Whitewater rapids are rated on a scale of one to six. Six being impassible without certain death or serious injury.
On this particularly early summer day, the woman asking us to sign waivers / away our life in exchange for renting us our raft and paddles and lifejackets stated that today, the rapids on the Youghiogheny River would swell to a Class V. That’s one class below, “certain death.”
A bit hungover from last night’s camping festivities, I found the entire situation laughable. My companion, a longtime friend by the name of Flood, was recovering from serious surgery to his knee and elbow after having been hit by an SUV while riding his skateboard. He was thrown twenty or thirty feet through the air before crashing into the pavement and, to everyone’s surprise except those who really knew him, survived. He was to be taking it easy.
I had never been whitewater rafting before in my life. Flood’s girlfriend, Jenn, was along for the ride, and also had no experience rafting.
Then the good news came.
“What is your level of experience?” the woman at the outfitters asked us each.
“None,” I replied.
Laughing, Jenn answered similarly. The woman did not look pleased. Flood picked up the slack.
“Plenty, I’m an Eagle Scout.” The outfitter rolled her eyes.
“You’ll need to go with a guide.”
So it was that we were hustled into a large school bus, painted blue, along with a family of six, mom, dad and their three daughters all looking fit as a jam session full of fiddles. As our bus arrived at our drop in point, we met our guide.
“Hey guys,” he smiled, shirtless, bronzed, all of 20 years old. “I’m stoned!”
Well, he didn’t actually say, “I’m stoned,” but it was pretty obvious.
Thus we sat out on this yet another adventure of a lifetime (as every day spent with a man named for a natural disaster tends to be). Where we put in, the river seemed calm. Like a placid little pond where kids might try and scoop up tadpoles while lily pads practiced being hats atop the water’s surface.
“So here’s the deal,” our guide began, “I’m your guide.” Okay, so at least he’s on the same page as us, I thought. “When I say ‘Paddle left’, you guys,” he pointed at Jen, myself, the dad and one of her daughters, all of us situated on the left side of the raft “paddle.” “When I yell, ‘Paddle right’, the rest of you paddle.”
He went on with a few more commands. Everyone agreed that we had graduated from his thirty second lesson on whitewater rafting with flying colors.
Then the river came. On the first drop the raft was bent in half, forming an L-shape as we descended the fall. I was at the back of the vessel, and precisely above Jen. Flood was in the back also, across from my position, and wound up at the front of the raft. The mom was thrown from our watercraft entirely.
She kicked her head back, feet forward, and suddenly, when all seemed lost, we were in a calm spot again.
“Get wet, mom?” Flood called to her. The mother, who had seemed happy-go-lucky enough about the adventure to this point, showed him her middle finger extended directly upward. “I’m just kiddin’,” he smiled as he extended his paddle to help her near the boat. She ignored it and swam to the side of the raft on her own.
Once back in, we continued. That would be our last lost passenger of the day. Something about needing to learn quickly in a dangerous situation makes for fast students, and while our facial expressions went from exhilaration to exhaust to sheer terror faster than a candle flickers, the experience of being rushed through a highway made of pure liquid, all the while feeling more like you’re crashing than floating, was one I will never forget.
Everyone survived. Our guide shook Flood’s hand as we hit shore, “Nice work out there man, I can’t believe you made it.” It took us all a few minutes, but we smiled at one another as he and the family disappeared. Leaving us to lug the heavy raft the quarter mile uphill along a winding path back to where the blue school bus was now waiting to pick us up.
Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania is more than just whitewater, though my mind will forever rush that experience to the forefront of my thought when I hear the town’s name.
With a population of 59, it is one of the smallest towns in the nation. Home to one or two bars, a restaurant, and a handful of outfitters (depending on the year and how successful new businessers can prove themselves), the place is not lacking in modern amenities, but don’t expect to find a Starbucks. A State Park, a few blocks of actual town, the Laurel Highlands Trail and a bridge overlooking a waterfall where the river runs through it all are the main attractions. And attract they do, the tiny population booms to 100,000 visitors over the summer months.
A never-ending boom town, you might say.