Unique Creek: 'It's an oasis that remains biologically diverse'


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FRANKLIN, Pa. -- Draw lines on a map connecting Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland. Now find the center of the resulting triangle. If you are outdoor-inclined, but unfamiliar with the enclosed landscape, you might assume that mid-point dominated by industrial sprawl and the pollution that so often followed such enterprise, especially at the region's manufacturing peak decades ago.

You would be wrong.

French Creek flows across your triangle's heart, winding southwest from Chautauqua, New York to Edinboro, then turning southeastward to join the Allegheny River at Franklin. Along its course, rainfall from 1,235 square miles of forest, marsh and farm drains into French Creek's surprisingly pristine flow. Nowhere else in the Northeast does a stream of its size remain so ecologically intact. More species of fish and mollusks live here than any other stream in Pennsylvania, many of which have disappeared elsewhere due to habitat loss and pollution.

Some call French Creek one of America's "last great places." The French Creek Valley Conservancy intends to keep it that way.

"French Creek watershed is tucked into the middle of the industrial tri-state region, yet it has escaped major pollution that has devastated the ecology of other river systems," said Conservancy program director Dave Washousky. "It's one of the last remaining places that you can find some of these native species of mussels and fish. It's an oasis that remains biologically diverse. That's why we have to protect it."

One of the Conservancy's strategies to maintain French Creek's quality is to share it with other people through the annual French Creek Sojourn, a river journey highlighting aspects that make French Creek special. The Conservancy ran its second annual sojourn on high, turbid waters June 21-22, from Shaw's Landing in Crawford County, through a corner of Mercer County to the Allegheny River at Franklin, Venango County -- about 20 miles by water. Twenty-five kayaks and four canoes made the trip, their paddlers stopping to camp at French Creek Farms Campground in Utica on a Saturday night.

"What better way to help people learn about this watershed than to bring them here to experience it firsthand," Washousky said. "Here, in the midst of this scenic beauty, sojourners get to see what's living in this water. That's important because ultimately, it's people who will speak up to protect this stream."

The stream section just above Cochranton winds lazily, but as it flows out of the sheared-off glacial tablelands, its pace quickens. Surging from recent storms, the riffles reared as formidable standing waves. Volunteer safety escorts huddled with paddlers and coached them on the best route through the rapids.

"The creek is a little unpredictable today, so don't take a course where you don't feel confident of your ability," coached Darren Crabtree, a Nature Conservancy biologist who paddled as an escort. "The most important safety gear you have with you is your brain."

All of the boats passed safely over the challenge, then landed at Cochranton for lunch and a streamside tour.

"The creek is an asset our town had not utilized in the past, but we're excited about it now," Cochranton borough councilman Mark Roche told the lunching sojourners. "We see a new kind of visitor coming here that we hadn't attracted before. We're working with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Fish and Boat Commission to build a new access for boaters and fishermen. We're even developing a shuttle service to move boaters along the creek to their launch and take-out points. If we have the success we've seen in other places, we'll entice creek-related businesses to open here."

Below Cochranton the stream divides into meandering channels that flow among islands. Massive sycamores, walnuts and silver maples lean into the light, hemming in the paddlers' route. As the channels reunited, a bald eagle flushed from the trees ahead and banked downstream.

Mary Beth White of Edinboro, paddling a kayak solo, was enthralled with the scene. "Going through that tunnel of trees in that pure, green-tinted sunlight with bird song all around was such a pleasant experience," she said. "But then to see a bald eagle flying just ahead -- how can you do better than that?"

French Creek is a common destination for anglers -- muskellunge, northern pike, walleye and smallmouths are prolific. In some tributaries native trout capitalize on healthy bug life. Many of the sojourners were accomplished anglers, but fishing was not an option on the swollen flow. Still, the trip was not without fish.

At the second day's lunch stop, Casey Wilson, assistant professor of Environmental Science at Allegheny College, deployed a seine in the creek. She then asked paddlers to "kick and dance around in the rubble just upstream." Wilson and a helper watched the cloud of kicked-up silt, waited for the right moment, lifted the seine and grabbed a 11/2-inch spotted darter from the net's dense mesh. Darters are small perch-like fishes that cannot live in polluted water. Wilson said during her studies she sometimes captures and releases 100 darters from the various riffles along the creek.

"The variety of darters here is like nowhere else," she said. "Fifteen known species live here. Some are federally listed as endangered species. Those species are disappearing in other places but they're doing well in French Creek."

The freshwater mussel, another indicator species of clear water, is prolific in French Creek. Crabtree displayed several specimens he'd collected along the route.

"French Creek held 29 species of freshwater mussels before this region was settled," he explained. "There are still 27 living here. Some of those are doing well nowhere else except here."

Although the French Creek Valley Conservancy is working to protect French Creek's future, its pristine past is somewhat a matter of luck.

"The stream's quality is largely an accident of history," said Edinboro University associate professor of geography Karen Eisenhart, during her sojourn presentation on river bottom forests. "The Allegheny Mountains to the east were a barrier to early settlement, as were this region's soggy soils. Settlement came late here, not until the 1850s, so in a way this watershed was 'passed over' to its ecological benefit."

Washousky said keeping French Creek clean is a job too big for just the French Creek Valley Conservancy.

"We're small but we get so much support from other groups," he said. "Audubon Pennsylvania, The Nature Conservancy and the Borough of Cochranton, among many others, are important partners. This collaborative approach toward protecting the watershed makes all our efforts more effective."

"I'd always wanted to paddle French Creek and I saw this sojourn as the perfect opportunity," said Paula Majhan, an accomplished kayaker from Laughlintown. "It's a uniquely beautiful place."

For more details about conserving the French Creek watershed, visit www.frenchcreekconservancy.org.


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