Lake Chillisquaque at the Montour Preserve provides opportunities for outdoors fun
A lone white swan arched its neck above the water, and then plunged its head under the surface, searching for an aquatic snack while slowly drifting along the shorelines of Lake Chillisquaque. Moments later, the black-masked face emerged from the depths with a small fish clamped within its yellow, serrated bill.
Kayaking along the network of tributaries that make up the Middle Susquehanna River watershed provide numerous opportunities to reconnect with nature, and the 165-acre manmade Lake Chillisquaque is no exception.
“There is just so much to see and enjoy out here,” said George Walter, of rural Danville, as he loaded a yellow Emotion kayak onto the rack of his SUV. “There are few things that help me relax and destress better than spending some time out here exploring.”
During a two-hour excursion across the various coves found within the lake, my younger daughter and I enjoyed up-close experiences with everything from swans to swallowtails. Turtles were basking in the sunlight before swimming under a mat of algae along one stretch of shoreline. A great blue heron cackled while swooping over our heads to a nearby tree branch. A bald eagle screeched in the distance. Canada geese quietly swam across the lake before taking flight at the sight of a few nearby anglers.
People were nearly as plentiful.
Nearly a dozen boats quietly slid along the water’s surface, propelled by electric trolling motors. Canoes, traditional plastic kayaks, inflatable boats, a rowboat and even three paddleboarders criss-crossed the lake under partly cloudy skies.
“We are very fortunate someone had the foresight in the early 1970s to use this lake to give back to the community,” said Jon Beam, vice president of the Montour Area Recreation Commission and longtime outdoor educator at the Montour Preserve, a nature center located adjacent to the lake.
In the 1960s, when looking for an ideal place to erect an electric power plant, Pennsylvania Power and Light chose Montour County due to its rural nature, combined with nearby water sources, according to Beam.
“Three branches of the Chillisquaque Creek flow through the area, and they decided to create a reservoir in the middle branch specifically as a backup cooling source for the power plant,” he said, adding the primary source of water for cooling actually is pumped over from the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Watsontown.
“When the water level gets too low or there is too much sediment that they can’t pull off the river, they use water from the lake,” he said. “Years where we have long extended draughts from May throughout the summer — sort of like this year — the lake can be an important resource.”
The lake was officially created in 1972, but the region was a popular place for people to enjoy even before the lake was available, according to what Beam has heard from “old timers” from the region.
“There were several properties along there where the middle branch of the Chillisquaque came through and widened out, creating a marshy wetland. Allegedly there was a covered bridge at one point across the creek,” he said. “One person told me that when he was a kid, he would come out on the old Bitler property and fish for eels in the creek.”
Beyond its usage as a cooling source for the power plant, the lake also serves as a flood control, according to Beam.
“When PP&L was in place, they had meteorologist on staff and when they would track major storms with potential to cause massive flooding in our region, they would draw water out of the lake ahead of time so it would help alleviate flood issues,” he said. “Of course, when you get a major 100-year floods, it can only old back so much, and then you can have problems in places like Washingtonville. Over the years, however, it has done much more good than damage.”
That includes keeping the Chillisquaque Creek from drying up.
“Because they are required to release a certain amount of water constantly, the creek from the dam to the river never runs completely dry like other stretches can,” said Beam.
The lake has become a key part of the local environment — an example that man-made creations can have positive ripple effects within the greater ecosystem.
“Because it is one of the larger lakes in the area, it provides habitat that you can’t find nearby,” Beam said.
Approximately 200 bird species have been observed on or near the lake and more than 50 species of waterfowl pass by the lake during migration. It is also inhabited by numerous species of fish, some of which are stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
“Bass and bluegill are the big species, and there are crappies in there, also, as well as catfish,” said Beam. “Someone also evidently caught carp in the river and assumed the lake would be a good place for them, and it has led to a population of carp and some nighttime bowfishing opportunities.”
Northern pike, muskellunge and walleye have all been identified in the lake, as well. The diversity a testament to a unique partnership between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Montour Preserve and a local bass club.
“Everyone worked together to develop structures that were submerged in the lake to increase fish habitat,” said Beam. “The preserve would provide the materials, the bass club would build the structures and the fish and boat commission placed them in the lake and mapped them out.”
Among the structures are PVC devices, sunken evergreens and cement block creations.
When Talen Energy bought out PP&L, the Montour Area Recreation Commission stepped in to preserve the preserve, depending on donations and fundraisers to maintain the property and offer a wide variety of educational programs along the waterway, trail system, fossil pit and maple sugaring region.
As with many tributaries within our watershed, agricultural runoff and nutrient pollution can affect the lake — although Beam notes a lack of big algae blooms that can be detrimental.
“The local watershed association and Montour County Conservation District has done a lot to clean up the stream and improve habitat,” Beam said. “One of the things we have done jointly has been macroinvertebrate and fish sampling – which has proven the creek is quite healthy even though it is still listed as impaired by the DEP. It definitely is not as bad as it once was.”
There is talk in additional improvements below the lake, including increased access for paddlers in Washingtonville and beyond.
“There is an effort for a canoe and kayak launch in town, which would give people even more access to the resources along there,” he said.
In the meantime, there is still plenty to enjoy at the lake, and Beam admits there have been some unique visitors there over the years.
“We have seen many species of waterfowl from mergansers to thunder swans. One year, we had around 3,000 snow geese on the lake during migration,” he said. “One summer when I was working there full-time, we had a dozen American white pelicans for like two weeks – they have been one of the most unusual birds we’ve seen out there.”
Beyond the fish, amphibians and myriad of bird species, Beam said you’ll definitely find Canada geese at the lake.
“When the lake was first built, it was pretty empty of all wildlife. Back in those days, they brought Canada geese in and released them on the lake,” he said. “Now, we almost have the opposite problem – at times we have too many geese, and we find ourselves trying to get rid of some.”
Considering the lake’s name – this shouldn’t be a surprise. The name “Chillisquaque” comes from the Native American term meaning “song of the wild goose.”