The lower Yough (pronounced Yawk, as best I can tell), being an intermediate level river, required us to reserve this trip for experienced paddlers only. It was in fact a trial by fire, er, water, allowing (forcing) four beginner paddlers to advance to the intermediate level, under the supervision of sensei Lynne Silvarsky. Lynne is one of last scions of the old kayak club, a member from before its dark hiatus preceding the merger with the POC. The trip infused rookies Fred Beasley, Brittany Grayson, Ryan Pedela, and Shaun Moore with the arcane skills of kayaking, so we can now put our money where our mouths are at POC meetings. And now y’all don’t have to worry about letting us lead you on a trip in the future, we’ll actually know what we’re doing. The rapids along the lower Yough range from class 2+ to 4. Aside from Lynne, none of us had ever done higher than a 3-, so aside from the sheer joy of getting out of Indiana for a weekend, we were in for a larger adrenaline fix than we’d ever been exposed to.
Not wanting to discourage novice paddlers from joining the club, kayak roll session was held as usual Friday night, 6:30-8:30. What devotion! This meant our drive to SW Pennsylvania didn’t start until about 10 pm. We arrived in Ohiopyle PA at about 6 am, burnt out from the long drive (except for one jerk who doesn’t have a license and didn’t take a driving shift). The Hoosier Canoe Club tipped us off to a donations-basis camp site in the area, which we took advantage of and got some much-needed sleep. The Yough is tightly regulated to ensure only a fixed number of boaters use it every day. Access is free before 8 am and after 3 pm, and between then you must have a prepaid permit to get on it. Our permit wasn’t good until 2 pm, so we slept away most of the day. I mean, meditated and exercised and primed ourselves into a cat-like state of awareness. Getting such a late start, we stuck to the “loop”, a 3 mile course where the put-in and take-out are less than a mile apart, albeit the latter is several hundred feet lower than the former.
If you look at the pictures from the trip, right away you’ll see an 18-foot high waterfall. We didn’t run that. Uh, although, we’re definitely talented enough to do it. That’s Ohiopyle falls, which they only open up once a year to really good paddlers who pinky swear they won’t die in them. The put-in is just below them. At the first set of rapids (Entrance), Ryan spilled and deftly managed to plant his boat cockpit down over a large rock. This required an equally deft rescue by myself, with much nimble rock-jumping and swimming. In the next rapid (Cucumber), I also pulled off my first ever river roll that didn’t result in an immediate reimmersion. These stunts would later be eclipsed by rather embarrassing, sloppy, bail-outs in Class 0 water, which can arguably be attributed to a psychological complex arising from incessant taunting by peers jealous of my Canadian citizenship. The rest of the rapids in the loop (Camel & Walrus; Eddy Turn; Dartmouth; Railroad), all class 3 and 3+, are lovely long stretches of rock and whitewater, with ample eddy pools and standing waves. In the mere 3 hours we paddled that day, all four of us rookies mastered the art of eddying in places we would never have considered eddying before, and greatly improved upon our surfing. Brittany also learned to cuss like a sailor. Many of the pictures on the website are taken from Railroad Rapids right before the loop take-out, which features some nifty spills, drop-offs, eddies, and chutes. We each shot those rapids three or more times that weekend, never the same way twice. Railroad is definitely a fun spot, although slightly soured by the excruciating climb to the parking lot you face if you decide to make it your take-out.
To beat the system, we put in the river before 8 am Sunday morning. Shaun “Tenderfoot” Moore almost didn’t make it. We were going to do the whole course that day, which is about 8 miles long. We started off with the loop again, taking our time to catch play spots we’d missed the day before. Cucumber Rapid, which pummeled Ryan on Saturday, pummeled him again and left his shoulder swollen and purple. He made the mistake of following Shaun, thinking Tenderfoot would show him a safe way to get through it. Determined to piss in this beast’s eye, he portaged back up to the top of the rapid and shot it again… successfully! Hey, we don’t call him Commando for nothing. At one of the later rapids, I spilled and gouged a chunk of flesh out of my thumb when it got pinned between my boat and the river bottom, but managed to pull off the roll anyway; this impressive feat was undermined somewhat by my ensuing swooning spell (ewww, blood!).
