Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — June 2002

Canoeing the Southern End of Black Moshannon

by Gary Thornbloom

Black Moshannon, or Moss-Hanne as American Indians named this watershed, has always held both a sense of mystery and magic for me. Moss-Hanne — moose stream — seemed the appropriate name as Park Manager Chris Reese steered our canoe along the maze threading the southern end of Black Moshannon Lake. Our journey ended as the sedge marsh with occasional alders gave way to a wall of alder that only a muskrat or perhaps a moose could have passed through. It was easy to imagine that I was at the remote end of a Canadian lake hundreds of miles to the north where a moose could be browsing upon the alder around the next bend. Chris verified my impression that this was the seldom visited portion of Black Moshannon Park.

Our evening canoe outing began at Boat Area Number 3 along the West Side Road. This offered ready access to the most isolated area of the lake. The lake was originally a series of beaver dams strung through an area of towering white pine and hemlock, and those stumps still dot the upper end of the lake. The sphagnum moss marsh was flooded when loggers built a splash dam which was followed by a mill dam. The present concrete dam provides for the swimming area at the northern end of the lake and for the boating and fishing throughout the lake. The thick layers of peat moss that the dams have kept underwater for all these years provides not only the nutrient feast that the abundant aquatic growth thrives on, but also gives the water its black color.

Black Moshannon is a shallow lake with an average depth of about four feet. Just a slight change in the depth of the water keeps a channel clear of plant growth. The channel we followed meandered through spatterdock, water-shield, and water lily. Spatterdock leaves are held erect above the water while water shield and water lily leaves float on the water. Spatterdock blooms from May through October and has a pretty yellow golf ball sized bud that opens slightly exposing a red, white, yellow, and black mosaic. Chris invited me to take a peak into the flower. I caught a glimpse of pink and black beetles scurrying for cover. Earlier I had been watching red winged blackbirds flying into and out of the spatterdock and now I saw why. Water lilies will begin blooming later, in early July, and continue their fragrant and colorful display through late summer.

Beavers and the warning splash of their tail hitting the water with a sometimes startling explosion are often a part of an evening on the lake. Their lodges are both along the shore and out in the lake. Children love to get out and examine the mounds of mud and sticks. On this recent outing we found turtle eggs peeking out of fresh mud on a beaver hut. One egg was lying totally exposed and was collapsed. A predator, a hasty burial by the mother turtle, mud washed off by recent rains? Every trip into a marsh offers the promise of enchantment and mystery.

After paddling for about a mile we came to the first of three low beaver dams. On a warm summer evening with old sneakers or water sandals for footgear it is not a problem to jump out and slide the canoe over a low section in the dam. The stream continues in wide meanders through a sedge marsh. Grasses, sedges, and rushes grow thickly back to the woods. I asked Chris how to tell the three apart: grass has joints, sedges edges, and rush is rounded. Occasional shrubs — steeplebush, alder, and viburnums — dot the marshy expanse. Ducks flush from the marsh. A wedge of geese flew honking over our heads. My thoughts drifted back to other evenings when great blue herons flew to and from the shallow beaver ponds that recede to either side of the main lake, to evenings with deer drinking at the waters edge, and to the evening when I joined a black bear picking blueberries along the edge of the lake.

As you look away from the watercourse you are looking at the Black Moshannon Bog Natural Area. By this designation Pennsylvania recognizes this as one of the best examples of a bog ecosystem on the Allegheny Plateau and offers special protections to preserve it. The area can also be visited on foot and a wood foot bridge about three-quarters of a mile or so after the first beaver dam is where the Moss-Hanne Trail crosses the stream. This is usually a convenient spot to turn around, however with high water due to recent rain Chris and I decided to keep going. So, under the bridge and many meanders later we eventually reached the alder thicket that turned us back. It was now getting dark and the night sounds of the marsh were closing in. Frogs increased their calling from every direction — shrill spring peepers, the banjo string plunk of green frogs, and the deep bass of bullfrogs thickened in the air as we paddled.

Back on the lake it was difficult to see the open channel so we pushed through the spatterdock undoubtedly sending many flying insects up into the air where countless bats swooped and dropped in a feeding frenzy. The heavy haze that had earlier seemed to hold the setting sun suspended on the horizon now blocked all starlight, and left only the openness of the lake, a darkness ending at the darker woods, to define the shoreline. As we glided silently through the water with the wild sounds of the marsh calling across the lake I could imagine us being the first to explore the moose stream with black water.

If You Go: Black Moshannon State Park is nine miles east of Philipsburg on SR 504; or ten miles west of Unionville on SR 504; or six miles north of Julian on the Julian Pike. A recreational guide to the park is available for free at the park office; this includes a map of the West Side Road and of Black Moshannon Lake.

Canoes can be rented from Tussey Mountain Outfitters (Bellefonte), or from the boat rental concession at Black Moshannon Park.

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