Ohiopyle is the quintessential whitewater town. Nestled in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania along the banks of the Youghiogheny River at the site of it’s biggest waterfall, there’s a small town charm here, a sense of history. Back in the hairboating heyday of our community, this tiny hamlet of less than a hundred “year round” residents teemed with legends in the making. Walking dilapidated streets that looked straight out of the 1890s, nothing like the fancy revitalized neighborhood in place today from the Park, they formed part of the whole experience of whitewater in the formative years of the sport.
There were many local characters that you’d run into on any old day at the Pub – prankster, craftsman, stoner, drunk, deadpan comic, all American, town slut, badass jerk. In a way they fulfilled all of the major archetypes of rafting and kayaking: guys like Tom Love, Keith Backlund, Charlie Walbridge, Jim and Jeff Snyder, Jess Whittemore, and many others. And Bo.
These guys all helped to make Ohiopyle what it is today. Many of their stories will go down in the legends of the town and the companies that run the river. But I’m afraid that a person like Bo would drift away eventually. He was a long time rubber pusher who worked the entire circuit of local runs at a very high level for decades. He also happened to relish playing the role of town bad boy, even bully. All this bluster and downright meanness hid an inner person who was caring for his friends and very loyal, two other traits of a true raft guide. So… Going into the Cheat Fest Weekend, I brought together a few of his friends who knew him to share a few memories. A person like Bo is a complex figure who can’t be defined in a few paragraphs. Here is a bit of his story, and Part One is made up solely of my own recollections.
I met Bo one of my first Saturday nights ever spent drinking with the locals at the Pub. I remember being warned very quickly and quietly that the guy in the mullet looking pissed off at the end of the bar was just that – pissed off! And he was a martial artist to boot, who would just love to beat on a custy (me) to relieve some of his tension if I so desired. He backed this up with a few well chosen words a few minutes later. I steered well clear of Bo.
Fast forward a few years and I recall another night at the Pub. My memory is hazy as to why all sorts of people were out and about that night, perhaps a band was playing or it was high water, I don’t remember. But I do recall sitting at a long table drinking heavily with three local characters who captivated the room: Tom Love, Keith Backlund, and Bo. Each played their role perfectly, Keith dead panning and modestly sipping on crown while Tom and Bo outdid each other on who would be more outrageous and threatening. It felt like something or someone would explode all night, and the more addled the crowd became, the higher the stakes became. Nothing ever quite happened, and no asses got kicked, no knives stabbed anyone, and no one got shot… But I wouldn’t have been surprised.
In those days Bo was an established guide at Laurel Highlands, and old school large color photos, faded with age, so popular in that era of rafting, framed the walls of their store. All of the local rivers were pictured, the Lower and Upper Yough and Cheat River especially, and in many of them was a younger version of Bo – a fierce looking hombre coolly steering his load of custys down the best of the best runs. (He still appears to this day in some of the photos used on their website.) In some of the photos buckets were at the ready. It was apparent he was a Top Dog. I saw him there a few times, in between trips, still quick and surly with his retorts to questions, a solid rock of a man, well sunned and trim, every bit the outdoorsman with his bare chest and camo cutoffs. There was an air about Bo that followed him everywhere. “Don’t fuck with me,” he seemed to exude. “I’m too damn busy to be fucked with.”
I saw him on trips down the Upper Yough as well, while day tripping with WWA. Bo’s raft would go by, him firmly in command, all the Laurel Highlands rafts paying respectful heed to him as he ran perfect lines. The guide scene fifteen seasons ago was packed with legends, and it seemed that day that everyone deferred to Bo. It was quickly apparent that he was a very hard worker, but seeing him interact with the other rubber pushers afterwards at the convenience store in Friendsville, it also became clear that he wasn’t ALL bluster. For the first time I remember not cringing like a freshman when the football team strode down the hall. Bo was actually, if not downright friendly, well at least tolerant of a stranger’s presence. And one could easily tell that the other locals loved him.
I didn’t see Bo for many years. Guiding became my own passion, and I only found time to travel to Ohiopyle to boat during the offseason for quite some time. I never really asked around, it wasn’t as if Bo was a friend or would know who I was, but like any other fixture in a small town, I’d look for him in the Pub. But I never saw him…
Until years later, when I took a buddy with me to paddle the Lower Yough. We pulled up on a weekday to catch some lunch across from Dimple Rock, figuring we’d treat ourselves to some good Wallace action while eating. There weren’t hardly any commercial boats out on the river, and no guided trips. But around the bend came a lone raft, with a few paddlers led by a captain. It was Bo.
He looked much older than I remembered. The middle aged cut and ripped boat man had become more stout. Still bare chested, he barked out his commands clearly, with all the fierce energy that he’d ever had. But there was a weary air about him.
His crew, other locals or a batch of longtime customers who had paid him to take them down, came around Pinball and lined up to perfectly run past Dimple, the biggest flip on the river and the one deadly undercut rock. They eddied out below, and Bo hoisted everyone up on the rock to chill and await carnage like us. They pulled out some beers, and to my surprise Bo gave us a wave! After a while it was clear no one else was coming along to provide some entertainment, and both of our parties began to get ready to leave. Bo’s boat paddled over. He tossed us each a beer.
Although you can sometimes sense an era ending, it still surprises you when you come to find that people who defined a place and time in your mind have gone, never to return. That was the loss I experienced last year when I asked a friend of mine about some of the old timers. So, with Cheat Fest this weekend, I got to thinking about Bo, and decided to serve up these few memories of him, to help conjure up his spirit for some action that I know he would have loved. I’ve asked a few friends to also weigh in with some reminiscences on Bo, because the history of Ohiopyle and our sport is so wrapped up in his story. Watch for the next part of this series, and lift a cold one for Bo this weekend.