Standup paddling through the Pennsylvania wilderness
I was headed to Pittsburgh to visit family and my cousin suggested I bring my SUP along. I was flying Southwest so no bag fees, why not! Southwest took care of the SUP and got it to PA safe and sound. I decided to take my 2015 Hala Straight-Up and Hala Travel Paddle. The travel paddle can be taken apart into three pieces which just fits in the older duffel style Hala Gear board bag from 2015.
On Saturday, July 28, we headed southeast from Pittsburgh toward Ohiopyle and the Youghiogheny River, or the Yough as the locals call it. Along the way we stopped in Wilderness Voyageuers to get the down low on conditions. I was greeted by a friendly young lady whose name escapes me. She zoned in on my Snowbird shirt (Snowbird is an amazing ski resort in Utah), asking me if I was from Utah. “Not quite” I said, “Colorado”. I told her how I finally made it out to Utah to ski this past March and hit Alta and Snowbird on four consecutive powder days.
After we got done chatting about skiing we got to the matter at hand, how is the water flowing in Ohiopyle? Pennsylvania has had a lot of rain in which has helped keep the reservoirs and a decent snow during the past winter. There are two options at Ohiopyle, The Middle Yough or the Lower Yough. Unfortunately for me, the Lower Yough requires a permit on weekends. The current flow on the Middle Yough was near 1200 cfs which is pretty good for this time of year. I got directions to the put-in spot at Ramcat and headed that way.
Launching into the Yough
We arrive at the put-in spot, I hopped out and scoped out the entry onto the water. It was super easy put-in to calm waters, and green EVERYWHERE. Compared to Colorado, where I live and paddle the most, Eastern Pennsylvania is extremely green. I quickly pumped up my Hala board, put on my PFD, helmet and attached my leash. The Middle Yough section I was about to paddle is roughly nine miles long so I estimated it would take me 2.5 – 3 hours. I waved goodbye to my cousin who wished me good luck and shoved off.
The river was moving at a nice even pace. The Yough was wide compared to most rivers I’ve paddled on previously. I’d estimate 500 feet (152 meters) wide on average. I cruised under a bridge, passed a small raft of ducks and was off on another SUP trip!
Besides all the green vistas to take in there were plenty of fishermen in waders, a few kayakers and plenty of rafting groups on the water. The weather couldn’t have been better! Temperature near 80 degrees, the sun was out but a few clouds to hide it at times. Humidity was mild, and the water temp was near 70 degrees.
The first set of rapids
After a couple miles downriver, I encountered the first section of rapids. According to American Whitewater (AW) there are a few Class II sections on the Middle Yough. First up was Drake Rapid. It was a nice little rapid but not difficult based on my experience in Colorado. I think it helped that the river is so much wider in PA, than the Arkansas river back in Colorado, (100 feet, 30 meters), which allowed me to easily navigate the river. Still, being on the water is a feeling like no other, which is why I do what I do.
I relaxed into a good paddle stroke, making sure to switch sides to stay balanced. As I moved downriver I encountered more paddlers. I got a lot of looks and a few questions from fellow paddlers while I was on my SUP. Most people thought it was cool that I was paddling on a SUP and were quite impressed that I was doing such a long section. The most common question was “is that easy”? Well, depends on what you mean by easy. I’m standing up on an inflatable paddleboard, paddling a nine mile section of a river. For me this is just another day on the water, but for a someone else, they may find it challenging.
I always enjoy chatting with fellow paddlers on the water because we are all there for more or less the same reason, to enjoy mother nature. Even if the conversation lasts 30 seconds while we pass each other on the river, I come away with a smile.
Continuing down the Youghiogheny
As I cruised down the river I kept my eye on my watch. I had a fairly good sense I was moving at a good pace based on passing other paddlers at a even clip, but still this being my first time on the Yough I did not know the river. I picked up the pace a notch at the 1.5 hour mark to hedge my timing.
Based on AW website, around the mile six and a half marker is the next section of rapids. I hit The Haystacks near the two hour mark which gave me comfort I was on track. The Haystacks section is several medium-sized boulders on river right. I charged straight through two boulders with little difficult. It felt good to hit some rapids after three plus miles of flatwater; next up Elephant Rock!
Elephant Rock is a exactly what it sounds like, a large boulder right in the middle of the river. With the lower flow, there are a couple options to the left of the rock. I cruise reasonable close to the rock and around the bend. Downriver, I noticed what I initially thought was a fisherman standing in the middle of a section of rapids. It turned out to be a kayaker, and his kayak was flipped upside down as he was holding on to it!
As I approached I called out, “are you okay”? He looks up and said is strained voiced “I could use some help”. I quickly pivoted my board to come abreast of his kayak while I faced upriver. As I did, I finally noticed a woman in an American flag patterned bikini grasping a small boulder while fighting the current. I said a quick hello as I tried to flip the kayak over from the side but realized it was too heavy. With my leash still attached to my board, I slowly slipped off my board and let it slide down river until the leash was taunt. From there I got a solid footing and flipped the kayak back over. I held the kayak while the couple hopped into the kayak and secured their belongs. They thanked me profusely; I made sure they were okay and bid them adieu.
The take-out was a couple hundred yards down river and I had a bit of an audience there to greet me. I waved as I approach and received a solid 10-15 waves back. I steered my board toward shore, stepped off in the shallow water right before the board hit shore and was back on solid ground
Overall, had a great time on the water, next time the Lower Yough!