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Free fallin': Whitewater enthusiasts jump at opportunity to go over Ohiopyle Falls

Sunday, November 21, 1999

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Few spectators seemed to notice when Jeff Snyder stepped into his custom-rigged blue-and-white inflatable kayak and paddled it toward the main current of the Youghiogheny River just below the new bicycle bridge in Ohiopyle.

  Jeff Snyder runs the Ohiopyle Falls last weekend while standing in an inflatable kayak. Snyder,of Accident, Md., repeated the feat three more times. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Although they would notice him later when he introduced them to "Striding," their attention was focused about 100 yards downstream where most people had gathered on the wooden observation decks to watch the first of 241 kayakers and seven canoeists run the 18-foot-high waterfall.

It was billed as the "First Ever Ohiopyle Falls Race" on what is known as the Lower Youghiogheny, a stretch of waterway that extends 7.5 miles to Bruner Run.

Most of the race participants, including Snyder, had paddled that stretch countless times. Its rapids, which include Cucumber, Decision, Dimple Rock, Swimmers, Double Hydraulics, River's End and Schoolhouse Rock, are as familiar to them as major intersections are to urban commuters.

But the racers had never run the falls before -- at least not legally. Nov. 13 was an exception, an exception that drew kayakers from hundreds of miles away to the tiny Fayette County town that has been a mecca for whitewater enthusiasts for more than 50 years.

As the name of the race implied, it was the first time the state had given permission for the waterfall to be run since what is known as the falls area of Ohiopyle State Park opened in 1970.

Where to go

If you want to learn how to paddle a kayak -- an inflatable or a so-called standard "hard boat" -- there are several places within a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh that will teach you.

Each of the state-certified rafting companies in Ohiopyle -- Laurel Highlands River Tours, Mountain Streams, Whitewater Adventurers and Wilderness Voyageurs -- rent inflatable kayaks, life jackets and paddles and will show you how to use them. They also rent canoes.

It's best to make your first trip on what is known as the Middle Section of the Youghiogheny River, a 10 mile stretch that begins below Confluence and ends just above the highway bridge at Ohiopyle. It's a real confidence-builder, especially if you go on a guided trip that each company operates.

Laurel Highlands River Tours and Wilderness Voyageurs, Riversport in Confluence and the Friendsville Paddling School in nearby Friendsville, Md. also will teach you how to paddle a standard kayak. A full day of instruction costs from $100 to $125 a day and includes all equipment and shuttles.

Riversport, which has been in business for almost 20 years, has trained Olympic- and world-class kayakers. Its paddling packages include camping overnight and three meals. It features week-long Kids Camps in June, July and August for children aged 8 to 16 and week-long Parent-Child Camp in early August. It provides canoe instruction.

The Friendsville Paddling School keeps the size of its paddling classes small to provide more one-on-one instruction for kayakers and canoeists.

For more information, call or write:

The Friendsville Paddling School, PO Box 185, Friendsville, Md. 21531; 800-477-3723.

Web site:
Laurel Highlands River Tours, PO Box 107, Ohiopyle, Pa., 15470; 800-472-3846 or 724-329-8531.

Web site:
Mountain Streams, PO Box 106, Ohiopyle, Pa., 15470; 800-723-8669 or 724-329-8810.

Web site:
Riversport, 355 River Road, PO Box 95, Confluence, Pa. 15424; 800 216-6991 and 814-395-5744.

Web site:
Whitewater Adventurers, PO Box 31, Ohiopyle, Pa., 15470; 800-992-7238 or 724-329-8850.

Web site:
Wilderness Voyageurs, PO Box 97, Ohiopyle, Pa.,15470; 800 272-4141 or 724-329-1000.

Web site:

-- By Lawrence Walsh


The American Whitewater Affiliation 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; the state Fish and Boat Commission; Ohiopyle State Park and Jim Greenbaum, general manager of Whitewater Adventurers, one of four state-approved rafting companies based in Ohiopyle.

"Jim started this whole thing," said veteran kayaker Barry Tuscano, a Mark Spitz lookalike who is the board secretary of the American Whitewater Affiliation.

Oliver, an enthusiastic paddler of canoes, kayaks and rafts, said he approved the event after department lawyers assured him that race organizers had addressed "all the liability issues. I wanted to be sure we were protected to the nines. Going over the falls can be a hazardous thing."

Although he couldn't attend because of a previous commitment, Oliver said he has received a lot of feedback.

"I think it was a resounding success. With the exception of a few sprains here and there, no one was seriously injured. Everyone enjoyed themselves and it had a good economic impact on Ohiopyle and nearby communities. I think we should do it again next year and I might even run the falls myself."

