First Descent of Pennsylvania’s ‘Powder Hole’
By Jared Seiler
Published: March 4, 2011
The Powder Hole. Thundering through the woods of northeast Pennsylvania, there is a creek called Wapwallopen. That’s Wap-wall-open. I call it the Wap for short. It’s near the town of Nescopeck, which is known by whitewater kayakers as home to the Nescopeck Creek, a popular novice training creek and a small slalom training course. The Wap dumps into the Susquehanna River, “Pennsylvania’s river” and 16th largest in the U.S.
The Wapwallopen was first run by some canoeists in the 70′s, maybe? But it wasn’t run properly until Bobby Miller and Joe Stumpfel ran a drop called Anarchy in the middle of the run. The creek run is made up of four major drops. The run is drop-pool character, and the drops are fairly tall… So not an ideal creek for timid boaters, as the lines are tight and the drops contain consequences if you mess up. The first drop has an impressive horizon line and drops five feet and lands and slides the remaining ten feet on rock, and it has pinning potential, but it’s smooth when run correctly. Some boogie water leads to the second drop on the run, “Anarchy,” which is arguably the stoutest boof in PA. At the top, it has 15 foot vertical falls with a beautiful lip on river left, which allows you to take a big right stroke for a “right-to-left” boof landing between two rocks, and then shoots toward a final ten foot drop immediately after. Two more fun slides finishes out the steepest section of the run. Then, a Class II paddle for about a mile brings us to the Powder Hole, the last drop on the run, and clearly the biggest!
The Powder Hole is a very unique drop that is now the scene of an old dam that generated power for a nearby black powder mine during the Civil War era, hence the name. The water was diverted through these huge pipes, still present today, in order to turn a water-wheel that generated power to turn another wheel used to mix the black powder’s three main ingredients: charcoal, sulfur, and sodium nitrate ( bird/bat poop Aka guano shipped from Chile ). Anyway, I found that pretty interesting while researching the falls because I had lived in Chile the winter before.
I was also surprised to hear that the mine had exploded a few times, one time killing four miners and heavily dusting the nearby towns of Nescopeck and Berwick. The falls are very well known in the area from the mine, and more recently as a popular swimming hole for kids. It’s also the site of five fatal accidents from kids falling off the rocks and the trestle, which is littered with grafitti and the words “the powder hole” spray-painted across it directly above the falls. Kids, myself included, jump 30-40 feet off the trestle and surrounding cliffs into the base of the falls. So we kinda knew the pool was deep enough…
The Wap is a lower elevation run than a lot of the steep creeks around the area and therefore holds a lot of water. The river is runnable at 100 cfs and often gets as high as 2000-5000 cfs! I can only imagine the chaos as I’ve never seen the Wap this high. An Internet gauge lets me know when it’s running, and it’s usually the first thing to come up after heavy rains. I have been running the Wap since I was 17 and had the third or fourth descent on Anarchy in 2002, and I’ve always loved the style of the run. My brother, Graham, and I logged some of the higher descents on the run and always contemplated the possibility of running Powder Hole. But in the past, this wasn’t a very hard decision due to a giant tube placed at the lip of the falls from the old dam—making the falls pretty much unrunnable. It wasn’t until last summer after a flood pushed the cast iron tube off of the lip and cleared the launch pad when we really started considering running the falls. That summer at low water (10 cfs), and accompanied by friends, we swam at the base of the falls to try to find the tube, but it must’ve been washed away further downstream. Or, it’s still in there somewhere… we couldn’t find it. Either way, not something pleasant to have in the back of your mind when you’re above the drop in your kayak about to run it for the first time…
The month prior to my descent of Powder Hole was a very cold month of no kayaking. Toward the last two weeks, temperatures were warming up and snow melt got the Wap running again. I would check the gauge religiously in hopes to find the perfect level I envisioned for the falls, at around 200 cfs. The last time I was on the run it was running around 180 and the lip was a little scrapey, so we decided we needed more water. The drop itself is on a bend in the river where the river turns 90 degrees to the right above it and then falls. This makes it hard to get speed with the proper angle to boof the 30-plus footer with right to left momentum to avoid a rock outcropping three-quarters of the way down on the right. It also lands in a powerful hole with gnarly looking pockets on both sides. What more? Add ice all over the walls on both sides and we got a proper terrifying 1st D to be had! The day was February 26, 2011—about 10 years after my first trip down the Wap—and I was accompanied with a group of five. It was a cold but sunny day, and the river was running 215 cfs. After sending a boat over the falls to see what would happen, I decided I was going to run The Powder Hole. Even though the boat tagged the right wall on the way down I felt I was able to hit the right line and clear the wall. We set some safety with throw bags from the icy walls on river right and a guy at the bottom. I put in and caught a small eddy above the lip and peered down into the chasm. I could see where I needed to be, I gave the thumbs up to the crew, and charged into the falls. Entering middle and driving left pulling a crucial right stroke I disconnected from the lip with my bow soaring past my eye level, “over boofing” and flying through the air! With my stern in the falls I got pushed back right and just barely clipped the right wall with my paddle landing flat with right angle in a “powder hole”! It was a super-soft flat landing and flipped me right and I rolled immediately and paddled away and started celebrating! Megan Smith snapped a couple great photos and we got a video shot as well. While fired up from my line, I was asked if I’d do it again. And I think I would. You just gotta boof it!
Jared Seiler is from the suburbs of Philadelphia and has been kayaking for 14 years. He has spent that past six years traveling with his kayak all around North and South America. He competes in races and rodeos at the professional level and is sponsored by Team Pyranha. He lives in the Team Pyranha van in the summer on a tour from North Carolina to Colorado, California and Washington State and in the winter ventures south in pursuit of the endless summer and year round paddling life to Pucon, Chile, where he works as a guide for Kayak Pucon. In the time between seasons, he lives at home and frequents the northeastern part of Pennsylvania in search of new creeks and waterfalls. He is affiliated with a large group of whitewater enthusiasts that call themselves “Demshitz.” Look for a C&K Magazine feature about Jared and the Demshitz crew in an forthcoming issue.
Ed’s note, March 15: After publication of this story, C&K heard from the private landowner at The Powder Hole, who stressed the area is private property.