By Mary Spicer
Area residents seeking inside access to the tourism and recreation offerings by the enchanted waterway known as French Creek now have a convenient form of guidance at their disposal.
Maps and guides to the newly-designated French Creek Water Trail are now available for everyone’s exploring pleasure, Dave Washousky, program director of the Meadville-based French Creek Valley Conservancy, announced Monday.
Two separate editions — Lower French Creek and Upper French Creek — cover the areas Franklin to Meadville and Meadville to the Union City area, respectively.
The publication celebrates the inclusion of French Creek into the Pennsylvania Water Trails Program — bringing to completion a process that began in 2009 under the direction of Andy Walker, who headed Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Meadville office at the time.
“It’s been a long time in coming,” Washousky said, noting that the Pennsylvania Water Trails Program opens a major door to opportunities for recreational tourism while also providing locals and non-locals alike a guide for using the creek that includes a wealth of information.
If your acquaintance with French Creek has been strictly in passing so far, don’t let the “creek” part of its name fool you. This waterway qualifies as a “river” in anyone’s book.
Originating in northwestern New York State’s Chautauqua County, French Creek — which was given its name by a very young George Washington in the 1750s and provided an important transportation route for the French Army and early American settlers during America’s colonization and westward expansion — flows 117 miles through Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties before joining the Allegheny River near Franklin.
“Anyone interested in getting to know French Creek better can start out right here in our office,” Washousky said, referring to the 301 Chestnut St. storefront that serves as home for the French Creek Valley Conservancy as well as local offices of the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Pennsylvania.
“We’ve also got a great website now, which has everything French Creek-related,” Washousky continued, referring to frenchcreekconservancy.org. “That’s a great place for most people to start. It covers everything, including the conservancy’s work as a land trust, which owns and protects properties along French Creek in perpetuity. That doesn’t mean that they’re off limits — our properties are open for recreation. Not only have we protected the ecological aspects, but we’ve protected the opportunity for people to recreate.” An interactive map is included on the website, he added.
A community treasure
Asked what discoveries await modern-day explorers of French Creek, “You’ve got fascinating history — both geological and human history,” Washousky said. “And then you’ve got this great ecology. You’ve got one of those rare gems that has not been polluted — that never lost its native species.”
For example, “We’re up to four federally endangered mussel species in French Creek — and a fifth may be on the way,” he explained. “While they’ve been reduced or missing or gone from other streams and rivers in Pennsylvania and nationally, here in French Creek they’re still thriving. This is one of the last places in the world that you can still find some of these species. Altogether, there are 27 species of freshwater mussels in French Creek, while the entire continent of Europe only has eight.”
The guides include relevant access information for the creek, including latitudes, longitudes and GPS coordinates. Riffles and obstructions are identified along with points of interest and available amenities.
“If you pick up this guide and want to come here to paddle, it will give you everything you need to know about where to get gas, where to stay overnight, where to eat,” Washousky said. “It’s important for people coming into the area to use French Creek to know where to go to spend a little money in our community.”
The guide is also designed to serve as an educational tool.
“The history. The ecology. All that information is in here,” Washousky said. “We want people to use the creek, but we also want people to be educated — and become the best stewards of the creek.”
Get out and have some fun
With its first French Creek Summer Solstice Sojourn — two days on the river complete with overnight camping — completed in late June, the conservancy is now turning its attention to its next big attraction.
On Sept. 7, the first Saturday after Labor Day, the 2013 French Creek Cleanup will offer a free opportunity for participants to not only do a very good thing for the creek but also receive a T-shirt, goodie bag and picnic. Also, everyone can compete for cash prizes, including $1,000 for the educational group with the most participants. Sign up now on the conservancy website.
Participants, however, should be warned.
“Shopping carts are propagating on the creek,” Washousky said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Their breeding population is growing. You can get rid of them, but they’re like an invasive species. They keep coming back.”
You can participate
Pick up your free “Lower French Creek Water Trail” and “Upper French Creek Water Trail” maps and guides at French Creek Valley Conservancy, 301 Chestnut St., Meadville; Crawford County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 16709 Conneaut Lake Road, Vernon Township; or at various area information booths maintained by the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. The “Common Birds of French Creek Watershed” pocket reference guide published by Audubon Pennsylvania is also available for $6 at the conservancy office.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.