Writer shares experiences on celebrated local river
CONFLUENCE -- Most mornings, I wake up and have coffee with her, and sometimes we even shower.
Still, I'm looking forward to getting much more intimate with her over the next week.
She is a river.
The Youghiogheny River.
And today and the next five days, I and some 100 other lucky folks get to paddle on, bicycle along and camp beside her gorgeous, curvaceous length, as we participate in a state-sponsored "River Sojourn" to celebrate the Youghiogheny being named 1998 River of the Year by the state.
If you live in the region, you've probably heard of "the Yough," as it's known. The full name is pronounced "YOCK-uh-gain-ee," from an Indian word meaning "in a roundabout course" or "stream flowing in a contrary direction."
For much of its 132-mile course, the Yough runs from south to north -- from its source in Western Maryland, twisting into West Virginia and then on up through Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands before entering the Monongahela River at McKeesport.
Like most residents of southern Allegheny County and northern Washington County, I get my water from the Pennsylvania-American Water Co., which draws it from the Mon River at Pittsburgh. That means I drink and clean with water from the Yough, too, though by the time it gets to my Mt. Lebanon house, it's been clarified, filtered, disinfected and chlorinated.
Starting this morning, I'll get to soak up, and soak in, the Yough's wilder side.
Photographer Annie O'Neill and I signed up to participate in the entire Sojourn, which is sponsored by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Every year since 1991, they've run one of these journeys during Rivers Month in June, working with local groups.
As Don Dreese, the section chief of the department's Rivers Program, explains, "It's a river-awareness trip, to get the local people to realize how important the water resource is, so they can protect it in the future."
We sojourners should attract some attention, as we travel from Confluence, Fayette County, over the 74 river miles to the Yough's confluence with the Mon in McKeesport.
We'll travel by canoes and rafts, as well as bicycle on the adjacent Yough River Trail. We'll camp out along the way in campgrounds and even ball fields in little river towns, where community groups will meet us and make our meals. Sojourn organizers will shuttle our camping gear from point to point and provide programs that will teach us the history, ecology and more about the Yough and its surroundings.
Friday night, we even get a night of bingo and a live band at the June Bug Restaurant and Lounge in Sutersville.
I can't wait, and neither can Annie.
Already, I've shared with her some of the Yough area's natural wonders: The softball-sized rolls at Glisan's Restaurant on Route 40, where we had a "last meal" of stuffed pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans, salads and, of course, pie (peach and apricot).
Unfortunately, we can't send back pie, but she and I will share as much of this journey as we can with you, as we file reports -- using a digital camera and laptop computers -- from wherever we can find electrical power and a phone line each evening.
On this Sunday night, we're working in a picnic pavilion at the Army Corps of Engineers campground in the shadow of the dam that holds back the huge Youghiogheny Lake. We've just set up our borrowed dome tent among the dozens of others in the Sojourn camp along the edge of the swirling outflow, where the icy water resumes its riverbed rushing.
This already is looking like it's going to be a blast: One of our neighbors, 19-year-old Aaron Myers of Harrisburg, is gluing plastic toy mascots on the front of his kayak. This will be his third consecutive week on a river since his high school graduation: He and his dad, Richard, spent the past two on the Lehigh and the Susquehanna rivers, past rivers of the year winners, where local groups continue to hold sojourns.
According to Myers, they can't be beat. "I could go all summer like this."
Beside us are a mom and her 8-year-old son, Sue and Logan Goddard of Mifflinburg, Union County. She's done other sojourns with her other son, Cody, so, "Now it's his turn to be initiated."
That included practice a few days ago in a creek near home, where she tipped the canoe on purpose in a "ritual baptism so he wouldn't panic."
The front of the tent of another neighbor has been decorated with a vase of wild flowers. We have a daisy growing in the grass near ours.
Organizers say about 20 people have paid the $150, like we each have, to do the entire Sojourn. But more than 60 others are doing a leg or two, and people can still sign up for individual days by meeting the group in the field (call the Regional Trail Corp. at 724-872-5586).
About 60 sojourners are expected this morning for breakfast. It'll be rustled up by the Confluence Fire Hall Association.
We were to depart for our first night's stop in Ohiopyle in canoes, but high water levels are causing organizers to switch to more stable inflatable kayaks called "duckies."
That's just ducky with me, because this middle stretch of the Yough has a little mild whitewater, and Annie informs me that she's never been in a canoe. (And just her digital camera alone is worth about, oh, $15,000.)
Of course, some of our fellow sojourners are greenhorns, too.
"I'm as new as a baby boy," says 75-year-old Don Dixon of Bradford Woods. The retired insurance salesman read about the Sojourn in last Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and said to himself, "Dammit, that sounds interesting."
He's signed up for the whole trip, even though he doesn't have any camping experience, and the last time he was in the Yough was when he was a boy growing up in Connellsville, swimming at its public beach.
When he says, "I hope I make it," he crosses his fingers, but he also lets out a hearty laugh.
"I'm looking forward to the whole thing," he says. "I don't know what to expect. It's all going to be an adventure."