I planned the first vacation that I have taken since December 25, 2013 for the week of Gauley Fest 2016. Not having a real plan of events yet Mike Joseph asked me to meet him in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania on Sunday September 10 to raft the Lower Youghiogheny, then move over to meet BDR on the Upper Yough on Monday, to learn to raft Class V whitewater. Throwing caution to the wind, knowing nothing of this river, I simply said “meet ya there man.”
I anxiously awaited my days of work to end, each day seeming longer with anticipation. I arrived in Tennessee on Saturday the 9th, packed my gear and a week’s worth of clean clothes and headed to Ohiopyle as fast as I could go.
With somewhat odd but effective directions from Google I arrive Sunday morning and meet Mike at Ohiopyle Falls. We chat a little and set everything for the day. Mike gives me the grand tour of the river, the town, and all the surroundings. We score a perfectly clean pfd of the Lower Yough (for me; this is Chicago Mike’s hundredth time or more down this stretch). Then we plan to meet with other members of DBP for the Upper Yough on Monday.
We arrive at the put in for the Upper Yough section Monday morning and meet with Ollie, Bubby, Alex, Kansas, Aaron, Grink, Gabriel, and Ryan. The Upper Yough is about to be littered with Dirtbags from all over! The water is still down and hasn’t reached the put in as we pump up the rafts. Gabriel informs us that the optimal launch time is 1pm. That means that we have plenty of time for preparation and organization.
We use a leaf blower to pump the rafts, then top it off with a hand pump. The leaf blower catches the interest of many people and soon we are pumping up boats for half of the paddlers there. What a great way to meet people! If you want to make new paddling friends, a $30 leaf blower, a connection hose, and a roll of duct tape will make you a hero!
Finally the water is here, the crew is set, and it’s show time. We pack the rafts and kayaks to the river and start off. Mike and I are in a 12ft RMR (Rocky Mountain Rafts) with Ryan and (DBP Admin) Gabriel Crawford of Biskitz Deep Rafting as our guide. Aaron and Kansas are running an R2, and Bubby and Alex of Rage Cage are R2ing another RMR. Ollie and Grink are kayaking.
As we start down the river I explain to Gabriel that I am a kayaker and he will have to teach me as we go. This is my third ever rafting trip (the second one was yesterday on the LY). He gives me some simple pointers as we float the first two miles of scenery and small waves.
I am enjoying the river, the majestic wilderness around us and conversation before the rapids start. It’s a peaceful float that gives you time to warm up and calm the nerves before you really start cranking out the big, narrow, technical class 4 and 5 to come.
Gap Falls is the introduction of the many rapids to come. With names like Bastard and Meat Cleaver you just have the impression that you better have your a game on. As we start into Gap Falls I quickly notice that river lines narrow significantly. The river becomes creeky, with nice drops, big holes, pushy water, and potentially dangerous consequences. It is remote with no available access. One way in and one way out. This is not a good place to have a bad day.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Well… There IS that path running all the way to Friendsville on river right… But hey you only get one pfd in life…)
Gabriel navigated every rapid with precise execution. We listened to his command and fell flawlessly through crooks and crannies. Gap Falls, Bastard, Charlie’s Choice, Triple Drop, now National Falls is before us.
We can see the large drop and deep hole beyond coming at us full speed ahead. Gabriel is yelling instructions and directions at full voice over the roar of the water rushing over the steep, creeky rocks. The whole crew has adrenaline pumping, paddles at full power, and one set goal to navigate to far right as fast as possible. We are acting as one machine heading for the location that Gabriel has marked for our launch site. It looks perfect. What can go wrong here?
Let me tell you what! As we get the raft within 2 feet of our mark and brace for the drop I suddenly feel the bow turn sideways. The boat comes off the drop at an angle somewhere between 10 and 11 o’clock. It edges downward on the right front upon impact. This puts us in position for the National Falls Hole Surfing Championship!
The beautiful RMR quickly spins into the hole at the bottom of the falls with water cascading over the left side of the boat. Everyone shifts as far as possible to the right side of the raft and is paddling downstream to no success. Mike Joseph is practically sitting in my lap at this point and the raft is vertically on edge with four paddles digging a hole to China!
The raft is seesawing back and forth. The ride is something of a mechanical bull in a two bit bar on the southwestern border. At this point we are at the mercy of the river but not giving up easily.
The boat gives one last violent thrash and I see Mike roll over backwards. I’m not sure who was next Ryan or myself. It happened so quickly that my eyes were still open when I sank into the beautiful depths of white. I kept going down deep into the river. I could feel the current pushing against my body. The t-grip is forced from my hand. Still submerged my arms are grabbing for the lost paddle and my feet kicking frantically to find the surface or stability.
My eyes are closed when I feel the shaft of the paddle and close my hand around it. There is a heavy weight at the end. Is it caught on a rock? I finally reached the water surface and give the t-grip in my hand a good yank. The weight is still there. I shake the water from my eyes and turn my head left to see what the paddle is caught on. To my surprise I have caught myself a Ryan! A slightly confused Ryan! He was looking at me on the other end of the paddle with that look. You know the look. It’s that “Hey stupid. Let go!” type of look. I get to shore and the crowd of 30 boaters are yelling at maxed out volumes. As I compose myself and start the hunt for my lost paddle I turn to look upstream and realize that Gabriel is still in the raft throwing the brown claws like a whitewater professional. At this point I don’t blame him, I would have made a good show too.
We hang around and catch our breath, socialize with the crowd, and watch Team Rage Cage surf the hole that we just swam. There were all kinds of different shenanigans on display here. Occasionally a swimmer going one way with his boat going another. I even saw one kayaker get his helmet ripped off somehow. It’s a totally clean swim , just be sure you have a good breath. It will take you under for awhile before it spits you out. The rest of the day was clean lines, beautiful scenery, and happy people. I would consider this a very successful run for my Upper Yough pfd.
Later that evening we camped at a private location just 10 minutes from the put in. Camp fires lit the forest and somewhere near 75 boaters converged on the very few campsites available. It was a great time to tell our completely true stories to the masses as people fire surfed from site to site. (Boaters never exaggerate!) I had the chance to make many new friends in those Appalachian backwoods as we all prepared for the new dawning, some which I will never forget, such as Chris Baer walking into the DBP campsite passing out special gifts.
Chris was delivering a few of his Zet kayaks. He and I talked for awhile about many different subjects from his kayak business to just everyday life. I walked away with a great impression of the man. We shook hands and my last words to him were, “I’ll run into you tomorrow on the river.” I had no idea how true that would be. The next time I saw him it was only his face. I had ran the raft completely over top of his kayak. Only his head remained above water. Yes we are still friends, as he is a great guy and good sport.
The next day brought my first class 5 swim in Charlie’s Choice, but that is another story. I will say thank you to my excellent team Ryan and Gabriel for saving a beater from a bad day.
Until my next adventure I hope you have enjoyed the article. Safe and happy paddling to all.
EDITOR’S DESK: Michael Potter is a regular member of the DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE staff, covering the Southeast United States. He wrote an article over the summer explaining why he and others choose to become avid whitewater paddlers.