Nothing is more summer than canoeing on a river
June 26, 1998
WHITSETT -- Four days ago, as we started this River Sojourn, I mentioned that I was nervous that my partner had never even sat in a canoe.
Well, yesterday, that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer and I finally sat in a canoe together. She paddled so well and with such vigor that, in honor of the 1970s TV we both grew up with, I dubbed her Annie "Hawaii Five" O'Neill.
We were makin' waves as we cut 12 more miles down the Youghiogheny, the state's 1998 River of the Year. To celebrate each year's choice, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources organizes one of these Sojourns, which are usually canoe trips. This one, which started Monday in Confluence, is using canoes, rafts and bikes to cover the 74 miles to McKeesport over six days.
Annie and I are among the 20 or so diehards who have been doing the whole trip. But many more people are joining us for, say, a day. And yesterday was a great one to do that. It was a lazy, hazy, classic summer day.
Except that we didn't get to sleep in. Annie and I woke up at 6 a.m. in the dome tent we'd set up on a grassy bank at the River's Edge campground in Adelaide.
We actually went out the night before, to have a beer (me) and a white wine (Annie) with one of the friends we've made, Rob Hyatt (Coors Light, two bottles at once).
Hyatt, 28, is one of the supernice locals we've met along the way. That night, after filing our daily report, we met him at Bud Murphy's, a Connellsville institution. Hyatt works in a supermarket's freezer, which means he's in subfreezing temperatures all day. At one point, he introduced us to his friend Dickey, who works at the USX Clairton Works making coke, which means he's in something like 3,000 degrees all day.
It was that kind of night.
Anyway, when Annie and I finally crawled into our tent, the 60-some other Sojourners were snoozing, and the river was only a few feet away from our zippered door. When we crawled out, the river had disappeared into the fog.
We not only showered, we also did a load of laundry. Actually, the laundry was Annie's idea. I handed her one of the two outfits I've worn, electing to hang onto my river shorts. But at the last minute, I took off my trademark paddling shirt -- neon orange -- and said I guess I'd like to wash it, too. I'm not sure what she meant when she said, "Great!"
We're getting along swimmingly.
Though I must say, she's not the greatest paddling partner: Because she's always trying to get great shots of the other Sojourners, she sits in front, often holding a camera to her eye and giving polite directions such as, "Can we get a little closer, Bob? Oh, a little farther back. Can we go back up the river?"
And here I am, arm-wrestling the mighty Yough.
We had an easy half-hour morning paddle to Dawson, pop. 498, where we were met by a bagpiper, Mayor Pat Trimble and other townsfolk who served us a hotel-quality breakfast buffet under a yellow-striped tent. Then we toured, as Trimble put it, "the big city of Dawson," where, like many other tiny villages along the way, businesses are opening to cater to those who use the river and the adjacent bike trail.
Many of us had a religious experience in the gorgeous stone Philip G. Cochran Memorial United Methodist Church, where children were making crafts and singing as they practiced for a play.
We got back into our boats with paper bags of cookies and fruit, plus Hawaiian-style plastic leis from Trimble, who tied grass skirts around a few women in our party.
They included Annie Scheer, who, true to poetic form on this trip, covered her straw hat with a glorious arrangement of blue chicory, purple clover and other wild flowers.
Summer! As I mused to Annie, my partner, as we pulled along, what could be more summer than going down a river in a canoe?
How about swinging into the river on a fat rope swing?
Boy, I wanted to join Russell Johnson as he splashed in that way a couple of times. This is what he does in summer: "I'm out on the river fishing, floating, hiking or biking."
My partner, Annie, and I really like him.
A proud resident of Whitsett, Johnson knows not only every inch of this stretch of river, but also a ton of history about his town, a coalpatch of once-identical frame duplexes where coal miners used to live. At 17, the Frazier High School senior is the youngest volunteer trail monitor on the Yough River Trail, which should be completed through Whitsett by August.
We took out at Whitsett's swimming beach, so marked by a hand-painted, nailed-to-a-tree sign that forbids fishing as well as bottles, adding: "Cans only, profferably (sic) Budweiser, but others are okay."
Russell's uncles and other locals helped us schlep our canoes up the steps to a five-acre ballfield, where we set up our city of 20 tents.
I've previously paddled, biked or otherwise explored most of this river, but I'd never been to Whitsett. It especially intrigued me because its 200 residents are about evenly split between black and white and, as Johnson puts it, "Everybody gets along."
Johnson is from the leading black family in Whitsett, the Johnsons, who have put a lot of effort into getting the bike trail finished through the town. I'd like to tell you a little about all that.
But right now, as I type this in a construction trailer beside the graded earth that crews are now turning into trail, Johnson's dad, Leon Johnson, is putting a lot of effort into this night's dinner: barbecued chicken.
He's cooking it on grates over local cherry wood that the guys split recently because Leon Johnson likes the flavor. Don't even ask him about sauce, or as he joked with one Sojourner, "I'll offer you bread. My meat don't need no sauce."
Leon Johnson and some of that sweet smoke just entered the construction trailer, to say he'll save Annie and me some of that succulent stuff.
And suddenly, I feel like wrapping up this dispatch and going outside to journalistically monitor this evening, which is to include a band, some basketball, bonfires and maybe even a Budweiser.
Hey, it's summer.