We shot through Railroad and began paddling the part of the course we’d missed the previous day. The first rapid must have sucked because I don’t remember anything about it (it’s aptly called No Name). Dimple Rock was up next. This is the most dangerous part of the course, earning a class 4 rating. The river does a 90 degree turn to the right, and if a boater doesn’t turn with it, he/she winds up smashing into an undercut boulder on the outside of the curve. The water flows under a part of this boulder, and can trap people within the concavity with little hope of escape. A successful turn requires eddying out before hitting the rapids downstream of Dimple. Even if you avoid the boulder but can’t put on the brakes in the eddy pool, you’re likely to be flushed into these 3+ rapids backwards and get some rough lovin’ from the river bottom. We got out upstream to scout the rapids, and watch a group of rafters shoot them. Many of them were smashing into Dimple, but the way the rafts would overturn always launched them out and away from the hazard. A safer, shallower route branches away from Dimple and provides an alternate path around the rapids for more timid kayakers. I’ve been instructed to not use the word cheating when describing it. Because it’s not cheating. No way. Three of us braved Dimple and two of us decided to not cheat.
A little further down from Dimple is Swimmers Rapid. This is a wide, gorgeous standing wave which would be perfect for practicing surfing and tricks if it wasn’t infested with people. We stopped for lunch here. If you jump into the river a little upstream (which EVERYBODY does) you can float into the wave and if you hit it right and don’t smash into a kayak or a raft, do some body surfing. We spent a lot of time here, frolicking in the wave, gracefully mimicking salmon swimming upstream to mate. Shaun, Lynne, and Ryan endured the long lineups to get their kayaks in the wave and practice surfing and tricks (well mostly surfing). My sources inform me Lynne even flipped over once (though this must surely be a lie). Brittany and I were less patient and stayed ashore. While she went off chasing imaginary snakes, I took pictures and did a little tanning. After a couple of hours we were ready to move on.
The remaining rapids were generally lower class 3’s with a few exceptions. Double Hydraulic, a class 4-, features, come on, guess… double hydraulics. Hydraulics are when a large volume of water flows over an obstacle, creating a large trough, and at the end of the trough, the water falls back onto itself, in effect back into the trough. This is great for playing in, if you know what you’re doing; but it can also trap boats, forcing a kayaker to bail out and swim out of the hole, leaving the boat behind. Lynne advised us to skirt around the hydraulics, especially me. I like paddling large boats, which are much more prone to getting stuck. We all made it through OK. I was forced to shoot right through the middle of the second hydraulic, but had just barely enough speed to coast over the peak of the standing wave and avoid being trapped. After that comes Rivers’ End Rapids, where a collection of immense boulders makes it seem like the river abruptly runs into a solid wall. The pass through these is a tense little ride; if you look at the pictures, there’s one of Brittany gritting her teeth and cursing away on a streak that would make Lucifer blush.
As for other noteworthy sites along the long course… somewhere along the line, I’m not sure where because it’s not marked on the map, is the rock garden. This is a long series of low-class rapids, very shallow and scrapey, and not too much fun to paddle through; but it was amusing to watch the rafters run aground every 20 feet and have to get out of their boats to carry them over the rocks. There was also a great jumping rock: a boulder with a slightly angled top and a sheer face coming up from the water, about 15 feet high. Shaun and I leaped off it a few times. Some hotshots showed up and launched their kayaks off it, inciting that little demon of irresponsibility who sits atop my left shoulder and makes me do stupid things. I hauled my boat up top and after much hesitating and balking, and barking from the little demon, mustered up enough courage to launch. One second I was teetering at the edge of the boulder and the next second all of me and my boat save the top of my helmet and the tip of the stern were submerged, and then I bounced back up to the surface. Yeehaw! Brittany wanted a go too, so we got her strapped in and ready to plummet. She made much less of a fuss about it than I did. I think her landing was more diagonal than mine because she hit the water with an awfully loud, cringe-inspiring smack. Happily, she bobbed up with a smile revealing all of her teeth were still in place, although her contact lenses had taken trips around her eye sockets.
Labour Day Monday we put in before 8 am again, determined to quickly do the loop before the long drive back to topographically challenged Indiana. We breezed through most of the rapids, but spent a bit of time at Railroad again. We got some great action shots by actually swimming through the rapids and climbing onto the boulders in the middle to get close-ups of us kayaking through. Unfortunately these are on my camera and I only develop film about once every six months (I lead an otherwise bleak and purposeless life, with little worth capturing in a photo) so won’t be ready for a while.
The lower Yough is a great course for bringing paddlers up to an intermediate skill level; I’d recommend it to anyone who has some previous river experience. It’s also wide enough in most places that you don’t have to worry about getting creamed by rafters, who are generally oblivious to everything but themselves. Don’t count on buying equipment when you get there, though. The stores in Ohiopyle have a really crappy selection and everything is brutally overpriced, even for onsite outfitter places. The grocery store is the same way too, so bring your own food. And if you don’t have any money to donate to the campground: say you’re from I.U.
See Pictures from this trip