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180 kayakers and canoeists enjoy a free fall on the Yough

Sunday, November 14, 1999

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1754, an imposing waterfall scuttled George Washington's plan to use the Youghiogheny River as a water supply route to Pittsburgh. The 18-foot-high waterfall was too much of an obstacle for wooden rafts that Washington had planned to use to transport food, clothing and equipment.

 
  Jerry Stanley of Murrysville, Westmoreland County, takes on the 18-foot waterfall on the Lower Youghiogheny River during the Ohiopyle Falls Race. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

But the rushing green water flowing over the Pottsville sandstone lip of the falls yesterday provided no impediment for about 180 talented kayakers and canoeists who participated in the "First Ever Ohiopyle Falls Race" on what is known as the Lower Youghiogheny River in Fayette County.

As hundreds of spectators whooped and hollered from both sides of the river on a partly sunny, 55-degree day, the racers paddled with enthusiasm to the edge of the falls, leaned back to raise the bows of their colorful boats and rode the cascade into the foam below.

The crowd cheered the loudest for Jeff Snyder, 38, a woodworker from Accident, Md., who paddled an inflatable blue and white kayak over the falls -- standing up. He remained upright throughout each run. Although he injured his right ankle on his third run, he successfully made one more.

Other crowd favorites included seven canoeists whose considerable paddling skills kept their boats from capsizing when they landed.

Mark Pavkovich's coolness drew the crowd's approval when, while only seconds away from the edge, he used a hand pump to empty water that had splashed into his 12-foot-long red Mohawk canoe during the 100 yard approach to the falls.

"It's all part of my motto to remain high and dry," said Pavkovich, 42, of Prospect, Butler County, a cable television installer for Armstrong Cable.

Most of the paddlers landed right side up in the churning water.

"It's like landing on a pillow when you do it right," said veteran kayaker Barry Tuscano, board secretary of the American Whitewater Affiliation. The group organized what it hopes will be an annual event with the assistance of John Oliver, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Jim Greenbaum, general manager of Whitewater Adventurers,an Ohiopyle rafting company.

But it was only a one-day event, said John Sharrar, an acting regional manager for the agency. "The rules against running the falls haven't changed." Violators are subject to fines up to $300.

"This is a neat event and it looks like everyone is having fun, but we don't want anyone to get hurt," Sharrar said.

Ohiopyle Superintendent Doug Hoehn seconded his boss's comments and added one more. "This scenic waterfall draws millions of people to this park. I don't want to see this peaceful setting transformed into a circus atmosphere."

Brian Kulp, who supervises the Ohiopyle Park rangers, said there were no major injuries during the race or the freestyle event that followed it in which paddlers did tricks while going over the falls.

Tuscano, 48, a contractor who lives in Bolivar, said he understood their concerns and emphasized the affiliation had worked hard to make it a safe and enjoyable event for all 247 registrants.

Tuscano got things under way by making the first practice run at 6:45 a.m. He rode a rooster tail of water over the falls, landed upright and paddled quickly away to clear the site for the next boater.

"It's a refreshing way to start the day," he said.

And what happens when the landing isn't quite right?

"You get a little disoriented," said a smiling Lara Voytko, 30, of Aspinwall, a sales representative for the 3M Co. "I went too far left, rolled over and was getting worked around (by the roiling water). She made what is known as a "wet exit" by removing a spray skirt that fits around a kayaker's waist and the raised cockpit of a kayak.

"I got humiliated, and its all on film," she said ruefully as a friend, Rose Prycl of Greensburg, sympathized as both stood on an observation deck that overlooks the falls.

Safety was an integral part of the planning and conduct of the day-long event. The practice runs were halted temporarily shortly after 9 a.m. so each participant could gather near the observation decks for a safety briefing from Tuscano and safety coordinator Charlie Walbridge of Bruceton Mills, W.Va.

Walbridge, an imposing man with a pleasant but firm demeanor, reminded everyone that rescue personnel with safety lines were in rafts near the base of the falls if needed. About 10 kayakers also were poised to move in quickly.

A demonstration of the swiftness of the safety team occurred moments before the safety talk when one paddler dropped over the falls and hooked sharply to the right upon landing. He made a wet exit and he, his kayak and his paddle were cleared from the landing area in less than two minutes.

Seconds later, Tuscano's wife, Kitty, standing on a rock near the edge of the falls, signaled it was safe for the next paddler to go.

The racers, who ranged in age from early teens to early 60s, ran the course from just below the new bicycle bridge over the Youghiogheny to a white tent perched on a rock about 100 feet beyond the falls.

Brian Homberg, 35, of Accident, Md., who operates a T-shirt company, won the race with a time of 1:13.93. Ted Devoe, 22, won the freestyle event by doing a series of spins and cartwheels over the falls.

"I've been waiting 25 years to run these falls," said Jay Seiler, 50, a heavy equipment sales representative from the Philadelphia suburb of Gladwyne who met his wife, Christine, on a kayak trip. "And the best part of this entire day is that I got to run them with my sons [Jared, 15, and Graham, 13].

"It's been a day none of us will ever forget."

The proceeds from the $25 per racer registration fee went to the Ohiopyle-Stewart Volunteer Fire Co. where racers and spectators gathered afterwards for a spaghetti dinner. The hosts had to leave about 5 p.m. to battle a brush fire but returned in time to help clean up.



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