Mark Nale: Tiny Canoe Creek State Park offers small wonders

A yellow and black tiger swallowtail butterfly fluttered from flower to flower as it fed its way along Mary Ann’s Creek. Two Carolina wrens greeted the morning by singing and chirping from a streamside walnut tree. There was activity in the stream, too — quite a lot — seventh-graders on a school field trip engrossed in their investigation of aquatic macro-invertebrates.

A hiker crossed the metal bridge spanning Mary Ann’s Creek — getting her morning exercise by following the well-maintained Limestone Trail. Just up the trail, a young family stopped to read the interpretive sign at the remnants of 100-year-old Blair Limestone Kilns.

I spent much of Monday exploring Canoe Creek State Park — just north of Route 22 between Water Street and Hollidaysburg — approximately a 40-mile drive from State College. I had not been to the park in six years; it is always nice to visit an old friend.

Just over 30 years ago, I discovered that the trails in Canoe Creek State Park were a great place to look for spring and early summer wildflowers. A favorite subject of my photography has been the yellow lady’s slipper — a wild orchid that grows along several of the park’s trails and blooms in May. I only know of two places where that wildflower grows, and one is at Canoe Creek.

Blair County’s Canoe Creek State Park features more than eight miles of hiking trails. In the late 1980s, my wife and I took our young children there to walk the trails, picnic and catch panfish when they spawned along the lakeshore.

Through my involvement with Trout Unlimited, I learned that Mary Ann’s Creek contained a nice population of wild brown trout. I usually coupled fishing there with casting a line in a section of the larger Canoe Creek above the park.

At 935 acres, Canoe Creek is only one sixth the size of Centre County’s Bald Eagle State Park. Like Bald Eagle, Canoe Creek State Park surrounds a lake — Brumbaugh Dam impounds the lower reaches of Canoe Creek, a stocked trout stream, creating the lake.

Canoe Creek is much more than a miniature version of Bald Eagle State Park — for starters, it is a quiet park. Only electric motors and “human power” are allowed on its 155-acre lake. If your interests involve restful fishing or a quiet hike along one of the five lakeside trails, be assured that unlimited-horsepower speedboats will not disturb your solitude. Rowboats, paddleboats, canoes and kayaks can be rented at the park.

Although camping is not permitted in the park, there are eight two-bedroom modern family cabins that can be rented. Each cabin sleeps six and can be rented by the week during the summer and by the week or by the day during the offseason.

Canoe Creek State Park also has a long circular trail with several side spurs for horseback riding. Another loop goes past the cabins. These horse trails also double as hiking trails. A special area is set aside for parking horse trailers.

The lake is stocked with walleye, muskellunge and trout. Other species include largemouth bass, chain pickerel, catfish and several different species of panfish. Canoe Lake is enrolled in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Big Bass Program. These waters have special regulations designed to enhance the size of bass in the lake. There is no harvest of bass between April 13 through June 14, and during other times of the year, a harvestable bass must measure 15 inches. The creel limit is 4 bass per day.

Until just a few years ago, Canoe Creek State Park was known for its bat population. The park contains a gated limestone mine that once was used as a hibernation site for nearly 30,000 members of six bats species, including the endangered Indiana bat. The abandoned Canoe Creek Church, located near the park’s entrance, was the summer home to an estimated 20,000 little brown bats. The bats returned to this church attic to raise their young each year. Favorable conditions within the attic and excellent surrounding habitat made the church the largest nursery colony in Pennsylvania and one of the largest in the eastern United States. Bat research was conducted at the park and many summer programs centered around bats and their importance.

Sadly, the nocturnal fluttering of thousands of bat wings is no longer heard at the park, and the bats’ ability to control mosquitoes is sorely missed. The park’s bats recently became a victim of the deadly White-Nose Syndrome — a white fungus that grows on the muzzles and wing membranes of affected bats.

The syndrome was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, and showed up in Pennsylvania in 2008. The disease has decimated bat colonies in the northeast — including those at Canoe Creek State Park. By February 2012, only a few hundred bats remained at the park. The park has suspended all of its popular bat programs.

The unique historic value of Canoe Creek State Park is an additional reason to visit. Anyone living in Centre, Blair or Huntingdon counties should understand the importance of limestone to the local economy. Quarries abound in this area, with limestone rock used in highway and bridge construction, the treatment of acid mine drainage, the building of stream habitat improvement devices, as well as for agricultural purposes.

Limestone was also important over 100 years ago. The current park grounds were home to small (by today’s standards) limestone mines and two thriving limestone kilns - Hartman and Blair Limestone. The kilns supplied “burnt lime,” used in agriculture and as a raw material for the once thriving iron and steel industry of Pennsylvania. The Blair Limestone Company Kiln remnants are the focus of historical and interpretive programs and displays at the park. This company operated until the early 1900s, as a subsidiary of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company of Pittsburgh.

Good things definitely come in small packages. Canoe Creek State Park provides area residents another way to enjoy the outdoors, and the park contains unique elements that set it apart from the state parks in Centre County.