CANOEING THE SOUTHERN END OF
By Gary Thornbloom
Late Spring approach to southern end of Black Moshannon
Black Moshannon, or Moss-Hanne as American Indians named this watershed, has
always held both a sense of mystery and magic for me. Moss-Hanne–moose stream–
seemed the appropriate name as Park Manager Chris Reese steered our canoe along the
maze threading the southern end of Black Moshannon Lake. Our journey ended as the
sedge marsh with occasional alders gave way to a wall of alder that only a muskrat or
perhaps a moose could have passed through. It was easy to imagine that I was at the
remote end of a Canadian lake hundreds of miles to the north where a moose could be
browsing upon the alder around the next bend. Chris verified my impression that this was
the seldom visited portion of Black Moshannon Park.
Our evening canoe outing began at Boat Area Number 3 along the West Side Road. This
offered ready access to the most isolated area of the lake. The lake was originally a series
of beaver dams strung through an area of towering white pine and hemlock, and those
stumps still dot the upper end of the lake. The sphagnum moss marsh was flooded when loggers
built a splash dam which was followed by a mill dam. The present concrete dam provides for
the swimming area at the northern end of the lake and for the boating and fishing throughout the lake.
The thick layers of peat moss that the dams have kept underwater for all these years provides not
only the nutrient feast that the abundant aquatic growth thrives on, but also gives the water its
Black Moshannon is a shallow lake with an average depth of about four feet. Just a slight change
in the depth of the water keeps a channel clear of plant growth. The channel we followed meandered
through spatterdock, water-shield, and waterlily. Spatterdock leaves are held erect above the water
while water shield and water lilyleaves float on the water. Spatterdock blooms from May through
October and has a prettyyellow golf ball sized bud that opens slightly exposing a red, white,
yellow, and black mosaic. Chris invited me to take a peak into the flower. I caught a glimpse
of pink and black beetles scurrying for cover. Earlier I had been watching red winged blackbirds flying
into and out of the spatterdock and now I saw why. Water lilies will begin blooming later, in
early July, and continue their fragrant and colorful display through late summer.
Beavers and the warning splash of their tail hitting the water with a sometimes startling
explosion are often a part of an evening on the lake. Their lodges are both along the shore
and out in the lake. Children love to get out and examine the mounds of mud and sticks.
On this recent outing we found turtle eggs peeking out of fresh mud on a beaver hut. One
egg was lying totally exposed and was collapsed. A predator, a hasty burial by the mother
turtle, mud washed off by recent rains? Every trip into a marsh offers the promise of
enchantment and mystery.
After paddling for about a mile we came to the first of three low beaver dams. On a warm
summer evening with old sneakers or water sandals for footgear it is not a problem to jump
out and slide the canoe over a low section in the dam. The stream continues in wide
meanders through a sedge marsh. Grasses, sedges, and rushes grow thickly back to the
woods. I asked Chris how to tell the three apart: grass has joints, sedges edges, and rush
is rounded. Occasional shrubs–steeplebush, alder, and viburnums—dot the marshy
expanse. Ducks flush from the marsh. A wedge of geese flew honking over our heads.
My thoughts drifted back to other evenings when great blue herons flew to and from the
shallow beaver ponds that recede to either side of the main lake, to evenings with deer
drinking at the waters edge, and to the evening when I joined a black bear picking
blueberries along the edge of the lake.
As you look away from the watercourse you are looking at the Black Moshannon Bog
Natural Area. By this designation Pennsylvania recognizes this as one of the best
examples of a bog ecosystem on the Allegheny Plateau and offers special protections to
preserve it. The area can also be visited on foot and a wood foot bridge about three quarters
of a mile or so after the first beaver dam is where the Moss-Hanne Trail crosses
the stream. This is usually a convenient spot to turn around, however with high water due
to recent rain Chris and I decided to keep going. So, under the bridge and many
meanders later we eventually reached the alder thicket that turned us back. It was now
getting dark and the night sounds of the marsh were closing in. Frogs increased their
calling from every direction—shrill spring peepers, the banjo string plunk of green frogs,
and the deep bass of bullfrogs thickened in the air as we paddled.
Back on the lake it was difficult to see the open channel so we pushed through the
spatterdock undoubtedly sending many flying insects up into the air where countless bats
swooped and dropped in a feeding frenzy. The heavy haze that had earlier seemed to
hold the setting sun suspended on the horizon now blocked all starlight, and left only the
openness of the lake, a darkness ending at the darker woods, to define the shoreline. As
we glided silently through the water with the wild sounds of the marsh calling across the
lake I could imagine us being the first to explore the moose stream with black water.
-This column first appeared as an On The Trail column in 2002-