Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — May 2009

Allegheny River: Kinzua Dam to Tionesta

by Gary Thornbloom

Canoeing the Allegheny River from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta is 45 miles and a pleasant three days of camping and canoeing on a beautiful river between rolling hills. With many put in and take out options you could also enjoy sections of the river for trips as short as an afternoon. The mixture of public and private land lets you get away, while not being all that far away, on a dam controlled river that has dependable water levels.

The Allegheny River Paddling Guide available at www.alleghenyoutfitters.com will get you going down the river. The laminated user friendly guide will let you pick the best camping spots, or know when to stop for a short walk into town for lunch. You may also want to check that website for a link to current water levels, as well as recommended water levels.

Dozens of islands, always great places for exploring, are throughout this entire stretch. Backwaters and the narrow braided sections of river that shape the larger islands conceal myriad potential discoveries. The Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, comprised of just 368 acres on 7 islands and one of the smallest parts of the United States Wilderness System, lies between Buckaloons and Tionesta. This is far from the concept many people have of wilderness being inaccessible. These islands make great primitive campsites.

Hickory, ash, maple and especially sycamore trees cover many of the islands. The alluvial, or water formed, islands are composed of cobble stones mixed with sand, mud and clay. The island interiors are often lush. Campsites are the obvious clearings and falling asleep next to the gentle murmur of the river is getting back to life lived at a gentle pace.

Last fall I spent three days on the river. I looked forward each morning to the fog that settled thickly into the river basin. The world was made smaller. As the sun rose the fog would open and close revealing the blue sky of the day to come. Thick layers moved down the river corridor. One morning two dozen mergansers were silhouetted on a gravel bar in the center of the river. An immature eagle swooped three times before driving the mergansers into the water. The eagle landed and appeared to begin feeding on a fish carcass. Although less than fifty feet away the eagle disappeared repeatedly in the swirling mist. All this before the coffee had perked!

Eagle spotted along the Allegheny RIver

Bald eagles are now commonly seen along this stretch of the Allegheny River. · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

When I spoke with Piper Lindell, one of the authors of The Allegheny River Paddling Guide, she told me about growing up in the area and visiting Kinzua reservoir when the first eagles were being seen there. Now there are numerous eagles nesting along the river. We saw as many as six eagles each day. Not only high overhead, but in treetops along the river as we floated past.

Along with eagles we saw many mergansers, kingfishers, and great blue herons. Several days on the river should leave you familiar with each of these birds — with their antics, rattling, and stately demeanor. I am certain the serious birder will discover even more.

Fishing is also reported to be good, and from the size of the gear on some of the boats we saw the fish must be large. If you fish I would certainly consider making that part of your trip.

Piles of mussel and clam shells are an indication of not only raccoons and muskrats, but also the river otters that have been reintroduced to Pennsylvania’s streams. As otter numbers increase, paddlers will be treated to the periscoping antics I have seen on Canadian river trips.

A northern snapping turtle that surfaced next to our canoe looked the part of a creature whose ancestors shared the earth with dinosaurs. From past experiences I was well aware of their temperament. Unconcerned and unmolested this one stared briefly and then sank slowly below the water surface.

If the river, its islands, and its wildlife are not enough, then you may enjoy one of the hikes from the river. Anders Run Hiking Trail, river right and thirty minutes below the Buckaloons, is a gentle two mile trail that will take you into the Anders Run Natural Area, a 96-acre gem protected as a State Forest Natural Area. Away from the river the silence imposed by pines and hemlocks as old as 400 years reigns. Wildflowers, in season, also grace the forest floor.

This stretch of the Allegheny has miles of State Game Lands, State Forest Lands, and Allegheny National Forest Lands that border the river. Compare these protected areas, along with the Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, to the miles of development spread over the privately owned land. Then take a moment to appreciate the efforts of the many citizens and politicians who had the wisdom to set these lands aside.

Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, was a native son of this area, and looked to the Allegheny for inspiration. He wrote these words:

I believe that at least in the present phase of our civilization we have a profound, a fundamental need for areas of wilderness — a need that is not only recreational and spiritual but also educational and scientific, and withal essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in all nature.

Three days on the Allegheny River floating past homes, industry, under historic bridges, near trains and cars, and then into the areas embraced by Public Lands can be a way into the essence of Zahniser’s words. Three days on river time, embraced by thick silence at night, with eagles overhead by day and something new around each bend may lead you to a better understanding of yourself. Three days on the river may be enough for you to experience a need that will keep you coming back, maybe the Allegheny again, or maybe the next river awaiting your discovery. May the wind be at your back!

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Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of Sierra Club Moshannon Group, and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net