Monday, June 18, 2018
Getting an early start, we hiked the Ferncliff Trail around Ferncliff Peninsula. This follows a big loop in the river going through a gorge. There were a few side trails down to the river. On one, we were lucky to be there when a group of rafters came through. This is a big, powerful river with some big rapids. Although this group had guides in kayaks showing them the way through the rapid, there were no guides in the rafts. There were about 10 rafts, and they all got stuck in the middle of the rapid, some crashing into the ones already stuck. Amazingly, no one fell out. We were happy to have a guide in the boat for our trip this afternoon.
I was soaking wet from hiking in the hot and very humid forest, so we went back for a shower, lunch and a little rest. Then we went to Laurel Highlands Raft Company for a 3½ hour raft trip down the lower Youghiogheny River. Our team leader, Michelle, gave us instructions as we put on our life jackets and helmets. Then we piled into a van and drove 20 minutes to the put-in. As she drove, Michelle talked about all the adventurous things you can do in the park – biking, mountain biking, rock-climbing and a popular natural water slide. “We have many ways to get you injured” she said. At the landing, she positioned us in three rafts, each with a guide, ours being Toby. “Most drownings are from getting a foot wedged. There are many rocks, tires and redneck refrigerators on the bottom. Do not put your foot on the bottom. If you fall out of the boar, do not try to stand up. Lie on your back with your feet up to push off rocks”. the other biggest injury is getting hit by a paddle handle, so she cautioned to always keep you hand on the handle.
Off we went, but the guides explained their instructions – all forward, all back, right side forward, all stop. We had a pretty good crew with two teen-age girls, a teen-age boy, Martha and three men, all nice. Toby told us the names of all the rapids, along with rock names, like ‘The Decapitator’. Then in the first rapid he went down side-ways so we would all get wet. The girls screamed. It was hard to tell when Toby was messing with us and when he just hit rocks. We were stronger on the left side of the boat, which made it a bit of a problem.
We came to Dimple Rock in the middle of the afternoon. There was a large group of rafts getting instruction before going through. They had no guides in their boats, but several in kayaks. A huge sign warned of the dangers of Dimple rock, and there was a portage sign on the right side of the river. Geez! The leader of the large group let our three guided boats go through before them. We headed right at huge Dimple Rock, then Toby turned 40 degrees and yelled “All forward hard”. We did, but we still bumped the end of the rock, which turned us around, but we had passed the danger. I later read about this rapid. Dimple Rock is a V-shaped rock pointing downstream. The entire force of the river plunges into the open part of the V. Of the millions of people who have floated the river in the last 30 years 18 boaters have died. Nine of those were at Dimple Rock.
There was another big rock where the river makes a hard right, a good place to get swept into the rock that is undercut, but we managed that one without incident. It was a seemingly less difficult rapid with heavy waves that we ran into a big rock on the left as we swept by. We had hit plenty of rocks, but we were going to hit this one pretty hard. Like a bouncing ball, the raft compressed when it hit, then released and threw three of us into the river. Feet up, on my back, I watched for big rocks. They got the other two quickly in the boat, but I was behind it. All I was thinking was not being able to see what was coming, the raft blocking my view. As we got to the bottom of the waves, Toby waved me to come on, so I turned over and swam to the boat where he quickly dragged me in. One of the girls dinged her knee pretty good, but seemed to be OK. Toby then moved people around to make the right side paddlers stronger. That sobered people up a bit, and we were a little more serious about paddling. We still managed to hit more rocks, getting stuck on a few.
Having turned over plenty of times in canoes on much less powerful rivers, I have tremendous respect for the power of water. What you worry about is getting into a boat with people who don’t know. They think they are in Disneyland, laughing, talking, paddling lackadaisically. They think the guide can control everything. It’s really those hard turns where everyone needs to be a their best. Our crew really did pretty well. Laurel Highlands does a great job, and Michelle is a real pro. This river is absolutely gorgeous. You don’t see anything but trees and river. It’s as pretty a river as I have ever been on. The trout population is quite good here, but I have no idea how you would fish this section. It is way too deep and forceful to walk in. I didn’t see any driftboats, and this would be a challenge for them.