Suggested Trip

A Bird Watcher’s Float of the Susquehanna’s Serene West Branch

 

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) Pine Access to the Borough of Jersey Shore Public Boat Ramp is a short but genuine West Branch float getaway. The almost constant road noise that accompanied us on a nearby float was replaced by sounds of a single passing train from tracks paralleling the river. The remainder of our mid-summer trip was absent of manmade noise and full of the sounds of nature, giving it a refreshing wilderness feel.

This trip is along a roughly 6.5-mile section of the West Branch. We felt surprised to experience a variety of soaring birds and aquatic waterfowl along most of this stretch. A student of ornithology in my college days, I never really mastered the complete identification of the diversity of birds in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region, however, I believe I can hold my own when on a bird watching excursion with friends pretty much anywhere in this area of the country.

On this relatively brief paddle on the West Branch between river mile 62 and 55 (according to the Lumber Heritage Region - The Susquehanna River Water Trail – West Branch, paddlers guide section 11), I saw an abundant population of aquatic birds. This was quite unexpected! If I had known how many feathered friends I would encounter on this quiet paddle, I would have brought binoculars and my bird identification book! We saw numerous birds including four bald eagles (majestic!), several hawks (accipiter, I believe), numerous waterfowl including mallard, black, teal, and wood ducks, along with great blue heron, green heron, a couple of bitterns and several kingfishers. In addition we encountered killdeer and other plovers calling out as they tried to lure us away from an apparent nest of young hiding in the water grasses or rocks on the banks. This list of birds were the ones I could easily identify. They were many other song birds, swallows, and black birds that were too distant for me to correctly name.

Most of the aquatic birds were seen in and around Pine Creek, surrounding an island and grassy flats at its mouth. However we observed an abundance of ducks pretty much during the entire float. At the mouth of Pine Creek, the single most quaint and scenic spot of our journey, wading birds found it very habitable.

Can you find the plover?

Pine Creek is the West Branch’s largest tributary, flowing over 86 miles before reaching the river. You can lose yourself in the sounds of the gurgling, flowing water of Pine Creek. This, along with the bird sounds, made us believe we were in a remote part of a wilderness as we sat in our boats and waded the shallows enjoying the peacefulness of the location.

A glance at my cell phone told me we had spent too long at this spot if we were to get to the take out and return home before dark. I was even surprised to see I had a full signal on my phone. This reminded me we weren’t that far from civilization even though seconds before I thought I heard the sound of a loon as I sat engulfed in the serenity of the moment.

Author, Virgil Chambers, awed by the beauty at the mouth of Pine Creek

A fair-sized strip of land splits Pine Creek’s flow into the West Branch. The paddle out on the river left of this island took me down some riffles and waves that kept my focus on paddling as I re-entered the gentle current of the West Branch. After watching a merganser-type bird run across the water, I resumed paddling and met up with my wife and paddling partner as she had floated river right around the isle enjoying a longer set of riffles along the way.

The next stop, Antes Creek, was not that far down the river. On the right side of the river, there were a few backwater islands or peninsulas which gave cover to ducks that squawked and paddled through the still water of protected coves. Soon enough we were at Antes Creek, noted for its chilly cold water that flows from its mouth into river right of the West Branch. The creek flows from the aptly-named Bald Eagle Mountain which towers over this section of the West Branch.

The cold water of Antes Creeks flows from Nippenose Spring three miles up the creek. One of the largest springs in Pennsylvania, this spring was called "enchanted" by local American Indians and held deep spiritual significance. The 40-degree water running into the 70-plus degree water of the West Branch on this August day is a striking contrast as you place your hand into the gentle flow. It was nice to cool off here, with hands in the water, as the river current gently nudged our kayaks downstream.

Mouth of Antes Creek

Looking down the river away from the cooling water of Antes Creek, we see the tip of Long Island. Route 44 enters and exits Long Island, connecting the land mass of Jersey Shore Borough and the opposite land mass on river right of the West Branch.  Seeing the island, we knew we were a short distance from our take-out destination. Staying river left, we paddled as Jersey Shore came into larger view, the public boat ramp a short distance upstream from the Route 44 bridge.

Contemplating the great float it had been, I glanced up to see ten to fifteen immature Canada geese playing tag in the water grasses on river left minutes before the take out. Wow! That delightful encounter was just icing on the cake of a delightful and relaxing day floating on the West Branch. As we departed the river at the Jersey Shore boat ramp, I thought to myself – I will come back to this section, I will bring my binoculars, and I will take more time.

Susquehanna River Water Trail - West Branch

Whether you take a day trip or a multi-day paddling adventure, the West Branch Susquehanna River Water Trail will give you access to wild lands, scenic beauty and history in this vast region of the Chesapeake watershed.

Virgil Chambers

Virgil Chambers is retired from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission where he was Chief of Boating Safety Education. Director Emeritus of the National Safe Boating Council and a life member of the American Canoe Association, he is published and recognized world-wide for his numerous contributions to boating and water safety. He enjoys paddling a wide variety of boats with his wife, Pamela and their dog, Zoe.

September 17, 2019

Main image: Canada Geese playing in the shallows near Jersey Shore, Virgil Chambers photo
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