That will be good news to kayakers who have yearned to run the falls for years but knew they could be fined at least $300 if they did so.

That's why Nov. 13 was such a special day.

Tuscano, 48, a roofing contractor who lives in Bolivar, was the first one over the falls at 6:45 a.m. on a partly sunny day in which the air and water temperatures were about 53 degrees.

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

Other helmet-wearing kayakers, dressed appropriately for the cool weather, soon followed.

One by one they entered a sloped, V-shaped section of the river that some called a slide and others called a ramp. It leads directly to the falls. There was no turning back once they nosed their multi-colored kayaks and canoes into it.

Safety was the paramount concern of the day.

No one set out until receiving a go-ahead signal from Tuscano's wife, Kitty, who was standing on a rock near the edge of the falls. And that signal didn't come until she could see that the previous paddler had cleared the landing area.

The crowd, which had applauded the first kayakers over the falls, grew silent when they saw Snyder paddle into a quiet stretch of water just above the slide.

He was standing up, a position he had maintained since entering the river a few minutes earlier. Surely he wasn't going to run the falls standing up, the spectators buzzed to one another.

Why, yes he was.

"Get your cameras ready folks," one of Snyder's friends shouted out. "You don't want to miss this."

By now, everyone's attention was drawn to the slight figure wearing a wooden helmet he had shaped in his wood shop. The suspense built as Snyder paddled into a holding position.

When it comes to enjoying whitewater, kayakers are, by and large, a courteous lot. Snyder was no exception. He waited his turn as the other kayakers eased their boats into the main current and made their runs.

Then it was Snyder's turn.

He used a 10-foot-long wooden paddle made by his brother, Jim, to line up for the slide. He dug the paddle into the churning water, pushed off at the edge, leaned back a bit, bent his knees slightly in a skier's stance to absorb the impact and rode the cascade into the foam below.

When he landed upright and paddled away, the crowd on both sides of the river, which had been transfixed during his descent, roared its approval.

Snyder, the 38-year-old woodworker and furniture-maker from nearby Accident, Md., had done it again.

It was no surprise to his paddling friends who have seen him run waterfalls on the Big Sandy, Gauley and Tygart rivers in West Virginia, the Russell Fork on the border of Kentucky and Virginia and on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

To show it was no fluke, he ran the falls three more times in the inflatable kayak that has foot stirrups to help him maintain his balance. He then paddled a standard kayak over the falls during the race and finished in the top 10.

Snyder, who has been paddling since he was a preschooler, initially called what he was doing "volting because I got a charge out of it."

Greg Weeter paddles in close to maks sure upended kayaker Stephen Brabetz is OK after Brabetz capsized while making a run through the Ohilpyle Falls. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette) 

But he changed the name to "striding because standing represents the next step up in the sport of kayaking."

He said he was inspired to try it during a kayak trip to Mexico several years ago where he saw children paddle dugout canoes while standing. "They let me try it and it was a lot of fun," he said.

Snyder, a native of Euclid, Ohio, said he grew up around water and whitewater. "I've never been afraid of it. As a matter of fact, I'm a good bit more graceful on the water than I am on land. And I sure do cherish the time I have on the water."

Jerry Stanley of Murrysville also cherishes the time he has on the water.

Stanley, 42, an engineering manager at Union Switch and Signal, has been paddling a kayak for 20 years and is a part-time guide with Wilderness Voyageurs, a rafting company in Ohiopyle.

He had been looking forward to running the falls at Ohiopyle, but decided against it when his wife, Kate, woke up with a stomach virus in the morning of the race. But she finally convinced him she would survive the ride to Ohiopyle and helped him prepare their three children for the two-hour trip.

When they got there, they were disappointed to learn that registration had closed 30 minutes earlier. While his wife rested in the car, Stanley and his children watched the kayakers and canoeists complete their practice runs and prepare for the race.

That's when he ran into a longtime friend, Jan Burrows, whose husband Steve had enjoyed several practice runs but didn't want to race. She offered her husband's racing bib and Stanley accepted it.

"Although I didn't have any practice runs, I had a good run and a nice landing," Stanley said. "I was paddling on pure adrenaline. It was over real quick, too quick in fact.

"I'll be grateful forever to Steve for giving me that chance. I hope we can all do it again next year."

So do Brian Homberg and Ted Devoe.

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

"It was a great day," Tuscano said. "We thank everyone involved, especially the safety crew led by Charlie Walbridge. We're looking forward to doing it again next year."

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