Whitewater thrilling, if a little unnerving
The canyon of the lower Yough has rapids that lure 120,000 rafters, kayakers and other paddlers a year to the challenge
June 24, 1998
OHIOPYLE, Pa. -- On Day 2, we did something that could have killed us, and we had the time of our lives.
That's a huge part of why tens of thousands of people from all over the world annually descend on this tiny village, which is tucked in the 1,700-feet-deep gorge that's still being carved into the Allegheny Mountains by the Youghiogheny River.
Its original Indian residents named the 18-foot falls here Ohiopehhl, meaning "white, frothy water."
The Yough -- specifically, the frothy seven-mile "lower Yough" stretch between here and Bruner Run -- now is renowned as some of America's premier whitewater. Each year, it draws 120,000 or more rafters, kayakers and other paddlers. Add anglers, campers, hikers and sightseers, and you start to see why surrounding Ohiopyle State Park is the third-most used in the state, annually attracting some 2 million visitors.
We've ticked that figure up: About 60 of us are in this beautiful country as part of the "River Sojourn" that the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is sponsoring to celebrate the Yough as its 1998 River of the Year.
About 20 of us -- including PG photographer Annie O'Neill and I -- are sojourning the whole six days and 74 river miles from Confluence in Somerset County to McKeesport in Allegheny County, camping near small towns along the way.
About 100 folks total are participating in parts, traveling in everything from canoes to bicycles.
Yesterday, it was rafts.
"Every day it's something new to get nervous about," O'Neill quipped. Many of us know that the Yough claims one or two victims each year. As one sojourner tried to joke at breakfast, "Eat hearty, mateys, because it could be your last."
We were up by 6:30 to be driven to the Ohiopyle-Stewart Community Center, which put out a feed sure to put a strain on our life jackets.
These we cinched on tight, along with helmets, down by the river. Guides from our outfitter, Wilderness Voyageurs, shouted all the safety procedures with good humor. If my notebook weren't safely stashed in my fanny pack, in a plastic ziplock bag, I would have jotted down some of their jokes. Still, the message was: This is serious stuff.
Especially with the water at such a high flow -- just below the point that we'd have to switch from four- and six-person rafts to eight-person ones. I'm sure it hit some us differently when we were told we were in for a "great ride."
Just as we put in before Entrance Rapid, one threesome with no rafting experience told the guides that they didn't want to go. But the buffed, tanned trip leader, Scott Downs, convinced them to try it by putting one of the guides in their raft.
I rode in one of the lead rafts with guide Galen Martin, plus sojourners from Mifflinburg, Union County: Sue Goddard and her son, Logan, 8. Like me, Goddard has rafted, but not Logan. But he's fearless. On Day 1, he paddled an inflatable kayak down the middle Yough like a pro.
The intrepid O'Neill, who's never rafted, rode with Martin's boss, Eric Martin, plus a foursome from Fox Chapel: Susan Whitacre and her daughters: Whitney, 13; Madeline, 11; and Chrissie, 10, Werner.
Talk about intrepid: Like many on this Sojourn, the women read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and mom decided, "Got to do it," despite having no river or even camping experience.
Right before we hit the water, mom -- worrying about "sacrificing three children to the Youghiogheny" -- bought river shoes to protect their feet, but Madeline wouldn't go for them.
"Ecch!" she said, telling her Mom she'd rather have no feet than wear those ugly green things. She wore her fashionable leather sandals.
They all said they weren't too nervous, though Madeline confided, "It kind of freaks me out."
She probably spoke for all of us, before we left.
But she also spoke for all of us at the end, when, river-haired and sun-browned, she beamed and exclaimed, "It wasn't scary, it was awesome!"
I wish I could narrate our whole, wonderful run, but I don't have the space (much less the notes). We saw blooming mountain laurel, beaver-chewed trees, and a family of ducks -- hooded mergansers.
One raft by one raft, we ran the rapids: Cucumber, Eddy Turn, Killer Falls, Bottle of Wine.
Only one of us fell in -- in Railroad Rapid -- but his mates yanked him in the proper way: By grabbing his shorts and giving him a wedgie. The paper won't print it, but O'Neill -- perched across the river on a rock -- got a great shot that Susan Whitacre described as "full moon over the Youghiogheny."
At Dimple Rapid, where a girl got pinned and drowned two seasons ago, our guides watched in super-alert mode from kayaks or from adjacent boulders.
Our group got through fine, but a family of four who'd rented a raft with no guide from another outfitter, completely flipped over. I wasn't breathing as I waited for the heads to pop up. I counted: One. Two. Three. Four.
Our guides threw ropes and fished them out.
Late in the day, I actually jumped into a rapid willingly. Well, not completely willingly.
When we stopped at a rapid called Swimmers, Galen Martin yelled that we could swim it if we wanted. I don't know why, but I told Logan I'd do it if he would. Of course he would. Most of the other sojourners were game.