Sojourn comes to an early end
Storms force paddlers to quit four miles short
June 28, 1998
We wondered how we sojourners would be welcomed at the end of our six-day, 74-mile odyssey down the Youghiogheny River.
We never expected lightning and warning sirens.
Alas, the trip ended as it had begun in Confluence -- in the rain.
Worse, we couldn't paddle the entire way. A fierce thunderstorm and the threat of more yesterday afternoon made us pull our canoes out of the river for good in Boston, about four miles short of our goal. Organizers shuttled us to our vehicles in Sutersville, and we drove to McKeesport's riverside dance hall, the Palisades, for some official hoopla and some fun, including local dignitaries, a Dixieland jazz band and a buffet.
The official part was the announcement that the Yough, as of yesterday, had been placed on the Pennsylvania Rivers Registry -- the seventh stream to be so designated.
We'll go easy on the official stuff here, but as Marian Hrubovcak explained, being on that list simply means that the river is eligible for matching grants from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, for whom she works as chief of the conservation partnerships division.
In the Yough's case, the DCNR's partner is the nonprofit Regional Trail Corp., which spent nearly three years and $100,000 preparing a conservation plan for the 46 miles of river from Connellsville to McKeesport. The plan, which was built on input from communities along the way, had to be accepted by the DCNR to be eligible for more money. The RTC can now apply for grants to implement the plan's some 100 proposals for protecting and developing not only the river in that stretch, but also the corridor of land for one mile on either side.
We travelers got to see firsthand what treasures there are to be protected over the past week, as we not only canoed but also rafted the river, and biked a section of the adjacent Youghiogheny River Trail.
About 100 people participated for parts, but 24 of us, including PG photographer Annie O'Neill and me, did the whole trip, which was sponsored by the DCNR and the RTC to raise awareness about the river's attributes.
As we stopped and camped in small towns along the way, we ate food prepared for us by the locals. But the local flavor we experienced was even richer than that.
The wee hours of yesterday morning found us at June Bug's Lounge, pumping money into the Sutersville economy while pumping down some local Stoney's beer.
I can say I only paid for one -- a glass I bought just to see how much a single draft cost. It was 70 cents.
A game of pool was 50 cents. Annie beat me, finally sinking the eight ball to end what fellow sojourners called the world's longest game. Then Annie and I crossed the twin railroad tracks in front of the former hotel and walked back to the Sutersville Volunteer Fire Co. Fairgrounds, where we unrolled our sleeping bags on the picnic pavilion floor.
There, earlier, the locals and the sojourners had sung along to the guitar played by council President Jan Mercino, and then danced the polka and waltzed to the accordion played by Westmoreland Yough Trail Chapter President Ron Bobby. The laughter had drowned out the rain.
When a blaring train woke us up around 5:30 a.m., we were more tired, stinky and sore than ever, but still smiling.
Angus Hamilton, a school principal from Scotland, Franklin County, sat at one of the picnic benches, ministering to the sand-filled blisters from his river sandals. But like the other 40 or so remaining sojourners, he was upbeat, saying, ''Moleskin and Band-Aids work wonders.''
Hamilton, who did the whole journey with his 9-year-old granddaughter, Sharee, his uncle, Dave Hamilton, and Dave's wife, Dot Hamilton -- sounded like everyone else when he said, ''This was super. It was better than I anticipated.''
The playing around continued after we hit the river. Gene Biles, 55, a physical education teacher at Shaler Area Middle School who also did the whole trip, led our flotilla in a canoe in which he'd rigged an American flag borrowed from the Sutersville municipal building.
The incessant head wind caused the flag to whip his face, so it seemed only fair, when the wind shifted, that he grabbed the flag's corners and used it as a sail.
Like a lot of sojourners, Biles is a romantic guy who really appreciates rivers, as well as other wonderful aspects of life.
He came on this trip because, ''Any opportunity to get in the water, that's where we go.''
He brought a partner that he truly loves: A 1952 Old Town wood and canvas canoe that he spent many hours restoring. On the sojourn, he offered to let anybody who wanted to take the green beauty for a cruise, and many people did.
As the end of the trip, he said, ''I think this is the greatest thing I've ever been involved with,'' and not just for being in the water. ''The little towns were like opening their homes to us.''
He said he liked the other sojourners so much, ''I'm looking forward to getting the list of names and staying in touch with people.''
There were some really interesting ones, and many of them seemed to become good friends. The Mottos seemed to become better friends.
Canoeing in northern Wisconsin was the affordable honeymoon of John and Dorothea Motto, who now live in Hempfield. They marked their 40th anniversary last Sunday by embarking on this sojourn.
Annie and I smiled to see them together doing every aspect of the trip, from the live black bear program to the whitewater rafting. On that Wednesday night, we watched them take photos of the falls at Ohiopyle, that were lit for the occasion. Friday night, they danced around the pavilion in Sutersville.
Over the typically big breakfast yesterday morning -- scrambled eggs and ham prepared by the local firefighters -- Dorothea Motto said they could have gone on a cruise or something, but, ''I can't think of a better way to celebrate than that.''
The river truly could seem so truly romantic. Especially on the first day, coming through Confluence, when it was cloaked in a magical mist. Fox Chapel's Susan Whitacre called out to one of the guy solo paddlers, ''You look so beautiful in that canoe!''
We may even have seen a new romance blossom, between Aaron Myers, 19, of Harrisburg, and Mariah Quant, 16, of Lewisburg -- a girl who often wore a braided ring of flowers in her hair.
Those two were around each other most of the time. One clue that she really likes him was when she pushed him off the bike trail outside of Connellsville and gave him a bad case of road rash.
Their families met by going on several sojourns on other rivers, which, after the state sponsors one, often get picked up and repeated by local groups. The groups that helped sponsor the Yough Sojourn plan to meet in August to discuss whether they'll hold it again next year. A lot of people seem to really want to.
If they do it, and you're a little romantic, Annie and I heartily recommend the sojourn as a way to meet great people and have a great time in the great outdoors.
We two, working together more than we have in the past three years, certainly became much better friends.
I even fell a little in love, and Annie did too, with Whitacre's three daughters: Whitney Werner, 13; Madeline Werner, 11; and Chrissie Werner, 10, the last who fell asleep beside the bonfire in the big ballfield at Whitsett Thursday night. Her Mom kissed her, and wrapped her in a blanket, and helped her back to their tent.
Annie and I, after filing the day's newspaper report, ate together some barbecued chicken that Leon Johnson had saved for us. It was so late, we didn't even set up our tent, instead unrolling our sleeping bags right on the grass beside the fire. We agree this was our favorite night of the whole trip.
The last things I remember were the voices of Susan Whitacre and Gene Biles sitting up and whispering by the glowing orange embers, a few dogs barking in the distance, and all those stars, including one -- whoo, two -- shooting ones.
Where we could hear the bullfrogs croaking, in the darkness beyond a line of trees, the Youghiogheny River flowed.