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Two new water trails unveiled, with 3rd coming

| Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 9:15 p.m.
Paddlers float French Creek during a sojourn earlier this summer. The creek is the subject of a new water trail map and guide.

The early explorers never had maps like these.

There was a time when tackling rivers and streams, along the pathways to frontiers far and wide, meant setting off with no idea what was around the next bend. There's still an allure to that.

But in today, when time away from work and responsibilities is so precious, it's nice to know where you can get a canoe or kayak on and off the water, what wildlife, history and hazards you might encounter while paddling and where you might stop for a bite or brew.

That's the purpose of water trails. They're officially designated, mapped and marked water routes, most often developed with paddlers in mind.

And Western Pennsylvania has two new ones, with a third on the way.

The Shenango River Water Trail takes in 23 miles of river flowing through Crawford and Mercer counties between Pymatuning Lake and Shenango Dam. The newer French Creek Water Trail covers about 76 miles between Union City in Erie County and Franklin in Venango. Maps of both trails became available this summer.

They're unique in separate ways.

The Shenango River trail follows a watercourse that's seen development for centuries. Remnants of the Erie Extension Canal — which came into service in the 1800s — still are visible along its banks, for instance.

Yet it's got some untouched areas, too.

“It's covered by pretty much canopy forest the entire way down from Pymatuning,” said Hugh Clark, project manager for the trail, which was developed by Shenango River Watchers. “The section around the Kidds Mill Covered Bridge is just beautiful. People who float it are just blown away. It's never been logged, so it's wonderful.”

Developing the trail meant removing lots of strainers — downed trees that “strain” the water that flows through while stopping debris and sometimes paddlers — and other obstacles, said John Kolodziejski, resource manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Shenango Dam. Some of that was done with draft horses.

But the result is a river that's not only finally useable but also beautiful.

“Because you're talking about a river bottom, you have the chance to see some unique wildflowers. For birders, it's an excellent place to see a variety of songbirds. And you can see all kinds of wildlife, from deer and muskrats to the occasional otter,” Kolodziejski said.

“There are six or eight nesting bald eagles along the river, too,” Clark said.

The development of the trail also has opened new sections of river to fishermen who float their way to smallmouth bass, walleyes and more, Kolodziejski said.

Paddling French Creek, meanwhile, means floating one of the few “colonial” streams still to be found in the state.

“We refer to it as a colonial stream because the species you would have seen in it in the 1700s are the same ones still here today because it was never degraded by industry or acid mine drainage or pollution,” said Dave Washousky, program director for the French Creek Conservancy, the group behind the water trail's development. “It never really had the disturbances other waters had. Call it a combination of good luck, I guess.”

That's led to rich diversity. The creek is home to more than 80 species of fish — anglers will find walleyes, bass, northern pike, muskies and more — and 27 species of mussels, four of them federally endangered.

Taking in the whole trail at once would require a float of about three days, minimum.

But there are opportunities to do that. Washousky said the conservancy owns two properties along the creek where primitive overnight camping is allowed. Efforts to develop additional sites are under way.

Interest in the trail has been high. Washousky said the conservancy has received requests for water trail maps from as far away as Missouri.

As with the Shenango, some sections of the creek can get too shallow to float in late summer. But there are lots of deeper stretches where paddling can be done year-round, he said.

“The interesting part about French Creek is that it's very dynamic, so there's always somewhere you can explore,” he said.

A third water trail that's all but completed is the one for Loyalhanna Creek. All that remains to be done is to print the map of the waterway, said Brad Clemenson of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Expect that to happen soon, even if demand for its comes a little later.

“I'll probably get it printed later this year. But as a practical matter, we suspect people will probably start to get really interested come next spring,” he said.

In the meantime, work has been under way to develop boating access points along the stream. One, constructed as an Eagle Scout project, recently was unveiled in New Alexandria. Another is scheduled to be built on property near Idlewild Park.

Flows might make parts of the water trail seasonal, he said, but others will probably be so high and fast most times as to qualify as whitewater. So there will be opportunities for all kinds of paddlers, Clemenson added.

That's what the trails are all about.

Interest in the Shenango River Water Trail is proof that people are eager for new places to paddle, like the pioneers of old.

“It's been an exciting project,” said Kolodziejski. “It's gotten a lot of attention regionally already.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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