Spring Creek. Favorite Local Waters for Kayak and Canoe Boating
For over 50 years, the Spring Creek waterway between Bellefonte and Milesburg has been the scene of whitewater activities for boaters of all skill levels. Even tubers have found a pleasant experience here. This waterway flows year-round as it has never frozen during this time and consistently has enough water to support a variety of boating activities.
As we move downstream, I shall describe several reaches:
The start below Talleyrand Falls in Bellefonte,
The Sunnyside Paddling Park,
The flow leading to McWave where McCoy’s Dam originally stood,
The pleasant area starting the second mile, and
The final Milesburg Rapids below the green iron bridge (Commercial Street).
1. The start below Talleyrand Falls at the Waterfront District in Bellefonte. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission prohibits the running of kayaks over the falls, so the fun begins just below the High Street Bridge.
Bellefonte Waterfront Development District. Following the tragic fire on February 8, 2006, of the Bush House Hotel, the area on the west side of Spring Creek between the High Street and Lamb Street bridges was eventually cleared of all structures and planted in grass to lead to new construction later on. The area along Spring Creek was masterly changed to include a walkway along the stream. This walkway was fitted with lights placed in the vertical wall along the sidewalk, giving a lybeautiful view of the stream at night. At the bottom end of this walkway, three-steps stairs link the walk with the stream itself where boats could launch for a river run. This location is Put-In 1 (Photo-1).
Immediately on the river run, one slips under the Lamb Street Bridge, through either opening. The Nathan and Florence Krauss Park is on the left. A second put-in—Put-In 2 (Photo-2)— is located near the Gamble Mill Parking Lot on the other side of Krause Park. This short section of the stream leads to the Sunnyside Paddling Park. One has to be very careful to paddle on the middle or left portions of the stream as the right portion contains a large number of branches and logs that form Danger Spot #1. A boater caught in branches through which water is flowing can quickly lead to a drowning fatality.
2. The Sunnyside Paddling Park. This Park has a history all its own. This park area came into being in the fall of 1963 as a result of the group of paddlers from Boy Scout Explorer Post 32. These paddlers were members of the 1963 United States Slalom Team, who paddled in the World Championships in Spittal, Austria. Tom Southworth, Dave Guss, and Dave Kurtz formed the singles Canoe (C-1 team), and Hank Yeagley and Les Bechdel formed the doubles canoe team (C-2 team). These contestants observed the far advanced skills of the European and other paddlers. We determined that the US could not supply quality world paddlers on weekend activities alone. We needed a year-round training area.
The park consists of approximately 30 Slalom Gates hung on wires stretched across the stream. The casual paddler has several options in paddling through this section of the creek: miss each gate entirely, bump into the gate while gently brushing the poles aside, or, indeed, paddle through the gate without touching either pole. Paddlers are requested not to bang the poles out of the way (you can break them) or to hang onto them (and break the strings holding them in place).
In the top part of the Park, there are two possible put-in areas. Put-In 3 (Photo-3) is opposite the Buffalo Run confluence to Spring Creek and is accessed from the Tussey Mountain Outfitters area. Also, from this access area, one can use an area 15 meters downstream, Put-In 4 (Photo-3).
The Sunnyside Paddling Park exists for anyone to use at no cost for a fun way for physical exercise. The Park can be used at any time of day or even after dark under a moonlit sky. Various groups, including the Mach One Slalom Team, the Mo Creeker Group, Penn State student groups, the State College Middle Schools’ Intramural program, and other more distant school programs use the Park for program and individual development purposes. . The Pennsylvania State Parks send staff people there for safety training. Spring Creek is also accessed from Sunnyside Boulevard just beyond the forest headquarters of Mach One, just as the street turns up a hill. Parking should not impede the railroad access point there, but all users of Spring Creek must use the railroad crossing there to get to Spring Creek, Put-In 5. The view of the creek is shown in Photo-4.
Photo 5 (left) and Photo 6 (right)
3. The flow leading to McWave where McCoy’s Dam originally stood. Just below the Paddling Park, there is a smooth water section and then an island that splits the flow of the steam. Both flows around the island can be paddled. Photo-5 shows the top of the island, but the alternate channel on the right is not apparent in this picture. It is below the closest bush on the right. Photo-6 is on the main, left channel, but looks to the right where the flow is too shallow to paddle. If one takes the main flow on the left, the better path is on the far left, reasonably close to the left shore, despite a tree that hovers over the deepest water. After the tree, the boat should be angled to the right to avoid an iron stake along the left shore that one doesn’t see. If taking the alternate stream split to the right, one needs to paddle into that stretch on the far right. Photo-7 shows this channel clearly, but at this point, one is too far downstream to be able to access the right part of the channel. This right section has a tricky, narrow spot near its end with tree branches on each side and overhead, Danger Spot #2, Photo-8.
Photo 7 (left) and Photo 8 (right)
After the two portions join together, the Bellefonte Wastewater Treatment Plant appears on the right, and the stream makes a left turn. Photo-9.
