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A Note About COVID-19 and Visiting Parks Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
It was a pleasant afternoon when Virgil and I traveled to Kettle Creek State Park in Leidy Township, Clinton County, one of the prime viewing locations for elk in Pennsylvania. Kettle Creek, a beautiful trout and paddling stream, is a tributary to the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Kettle Creek State Park, nearly 1800 acres, is enveloped in a mountainous and wild valley. The Lower Campground, a pristine camping location for tents, trailers, or small RV’s, was originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. In 1962, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Alvin R. Bush flood control dam, which provided protection for the lower Susquehanna watershed, and, as a result, created additional recreation areas now administered by Pennsylvania’s DCNR. The area surrounding the park is rich in wooded lands offering a mix of hiking, camping, equestrian, wilderness, and recreational access to thousands of acres. (See Kettle Creek State Park map.)
Our trip to Kettle Creek State Park took us deep into the wilderness, traveling along Kettle Creek north of its confluence with the West Branch. We were on a mission to explore this little known (at least to us) state park near the heart of elk country.
Elk information board at the parking area near the new family trail
We meet up with a long-time friend, Chris Calhoun, whose family farm forms the northern edge of the state park. Chris’ late parents, Jesse and Eva, ran the concession business within Kettle Creek State Park while Chris grew up in the mountainous terrain and wilderness of Kettle Creek valley. The park’s small playground was named after Chris’ daughter Rachel by park staff in loving memory of Eva. Chris, a professor of Park and Recreation Management at Butler County Community College, took time out from his busy schedule to take us on a quick tour of the area as darkness set in.
We enjoyed a walk on the park’s new ‘family-friendly’ hiking trail in search of evidence of Pennsylvania elk. The trail begins on the east side of Beaver Dam Road across from the equestrian trail parking area. While the equestrian trail heads up the mountain, this new walking trail is a level, mile-plus loop along Kettle Creek, developed for families and those of limited hiking experience. The trail is unpaved but is known as an excellent place to see elk, deer, and other wildlife. While we did not see elk on this particular day, there were many fresh tracks of both elk and deer in the soft soil along the trail. Chris shared elk photos he took just days before our visit. What beautiful and magnificent animals!
The Elk Country Visitor Center in nearby Benezette publishes tips for elk viewing. In the fall during mating season, bull elk are preparing to battle other males for the right to mate. They can often be seen at the forest edge in early morning or at dusk. A note of caution: Bull elk can become extremely aggressive during mating season, and may charge vehicles or even people if they feel threatened. As a general rule of thumb: give the elk plenty of room. This includes refraining from approaching them in your vehicle – or especially on foot.
In winter months, elk seek shelter and warmth among the trees. Evergreens provide good cover, while deciduous trees provide nourishment. In spring or summer, elk move to open meadows where food is plentiful. Binoculars enhance your viewing pleasure. If you spot one and do not have your camera, you will regret it!
Photo by Chris Calhoun.
I have long been fascinated by romantic images of elk. In my youth, my Uncle Don, an active sportsman, would talk about big game hunts in the West. One year he bagged a near state record Rocky Mountain elk. Its majestic rack graced his fireplace for decades after the hunt. I was always fascinated by its unbelievable spread. To a young girl in my formative years, I could not comprehend how an animal could live among the trees in the forest with such an incredible spread of antlers! Growing up in Ohio, I never imagined elk in the eastern U.S. To me, these were western mountain mammals, inaccessible to those of us in the Midwest or eastern U.S. Oh, how unaware I was!
It turns out elk herds once roamed freely across much of the eastern U.S. Unfortunately, human development and overhunting eliminated the East’s native subspecies, the eastern woodland elk. Historical records show that the last eastern woodland elk was shot in 1867. During that same time period, the trees along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River were heavily timbered, destroying vital deep-woods habitat needed for an elk population to hide and survive. In the early 1910’s, forward-thinking conservationists developed a plan to re-introduce elk into Pennsylvania. Rocky Mountain elk, imported by train from Yellowstone National Park, were released in multiple locations over the years. They did not thrive in every location, but the herd survived and eventually thrived in the mountainous terrain of north central Pennsylvania.
Chris all but guaranteed we would see elk, in addition to bald eagles and other wild residents of Kettle Creek Valley with time to watch and wait. As the sun was setting and we said good-bye to Chris, promises were made to meet in the spring to paddle kayaks and canoes and further explore this beautiful area. Virgil and I look forward to floating the still waters of the state park reservoir and to navigating the flowing waters downstream next spring.
Kettle Creek State is open year around, seven days a week; however, camping areas close during the winter. Day use areas close at dark. If you plan to visit, remember this is a wilderness area. Travel with forethought and preparation and please respect the rights of private property owners when viewing the wildlife. The waters of the Kettle Creek Valley flow south to the West Branch, east to join the main body of the Susquehanna, then continue south to become the waters of the Chesapeake. It puts joy in one’s heart to see these headwaters and know the route they take to the Sea.
Interested in driving through the area? Visit this site for information on The Pennsylvania Wilds and the Elk Scenic Drive.