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Outdoors: French Creek honored for its beauty, history

Sunday, March 09, 2003

By Ben Moyer

We tend to think of our Western Pennsylvania outdoors as somewhat ordinary because the woods and waters here are so familiar. But we have places in Western Pennsylvania that are significant on a national scale, rare examples of natural beauty, biological wealth and historical note. One such place is French Creek, and the stream's importance was recognized this month when the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources named French Creek Pennsylvania's River Of The Year.

 
 

Ben Moyer writes his Sportsmen column every Sunday. He can be reached at: sports@post-gazette.com

   
 

"French Creek's diversity and natural history make it ideal for scientific study as well as recreation," said Richard Sprenkle, DCNR's Deputy Secretary for Conservation and Engineering Services, the office that oversees the state's rivers conservation program. "By choosing French Creek as the River of the Year, we are also honoring the work of many groups and individuals committed to keeping this river the ecological treasure it is."

French Creek's headwaters are in Chautauqua County, N.Y. From the point where it enters Pennsylvania, French Creek flows for 117 miles through Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties before joining the Allegheny River at Franklin.

Despite flowing through a region of relatively dense human population, French Creek exhibits some of the highest water quality of any stream its size in the state. Nearly 90 species of fish and 28 species of native freshwater mussels (one of the most endangered group of organisms on earth) inhabit French Creek's pools and riffles, including several fish and mollusks on the state and federal endangered species lists.

Scientists rate French Creek as one of the six most biologically diverse streams in the Northeastern United States. The creek's diversity is due largely to its fickle and interesting past.

Before the last of the great ice ages 15,000 years ago, French Creek flowed northward to the Great Lakes. Glaciers, though, blocked the stream's route and diverted it southward into the Ohio basin. Biologists believe this flow reversal allowed French Creek to capture species from both the Great Lakes and Ohio River drainages, resulting in the uncommon diversity.

 
 

For more information on French Creek and the French Creek Project, visit the project's website at frenchcreek.allegheny.edu. You can also write the project at: French Creek Project, Box 172 Allegheny College, Meadville, PA. 16335, or call 814/332-2946.

   
 

More recently, particularly in the 18th century, French Creek served as an important travel and trade route. A dry-land portage of only 15 miles allowed canoes to travel from French Canadian outposts on Lake Erie, down French Creek to the Allegheny River, and on to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and the French colony at New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

French Creek was an international flashpoint in 1753 when the Governor of Virginia sent George Washington into this area to advise French forces, who had built forts along the Allegheny valley, to vacate the Ohio Country. Washington conferred with French officers at Fort LeBeouf (now Waterford) but they refused to retreat. They gave Washington a canoe to return downstream with his guide Christopher Gist.

The French and Indian War began the following summer when Washington returned to Western Pennsylvania with a small force and was defeated at Fort Necessity. Washington was the first person to refer to the stream as French Creek. Before his 1753 mission the stream was called Venango River on crude maps of the region.

Today, French Creek is the focus of a creative approach to watershed conservation known as the French Creek Project. Formed in 1995, the project emphasizes public education and community involvement to develop a sense of pride in French Creek as a unique resource.

"People in the region hunt, fish, and enjoy other outdoor activities, but are skeptical of new regulatory programs that may impede economic development," says the project's goals statement. The project sponsors an annual Creekfest musical performance to celebrate French Creek, operates the French Creek Learning Center to help school children learn about their watershed and runs Eco-Tours along the creek for visitors and area residents.

As DCNR's state "River of the Year," French Creek will be featured on the June Is Rivers Month poster this year to raise awareness of the beauty and recreational, tourism and heritage values of rivers. It will also host Pennsylvania's featured river trip as part of June Rivers Month. The recreational and educational float down French Creek is scheduled for June 5-8. The sojourn is open to the public.

"Both DCNR and our partners at the French Creek Project invite conservationists and water enthusiasts to explore and enjoy this truly unique waterway," Sprenkle said.

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