Woods and Waters: Stonycreek River a hidden gem waiting to be prospected

A whitewater paddler navigates The Showers — one of the named rapids in the Stonycreek Canyon.
A whitewater paddler navigates The Showers — one of the named rapids in the Stonycreek Canyon. Photo for the CDT

Every other weekend, one can find a whitewater party on Somerset County’s Stonycreek River, but it is strictly B.Y.O.B. (bring your own boat). As I discovered firsthand, Stonycreek River is both challenging and exciting. A wet and wild whitewater ride taught me a lot about the river and the whitewater rafting/kayaking community.

In mid-May, Clark Fisher invited me to raft a whitewater section of Stonycreek River near the Davidsville exit of Route 219. Fisher is quite an experienced paddler. Through his company, FisherWorks Consulting, he has mapped about half of the 30 water trails in Pennsylvania.

The 45-mile long Stonycreek River begins on the Allegheny Plateau in Somerset County and flows north to meet the Little Conemaugh River in Johnstown. The river and tributaries, Paint and Shade creeks, have a number of whitewater sections. The best is found in Stonycreek Canyon by Davidsville. Here, kayakers and rafters can find 15 rapids in four miles — the longest set of continuous rapids in the eastern United States.

Stonycreek is actually a modern conservation success story. In 1990, the river and several of its tributaries were dead — victims of coal mining. A few years later, activists formed the Stonycreek Conemaugh River Improvement Project. Over $8 million in grant money funded the development of passive treatment systems along the river and its feeder streams. Fish and other aquatic life have since returned to the river.

Another grant provided for the construction of Stonycreek Whitewater Park, which opened to the public in June 2009. In 2011, a $1.3 million whitewater release valve was installed in the Quemahoning Dam, and scheduled water releases began. The Benscreek Canoe Club pays the salary of the person who regulates the dam releases, and a club member kayaks down the canyon ahead of each release to warn anglers and boaters.

Pennsylvania’s best-known whitewater areas — the Youghiogheny and Lehigh rivers — have outfitters, such as Wilderness Voyagers, who specialize in offering guided whitewater raft trips. There, you can also rent a raft or kayak, or you can easily find a business willing to include a drop-off and/or pickup. At present, Stonycreek has no outfitters and thus far is an undeveloped gem.

Our journey began at Foustwell, with six people and Maize — Fisher’s golden retriever — in his 13-foot raft. Fisher, his 6-year-old daughter Emily, outdoor writer Ralph Scherder and his girlfriend Rachel, and media consultant Dave Hurst, filled out the crew. The plan was to traverse 4.6 miles of river, ending up north at Carpenter’s Park, where we had parked some of our vehicles earlier that morning.

It was a warm, sunny day, and the scheduled whitewater release from the Quemahoning Reservoir made for perfect rafting conditions on Stonycreek. We were approaching a small unnamed rapid — only about a half-mile into our rafting journey — when the swift current pushed our raft up against a mid-stream boulder.

Fisher had prepared us for this exact situation, but the current was too strong. The raft flipped — tossing Emily, Ralph, Rachel and Maize into the rapids. Personal flotation devices and helmets protected them until they were able to stand where the river widened at the tail of the rapids.

Over the roaring water, I heard Fisher yell, “Get the kid,” as his daughter bobbed through the rapids. Ralph rescued Emily and held her in the thigh-deep water.

Meanwhile, Fisher, Hurst and I found ourselves stranded on the mid-stream boulder. My foot had become caught in a fold in the raft, but fortunately, it was my foot that was under water — not my head. Fisher helped to free me, and the three of us pushed and tugged on the raft to no avail.

It was then that I learned about the friendly, cooperative community that exists on the river. Other kayakers and rafters stopped to lend a hand. Emily, Ralph, Rachel and Maize were rescued from mid-river. Another group of three rafters threw us a rope, which Fisher attached to the underwater portion of the raft. With six people pulling and pushing, the raft was finally pried from the teeth of the river.

“People get dunked and tossed here regularly, but this was the first time that anyone was thrown from my raft,” commented Fisher. What followed proved to be even worse for Fisher, though — he had to put up with good-natured threats from our rescuers to name the mid-stream boulder, “Fisher Rock.”

Hurst moved to another raft to lighten our load, and we continued our aquatic trek, none-the-worse for the dunking. Even Emily took the spill like a trooper. Named rapids — The Wall, Roostertail, Three Sisters, Hydro, The Beast and others gave us thrills, but no spills. We portaged around Border Dam and then navigated three additional named rapids before ending our exciting float at Carpenter’s Park.

Fisher noted that Stonycreek Canyon is a place for experienced whitewater enthusiasts, not casual paddlers. Specialized equipment and skills are necessary for safe navigation of the Class III and, at times, Class IV rapids.

Whitewater releases are scheduled for every other weekend April through October, depending on the Quemahoning Reservoir water level and existing river flows. The next releases are scheduled for June 27-28 and July 11-12. Visit for the latest release updates.

For those less experienced or someone interested in learning about whitewater paddling, Hurst recommended visiting Stonycreek Whitewater Park — Pennsylvania’s first whitewater park. The park is adjacent to Greenhouse Park, on Route 403, at Tire Hill, just south of Johnstown. There, families can swim, tube or practice whitewater skills on a pair of man-made rapids.

“I’d like to see development and improvement continue on Stonycreek,” Fisher said. “More parking, better put-in and take-out areas and changing facilities are needed. One thing that we have that Ohiopyle doesn’t is hotels and restaurants.

“With releases only every other weekend, we could never be the Youghiogheny or Ohiopyle, but I think that we can establish ourselves as an important whitewater destination.”