One then paddles past the Bellefonte Wastewater Treatment Plant on the right. The stream here is wide with no apparent riffles Photo-10. Enjoy, but be prepared for a shallow riffle just downstream. In Photo-11, the stream forms a shallow, stream-wide riffle. In low water, 200 CFS, or less, the best path without scraping is on the far left. Immediately downstream, catch the eddy on the right for a rest. Photo-12 shows the highway coming into view. On the right of this photo, we are resting in a gentle eddy to observe the steam below. This photo shows a large tree stretching out from stream right. There used to be many branches on the tree, but that which remains today is only a large branch that forms an arch over the water. The adventurous paddler can paddle through this arch if you keep the boat in line with the current.
At this point, with high water, the channel to the far left around a former bridge abutment can be run but not at 200 CFS or lower. On the right river portion below the tree arch, there is an iron stake, but one misses it easily. This portion of the stream leads to a nice eddy on the right, which should be paddled into. You are now just below the gas station on the highway.
It is good to go into the eddy as that leads you to paddle on the river right just below. This stretch of Spring Creek parallels the highway. At times in the past, there has been a tree fallen that is Danger Spot #3, Photo-13. This picture shows the road on the right shore and a clear stream. Recently a large tree came down from the left, reaching over half of the stream, forming this drowning Danger Spot. In 2019, this tree was removed, but other towering trees could come down in the future. Existing trees on the left side of the stream pose a danger spot because water will be flowing through the tree branches.
This part leads into the former backwater part of McCoy’s Dam. Following the removal of the dam, the PA Fish and Boat Commission altered the stream channel. They widened the stream bed, so the water is shallower than before the removal, introduced inverted “U” structures that push the water flow towards the stream bank, and dropped large rocks everywhere. These rocks are a hazard for the casual boater. However, a skilled boater can avoid them as they form a kind of puzzle.
We are now at McWave, Photo 14. The combination of a rocky shelf and a drop in the river bottom causes the water to form a very nice, strong wave that upsets boats that are broadside. You can pretty much avoid the wave on the very far left. Skilled boaters can drop into the eddy on the river right and play in the wave by either ferrying back and forth or sitting in the wave in yourboat, doing tricks. This site is also a location of a parking lot for cars, off the nearby highway. Photo 14 was taken from the left side of the stream above the drop where the casual paddler should be to run the drop.
4. The pleasant area starting the second mile. Following McWave, the stream enters into a nature reserve of relatively quiet water but with some water motion. Be alert for a great blue heron flying ahead of you here. This section has a lot of branches where water is flowing through, sort of a Danger Spot #4. When it opens up, on the left is the remains of a power plant dam, leading to a pleasant wash of flowing water. Photo-15 shows the area before this wash. One starts the wash on theleft and works to the right before returning to left again, all to remain in the deepest waters. At the bottom of the wash are the remains of a water channel that used to cool the power generation and provided warm water in cold weather. Without the cooling water, it is now just as cold as the stream itself. We are now at the green iron bridge.
5. The final Milesburg Rapids below the green iron bridge, Photo-16. Just below the green iron bridge, there is a nice eddy on the right. If you take it, you’ll see a trail leading up to the grass level and a bench for sitting. Peal out, and you need to observe two drops in the river level. The first is obvious and a lot of fun. After a couple of turbulences, the second drop is small, but you need to observe it, for it is best to immediately drive your craft to the far right for another river drop. If you make it, you’ll be missing a true hole. This location is Danger Spot #5. At higher water levels, you could quickly get stuck in this hole, be thrown out of your boat, and remain stuck in the hole. There was a time a kid did this, and I observed him bouncing several times before he finally did bounce out. His life jacket supported him in the act. He was not injured, but he never paddled with us again. Photo-17 is an upstream view of this hole. At flows around 200 cubic feet per second (CFS), it can be punched, but at flows above 300 CFS, this hole can suck your boat into it, hence the designation of Danger Spot #5.
Photo 16 (left) and Photo 17 (right)
At the end of this section, you will enter the Bald Eagle Creek, where there are paddling stretches both upstream and downstream of Milesburg. If you proceed downstream, in about three miles you will pass Curtin Village. After another three miles, you will enter the upper end of Foster Joseph Sayers Lake, and on your left, you will find a parking area and launch at the end of Bullitt Run Road.
All photos were provided by the author.
David Kurtz was the advisor for Explorer Post 32, Boy Scouts of America, from 1957 to 1970 and for Post 101 from 1970 to 1993; both Posts were whitewater oriented. He organized the Wildwater Boating Club, the National Training Center #9, and the Mach One squad. Four members of Post 32 were part of the US National Slalom Team and raced at the 1963 World Slalom Championships in Spittal, Austria. Three members of the Mach One squad competed at the Junior and U23 Slalom Championships at sites in the US, Europe, and Australia, 2012-2019.