On the trail: Paddling the Red Moshannon

A paddler starts to overturn near Chicko’s Rock.
A paddler starts to overturn near Chicko’s Rock. Photo provided

“Because it is there,” is often given as the reason for engaging in challenging outdoor pursuits. And because Moshannon Creek is there, and has some great locally accessible white water, is enough to draw paddlers. On the last Saturday in March there is a 7  1/2 mile section of Moshannon Creek where the longest-running downriver race in Pennsylvania occurs.

Moshannon Creek runs red, a legacy of mine acid drainage from coal mining, and is known as the Red Moshannon or Red Mo. One consequence of the dead stream is that there are no fishermen and no cabins. The stream is isolated, beautiful and great for paddling.

The Penn State Outing Club first organized the race in 1967, and co-ran the race with Tussey Mountain Outfitters in 1981. TMO has run it since. The race used to be held later in the year when the weather was warmer, but too often the flow of water there was not good. On a stream like the Red Mo, low water means a lot of rocks to maneuver around and scrape over. So March it is.

And yes, it is often cold at the end of March. Last year it was 18 degrees along the Red Mo on the morning of the race. But late March is the best time to regularly hold the race and have the best chance of good water flow.

When I asked Ed Bowman — owner of Tussey Mountain Outfitters and longtime leader and supporter of our local paddling community — why TMO has sponsored the Red Moshannon Downriver Race for the past 35 years, he said, “It’s fun … it’s giving back to the local paddling community … tradition.”

It is easy to see that sense of community on the morning of race day. A group of racers usually camps next to the Peale Bridge, which is where the race begins. Last year, some were slow in crawling out of their tents, but it was 18 degrees. Cars with all types of canoes, kayaks and paddle boards arrived throughout the morning. Longtime friends are catching up and high-fiving.

There are typically 100 or more boats and 150 or more paddlers, along with their families and friends gathered on the morning of the race. There is energy and excitement in the air, sometimes along with snow.

The race has been postponed once due to high water. The Red Mo was running at the 4 feet level on the gauge at the Route 53 bridge abutment. Typical race day water level is around 1  1/2 feet, which is a nice paddling level. The race has been run with the level at  1/2 foot, which makes for a boney run — that is, a lot of scraping over rocks.

It takes about 40 people to ensure the success of the event. About 30 of those are the river assistant teams, or RATS. The RATS have been a part of race day since TMO began sponsoring it.

The RATS begin their efforts a week or more before the race with a firewood run. This involves paddling the Red Mo and stopping at eight locations on the stream where paddlers are most likely to become swimmers and would appreciate coming ashore to warm up by a fire. RATS use a chainsaw to cut firewood. The wood is stacked and is left ready for race day.

Race day begins with a 9 a.m. talk to the RATS. Current stream conditions are reviewed as well as the gear each team should have. Among the gear is a throw bag — a rescue device that can be thrown to a swimmer –– fire starter and kindling, sleeping bags or blankets, first aid kit, a pot for heating water for hot cocoa or tea, a high-energy snack, dry clothes and a cellphone to call up or down the river.

After talk, the RATS get in their boats and paddle downriver to their assigned locations. Those locations are typically at rapids, with names like Rattlesnake, Raceway, Magnavox Rocks, Slant Rock, Chicko’s Rock in the Mad Mile and Twin Rocks ready near the end to dump you for a swim.

The 7  1/2 miles of the Red Mo race is from Peale Bridge to the Route 53 Bridge. This is a section where the water moves swiftly and has few pools. It includes class two water. This is not for beginners.

Bowman suggests that paddlers participating in the race possess “swift-water ability and skills … and self-rescue skills … this is a fun stream, you do not have to be superhuman to paddle it, but there can be consequences on that stream in March.”

The Red Mo has eaten many boats over the years. When I asked Bowman for the story behind some of the rapids, he told me about Chicko’s Rock. I had also heard part of the story from a friend who was in the canoe with Chicko when he wrapped his canoe around the rock that now bears his name. Bowman told me the canoe remained there for years before eventually corroding away. Numerous other boats have been torn in half by the force of the river wrapping them on this rock.

Race day 2015, I was one of the RATS — along with Aaron Harchak, Sean Hawk, Ron Johnson, David Shirey, Matt Stump and Matthew Umbel — stationed at Chicko’s Rock. We had our fire going, pot of hot water heating and enjoyed the icy morning cheering paddlers on as they passed by. Johnson was stationed on Chicko’s Rock, which rose well out of the water. He was there to make cards attached to clothes pins at the end of a pole available to boaters choosing to fill their poker hand. This was also a good spot to assist.

Our excitement that day was watching a kayaker approach Chicko’s Rock, when one of our team noticed the paddler didn’t have his sprayskirt on. We were ready for a potential swimmer. The paddler approached the rapid and continued to paddle and maneuver well as his kayak filled with water. Once the boat was filled with water, the inevitable flip occurred.

Several throw bags were launched toward the paddler, who was now a swimmer, and he was guided ashore. Johnson got his boat, but his paddle continued downstream. The swimmer took advantage of the fire, blanket, hot cocoa, dry clothes and a ride out at the end of the race.

A guy on a paddle board also became a swimmer. He swam around Chicko’s, rose up out of the eddy and got his poker card. Johnson helped reunite him with his board, and he continued downstream. He was wearing a dry suit, and he paddled away in one of the brief snow squalls throughout that morning.

After Chicko’s, Twinn Rocks remains at the top of the final stretch before the finish line. Bowman told me that they usually station a strong boater at the Route 53 Bridge, “to chase any errant boats so they do not go to Karthaus.” If a boat gets by, the next bridge is many miles away at Karthaus, well after the Red Mo joins the west branch of the Susquehanna.

Bowman summed up our conversation about the Red Moshannon Downriver Race in this way “… this is paddling community involvement, in a community event, and this is why it works. Have fun out there.”

Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at bearknob @verizon.net.


Information and registration forms are available at Tussey Mountain Outfitters, Bellefonte, PA, and online at www.tusseymountainoutfitters.com

From the registration form:

Held on a remote 7.5-mile section of Moshannon Creek between Peale Bridge near the town of Grassflat, PA and the Route 53 Bridge near the town of Moshannon, PA.

At moderate levels this section of creek is rated Class II+ on the International Scale of Difficulty.

High water significantly increases the difficulty. Extra flotation in boats is highly recommended. Most years there are numerous swims and bent boats!!

Cold water paddling clothing is recommended. The stream & air temperatures are usually very cold.

Racers should have self-rescue and swift water paddle skills.