Days Down the Deer Creek

It was a November night when we pushed our canoe from the sandy shore into the cool trickling creek water. My friend sat in the front and I waded until the 50-degree water reached my knees. I swung a leg over the canoe and continued my journey into the dark and under the stars down northern Maryland’s Deer Creek.

I made the decision to embark on this 7 day sectional paddle of the entire Deer Creek because I grew up as a boy playing, and occasionally peeing in a gravelly stream that I didn’t know at the time was called the Little Deer Creek. Now thirty, I realize that any action I did on the land (or in the water) surrounding that creek would eventually end up somewhere. I made the decision to find out where that somewhere actually was.

I began the journey on a summer day near the intersection of the Maryland/Pennsylvania line and I 83. The Deer Creek, with its headwaters reaching into York, PA, is Harford County’s largest watershed, covering 38% of the county or approximately 171 square miles (Deer Creek Watershed Association). My friend Andrew, who owns property near the creek’s headwaters, offered me the perfect place to launch the old kayak that I had owned since I was 13. I uncomfortably squeezed my body into the small black craft, said goodbye to my friend, paddled 5 strokes and then bottomed out on a shallow rapid. It was an anticlimactic start to a 35-mile journey. Little did I know then that the picture of me bottomed out on a sandy spit would be a common sight. Once grounded, I let out a frustrated grunt, and then used my hands to push myself into deeper water.

The upper reaches of the Deer Creek are dark, cool, and shaded by hardwood and pine forests. The water is clear and cool to the touch and its sandy rocky bottom reflects a greenish brown tone. Underneath the surface of the clear waters swim fish that migrate to the river to spawn their young such as hickory shad, white perch, yellow perch, alewife and blueback herring. Rainbow and Brown Trout are stocked in the Creek to provide recreation for fly fishermen, however, the creek becomes too warm in the summer for year round trout survival (MD DNR). White tail deer, great blue herons, and occasionally bald eagles rest quietly along the forest’s edge or along the worn stonewalls of an old gristmill.

Along the journey, I passed farmland, forest, and cozy cabins with wood smoke rising. The land surrounding the Deer Creek is what affects its health. The land is 54 percent agricultural, 30 percent forest, and 15 percent developed (Deer Creek Watershed Association) I passed families of Caucasian, African American, and Latino descent swimming and wading in its waters. I wondered how the land had changed over time since the days of the Susquehannock (who named the creek) used the area as hunting and fishing ground. The Indians tenacity kept the European explorers out of the Deer Creek area until after 1700 when colonists from Baltimore and German Immigrants from Pennsylvania converged on the area finding its rich soils perfect for growing wheat, tobacco, and grazing livestock. I paddled past abandoned stone gristmills with large oak trees protruding out of the center. These mills used the creek’s power to grind the wheat into flower, which was then shipped to Baltimore and Philadelphia. I wondered how the creek still felt so remote and realized that its location is far enough away from the great cities, that the creek was able to quietly flow unnoticed for the next two hundred years.

I saw fisherman on the banks, heard gunshots ringing into the dusk, and cattle using the water to drink. I wondered how the health of Deer Creek was and if its water quality was getting better or worse. From the look of the clear, cool water and abundant fish, I hypothesized that the creek was in good condition.

I wondered how healthy the cool clear water was that I paddled over. I decided to call Mark Staley, a DNR freshwater fisheries biologist, to ask him about the healthy of Deer Creek. Mark said that fish such as brook trout can be an indicator of the creek’s health and that the Upper Deer Creek (upstream of Rocks State Park) has wild brook. This was great news to hear. “The main factor is maintaining cold water, and expanding riparian buffers,” Mark said. Deer Creek is the recipient of multiple tributaries. Mark said that the brook trout are the most sensitive, while the brown trout is more resilient, therefore if you have brook trout, your water is healthy. I remember this by thinking that brook trout can only survive in a babbling brook while the brown trout is less needy and can survive in browner sediment laden water. The trout don’t move that much and one move up and down 50 to 100 yards of stream has noticed a slow decline in numbers of brook trout in central Maryland.

By the seventh day of the journey, the water was deeper and I was joined by my friend Ted. We rounded the curves of the river, and finally saw an opening of trees, which marked where the creek spilled into the powerful drive of the Susquehanna. We saw a fisherman on the northern bank waiting for a bite. He said he had no bites that day and asked where we had come from. I told him we had begun at the beginning. He had a curious look on his face and didn’t say anything more. When our canoe moved from the waters of the deer creek to the waters of the Susquehanna, we could feel the surge of power coming from the mighty river, which begins in Cooperstown, New York. We drifted down to Havre de Grace where we celebrated our cold fall paddle with warm crab soup.