meanwhile, the wind kept pushing me, awkwardly, into their little flotilla. Battling the breeze and current, never have I worked so hard at trying to chill.
After an hour, we had only crawled a mile downstream and were barely in the canyon. A bald eagle winged upstream, 40 feet in the air, with a shining, flopping 14-inch trout in its talons. For whatever reason, that’s when I knew, despite the good will and companionship, that the group of three and I were on, if you will, different trips. I was preparing to bid them adieu when I saw the guy with the pole pull over to a gravel bar to repack the booze raft. The couple languished further behind.
I flew past in the fast water and pulled over downstream. In the late afternoon heat, I put on my life jacket and plunged into the cold water. Drying in the sun, I hung out for ten minutes and they never showed. Whether I was ditching them or they were ditching me, I don’t know. But I got back in the canoe, took one last look back and paddled around a bend. Not so much free of them, as just feeling free, I shot down little rapids, navigated by rocks and claimed the canyon as my own.
The current slid me past wading fly fishermen, providing just enough time to have the standard conversation. Most weren’t catching much, but seemed happy to be fishing. Bicyclist flashed between tree gaps, peddling along the shale path on river’s left. Maybe the steep canyon walls cloaked in green, passing white clouds, cascading contributing brooks and glinting river weren’t mine alone to behold, but the valley felt big enough for us lucky few. The evening set in with a warmth only a fine summer day can provide. I made myself a drink in an old coffee cup and toasted the gorge. Sorry, I toasted the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.
Then I saw it. Down river, 200 yards away on the right shore, I saw the unmistakable shape of a black bear. I blinked to be sure, but it didn’t turn into a stump or the negative space between trees; it remained a black as night bear. Trying to calm my excitement, I reached into my dry bag and put on my zoom lens. I looked up and not only had it not vanished back into the woods, the bear began crossing Pine Creek. Volume shooting, I kept the shudder busy as I drifted downstream. He made it to the opposing bank when I was still 100 yards away. Again, instead of disappearing into the vegetation, the bear walked along the shore, up river, towards me. Moments later I found myself floating off shore, 30 feet from the 300 pounds of fur, teeth and claws. Click, click, click. Then, like a washed-up school day photographer, I attempted to get a reaction from my subject. “Hey bear!” I called out. The lumbering creature stopped, turned and looked right at me. I got the shot before the bear lit out into the brush, disappearing behind a wall of shaking green. I drifted over the next riffle, shit-eating grin plastered upon my face. “I saw a bear, WOOOOOO!!” I screamed.
It was the 2-month anniversary of the trip. I had wanted to see a bear out east and knew Pennsylvania was one of my last shots before heading west. Still, I didn’t think it would happen. I was over the moon in the nerdiest way imaginable after seeing the bear; I continued down the canyon in a glow that was only partially due to the rum and Coke.
After passing a large encampment of revelrous Mennonites, I checked the map and realized I had traveled 10 miles since leaving the kayak group. So, I declared it time to camp. I pulled in at an unoccupied site beneath a trickling rapid where the river narrowed. Exposed limestone cliffs rose from the water across the river. Two bald eagles, one a juvenile, watched me unload from over 100 feet up. A trail led from the stone fire pit into a hardwood floodplain carpeted by fern fronds. A doe and two young fawns walked down the path 50 feet in front of me. I froze before she saw me. For a minute, the deer bobbed her head from side to side, taking hesitant steps forward, trying to see and smell if I was the human I appeared to be. Eventually, she concluded I was, at the very least, not worth another look and trotted off trailing two bouncing fawns.
I made a fire, another drink and enjoyed the evening and the first fireflies I’d seen in a month. Yes, summer had caught up in full force. I pan-fried hotdogs and scarfed them down while big toads made peeping noises and decided to mate at my feet. Then I fell asleep to the sound of the big creek and singing insects.
The next morning, I built a new fire and proceeded to fry up the remaining hotdogs — 2 for breakfast, 2 for lunch and don’t you dare judge. I canoed down the final 6-8 miles under a hot late-morning sun. I bumped along the bottom of many shallow riffles and sacrificed more of Riders’ green hull to the river gods. I was still in high spirits from my sighting, singing Ace of Base — “I saw a bear! I really saw bear, I saw a bear!” I took out at Blackwell at 1 p.m. There, I rented a bike and peddled the 18 miles back up the gorge towards my parked car. It was a nice long ride and I wasn’t upset at all about having a second look at Pine Creek Canyon.
River Stats and Fun Facts
- Pine Creek, Pennsylvania
- Miles Canoed: 18
- Date Canoed: 6-10/11-2017
- Weather: Sunny, partly cloudy with highs in the low 90’s and lows in the 60s.
- Elevation: Approximately 800 feet above sea level
- Launch Point: Pine Creek Outfitters off Roosevelt Highway 6, (41.744812, -077.44415)
- Campsite: Near Good Hollow Springs, I think (41.626835, -077.444676)
- Takeout Point: Landing at Blackwell, just passed the 414 bridge on river left (41.555944, -077.382478)
- Songs Sung on River: My version of I saw the Sign by Ace of Base
- Thanks to the Pine Creek Outfitters (570-724-3003) for giving me info on the float and letting me park on their property (also, they sported a great River Wild Poster, a Kevin Bacon/Meryl Streep Classic). Also thanks to Miller’s Store Blackwell (570-353-2258), where I rented a bike, got ice cream. Great local photographer, selling postcards of the river there too. Finally, thanks to the couple from Wisconsin that I chatted with while riding bikes back up stream. The man gave me 40 bucks to help with my journey, which I find incredible (again, I promise I’m not panhandling).
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: 3 bald eagles, osprey, great blue heron, kingfisher, oriole, swallow, merganser, mallards and redwing blackbird
- Mammal: 1 Black Bear! 3 white tail deer, 1 beaver
- Reptile/amphibians: garter snake, a few turtles and toads humping
- Noted Species: Black bear!
- Dominant Vegetation: Sycamore, Elms, Hemlocks, Eastern White Pines, Silver Maples, other maple species and oaks species.
- Current Threats: Formerly logged, but good secondary forest has regrown to reduce erosion. Possible threats from the steady increase in tourism and runoff from farms and residents on the plateau, but I couldn’t find any specific pressing problems to the watershed.
- Ecoregion: North Central Appalachians, (62c) Glaciated Allegheny High Plateau
- Trash collected: tarp, plastic bottles and beer cans
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2041 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign