Sometimes more wild than scenic

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

The move by Allegheny Outfitters from its canoe and kayak rental site near the Glade Bridge down to the shore of the Allegheny River near downtown Warren appears auspicious for the business since the new site is more convenient to patrons and is roomier with parking handy.

It is also problematic since it will require boat renters to traverse the rapids that run along the United Refining facility if they paddle the beautiful eight or so river miles down to Warren from the Kinzua Dam.

I recently heard one of the Warren area’s most experienced outdoorsmen express reservations about Allegheny Outfitter’s choice of the downtown location due to the proximity just upstream of the rapids and the threat they would pose to “novice kayakers.”

As a person who has run the rapids three times, I share his concerns.

Two of the trips were by kayak and were little more than just thrilling, with much splashing and so much up-and-down movement of the kayak that the car keys I had stowed in a shoe bounced loose in the kayak’s aft compartment. I didn’t find them until days later. (Fortunately, I had had access to a spare set of keys.)

As an experienced kayaker, those two trips weren’t much of a challenge to me.

The trip in our 17-foot aluminum canoe was however different. My wife, Judith, who was paddling in the bow, recalls that at one point there was a violent shift of the bow to starboard (or left, as landlubbers say) which she had to counteract by throwing her own weight in the opposite direction and thus avoid capsizing.

Judith said later that she was glad that Allegheny Outdoors Club member Greg Burkett (our trip down the river from the dam to Point Park was a club outing) had tarried along the nearby shore in his kayak to possibly assist anyone who ran into trouble as the others in our group forged ahead.

I also recall that our canoe seemed to strike something on the way down … either the bed of the river itself or a large rock.

And, as I mentioned in a previous story, on another AOC trip down the river from the dam, veteran club member Dennis Anderson had his sister disembark at the Allegheny Outfitter’s Glade Bridge site since she was an inexperienced kayaker.

The threat that swift, violent water poses to boaters can’t be underestimated.

Of the 21 deaths recorded in the lower Youghiogheny River in the past 30 years, 18 were related to boating. One of the latter was a Warren girl who died on a 1996 church outing in the river’s infamous Dimple Rock rapids where there had been other fatalities.

The Youghiogheny spills out of a dam near the Pennsylvania border and flows into the Monongahela near Pittsburgh. Rafting excursions on the river are taken out of Ohiopyle State Park.

Just how dangerous the Youghiogheny can be was brought home to me personally in 1996 not long after the Warren girl’s death.

Bill, my developmentally disabled son (then 23), and I took part in an excursion to Ohiopyle to raft the Youghiogheny that was sponsored by the Youngstown YMCA.

After signing a lengthy waiver that exonerated the rafting company of blame in event of an accident, we were assigned to a raft that held the two of us plus four other rafters and a guide who manned the steering oar at the stern of the craft.

There were smaller rafts in our “convoy” of about 6 rafts. The smaller rafts held four people each and were without guides.

Trouble struck early into the downriver trip.

A raft carrying a girl whose mother said she was only 12 (the youngest age permitted) flipped, and another smaller raft overrode it. The young girl was trapped underneath both, and because of the helmet she was wearing her head was shoved down into the water. She must have come close to drowning as the current swept the two rafts downstream.

With the help of our guide and other guides who had accompanied us in kayaks, we were able to reach the two stricken rafts and get the shivering and terrified girl aboard our raft.

She was asked if she wanted to continue down the river. She quite understandably sobbed “no,” whereupon she and her mother were dropped off at a point where they could get back to Ohiopyle.

Further on, I carelessly allowed myself to be bounced off our raft by not holding on tightly enough.

But I was not too worried about my predicament, as I was (and still am) a good swimmer and was buoyed by my life jacket. I just allowed myself to be swept along by the current past the infamous Dimple Rock, even as guides along the shore kept throwing ropes my way, intending to pull me to shore.

They certainly didn’t want the river to claim another victim, given the Youghiogheny’s notoriety.

But I ignored their efforts and succeeded in catching up to the raft on which I had been riding with my son where I was hauled on board.

We then enjoyed a lunch break (with the sandwiches and other lunch staples provided by the rafting company).

Before we reached the take-out point there was a placid stretch of river where the guides suggested that anyone who wanted could jump into the river for a refreshing swim in the clear river water. But since I had already had a good dunking … and since the day was not an exceptionally warm one … I declined their offer.

After disembarking at the assigned spot, we were bused back to Ohiopyle. As I recall, the bus ride through the hills of that portion of Pennsylvania on a road that twisted and turned was far from a soothing finale to the careening river trip.

If I were asked today whether I would consider it more traumatic to fall off a raft into the turbulent Youghiogheny or to capsize while going through the United Refining rapids, I’m not sure just what my answer might be.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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