First Stop: Nebraska Bridge
In May of 2009 my wife Teri and I went on a canoe trip down the Tionesta Creek. This stream runs almost right through the heart of the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. It's banks are mostly wooded forestland, with an occasional cabin, and PA route 666 (yes, that is indeed 3 6's!) parallels it for some distance. I've had the pleasure of canoeing it a number of times over the years, beginning when I was just a kid. The natural beauty, peaceful setting, and sense of isolation all draw me back.
After dropping off our kid for a weekend stay at "Camp Nunna" we drove, in separate cars, a few hours north to Nebraska Bridge. Placed at a crossing of Tionesta Lake, it occasionally floods due to the dam just down stream. When there are heavier rains, like we get in early spring, the dam holds back water from flowing into the Allegheny River. This helps prevent flooding as far south as Pittsburgh.
When we arrived we found the dam flooded, as expected. There's a large parking lot slightly uphill of the water. Having checked the forecast we didn't expect any additional rains, so didn't worry too much about leaving one of the cars in the lot.
I was also very happy to see just how high the water was running. This stream can run very shallow in places. Doing this trip later in the summer, when it's at it's lowest, is like riding down an old fashioned laundry board. Your butt just constantly bumps down rocks, and you do a lot of walking along, dragging your canoe behind you.
Night of the Creep!
Having arrived later in the day on a Friday, the actual canoe trip was to begin Saturday morning. Our plan had been to cross this bridge to get to Route 666, but the water was too high. Instead we looped around, making our way roughly 40 miles or so to the north east. There we drove down some back roads until we found a suitable place to camp for the night. The spot we located was along a beautiful little trout stream.
At first we planned on setting up closer to the road. The spot we picked was a little pull off, with a fire pit. The stream a short stroll from there. After making coffee along the stream we built a fire, and then something really strange happened.
As we sat near the fire, the sky slowly darkening, a SUV slowly came down the dirt road. It was the only vehicle to come down this road. As it passed us it slowed down even more, and then continued down the track. I could hear it stop just out of site, and then do a turn around. Let's just say I had one of those "Spidey Sense" moments where you just know something is about to go down.
As it crept back up to us I alerted Teri. Our Jeep was sideways to the road, the fire pit on the opposite side. I stood up, and as the SUV came parallel to us it stopped.
It then sat there for about two minutes. So there we were, me standing with the Jeep between us, Teri sitting down behind cover, and this SUV just sitting there. After a while the driver cracked his window about an inch, and called out, "You guys need ice?" I just shook my head. He then drove slowly off. SPOOKY!
While we left the Jeep where it was, we set up our tent way back in a thicket, with no lights. There were plenty of branches on the ground, so unless the guy was a ninja I'd hear him coming. Needless to say it was this incident that prompted me to get my CC license!
Sheffield to Nebraska Bridge
Early Saturday morning we made our way to Sheffield, where the Tionesta is just a smallish creek. There's an easy to use canoe launch, with a parking lot where we left the Jeep. Loading up our little Radisson with gear, food and water only took minutes. We were off in no time!
It doesn't take long to get clear of the town, and before you know it you feel like your the only one around. While there are some areas where there're homes, bridges, etc., for the most part you canoe through undeveloped forestland. After the previous night's odd encounter with another human, one I just feel in my bones meant us harm, having the feeling you're the only folks about really relaxes you.
Also, if you fish, which I used to be avid about, this is a great stream to do so. I once limited out on rather large trout while canoeing. It didn't take long either! By the time I was where the two main branches of the Tionesta meet I had all I could take. I also know of people catching large Muskie in some of the deeper pools. As a kid I remember a guy shooting at one from a swinging foot bridge that used to cross over the creek, but that's another story.
As I mentioned earlier, canoeing this stream in early spring is the time to go. We had really nice, high water. I don't recall bumping on a single rock the entire time. The current was also moving at a nice brisk pace for most of it. It only slows down when you get into the flood zone, where it becomes Tionesta Lake. There you can end up paddling for all your worth if the wind is against you! Thankfully we didn't encounter that problem on this trip.
An Old Canal
Having done this trip many times I know where to find some isolated spots. The day had proved to be really relaxing, and I didn't want us to have that feeling of potential danger we'd had the night before. That can really put a damper on things!
I know where there are still parts of the old canal system running into, and along the bank of the main stream. There's also an old railroad track bed running along the shore line. We made out way back one of these canals, and set up camp uphill from there. While there are some trails in the area, they are miles from roads, and other cabins. The feeling of being alone, combined with the woodsy smell of ferns, and wood smoke from our fire combined to make a perfect night.
Return to the Bridge
Another great thing about canoeing this particular stream is how much wildlife you'll see. While I didn't get shots over every single creature, I did manage to snap a few images. When I shot this the longest lens I owned was a 200mm. It would have been great to have a 400mm, anything longer would have been difficult to use from a moving canoe. My favorite was getting shots of a Great Blue Heron going well into the water in order to capture a large trout!
If you do canoe this stream, keep an eye out for the giant frog! It's a little over halfway down. All the way back when I was a kid someone, or a group of folks, take the time to paint this rock. You can sort of see it from the road, but the best view is from the water. I imagine they do this when the water is super low in August. I really have no clue who does it, I'm just glad they do as I've always gotten a kick out of it.
Even considering the creepy guy the first night, all in all it was a great trip. The water levels were perfect, the winds were null, the sun was constantly shinning, and we saw a lot of wildlife. As we made our way to the bridge I remember thinking how perfect this adventure was.