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Ohiopyle, Pa. -- This feels just like camp, I thought, boarding a yellow school bus along with my fellow intrepid white-water rafters en route to the Lower Youghiogheny River.
I hated camp.
White-water rafting? . . . Rapids, rocks, rescue rope . . . What was I thinking?
Whatever it was, I was fully committed now -- now that I'd driven nearly four hours to get to this popular white-water corner of Western Pennsylvania, now that I was snug in my fashionable green life vest and slathered with SPF 15, now that I'd just signed my life away.
"I understand that there are many dangers inherent to the sport of white-water rafting," states the required release form. "I understand that there are many dangers in the unpredictable forces of nature and there are dangers inherent to the remote locations . . ."
The T-shirts for sale at the outfitters' booth weren't much help, either: "Paddle or Die." "TheYoughiogheny -- Where No One Can Hear You Scream."
"Do you have any more Advil?" I asked my friend who'd been grappling with a headache of her own that morning.
Well, that was all history now. Here we were, sitting on our four-man rafts on the shore of the Lower Yough, paddle in hand and stomach in mouth, for a short orientation on how to survive the eight-mile, five-hour trip.
The pointers included: how to avoid getting sucked under a rock should one find oneself ejected from one's raft, how to sit on the vessel, how to paddle, how to avoid both friendly and unfriendly rocks, how to prevent "summer" teeth ("some are in your mouth, some are in the water," quipped our leader).
The rapids throughout the Lower Youghiogheny, one of the most popular white-water rivers in the East for beginners, are rated Class II and III at moderate water level. (Class I means mild, easy waves and Class VI, fierce, extremely dangerous rapids that are sometimes unrunnable.)
Because the Lower Yough is considered a beginner-intermediate river and fairly easy to navigate, outfitters such as Mountain Streams & Trails don't supply a trained guide in every raft. Instead, several guides travel in kayaks alongside the group of, in our case, 20-some rafts, and often stand on rocks pointing the way or shouting out directions.
Of course, if you and your pals are excessively fretful or apprehensive -- if you're all weenies, that is -- you may request a guide to accompany you in your raft.
Someone like Skip, our guide.
Skip told us exactly what to doand when. He knew where nearly every rock in the river was. He pointed out rare birds and the blossoming mountain laurel. He didn't tell us until after we'd run a rapid called "Cucumber" that a woman actually died there once.
But the best thing about Skip was that he knew how to keep us from becoming "swimmers," the name for rafters who are no longer sitting on rafts. Others were not so lucky, spilling or flipping or dumping or ejecting (there are many names for this dreaded act) when encountering such sweetly-named rapids as "Railroad," "Dimple" or "School Days."
They are like giant unleashed washing machines, these frothing pirouettes of water. And plowing through them is like riding on a mini roller-coaster with no seatbelts or handlebars. Only rocks. All around.
But unlike more aggressive watersheds, such as the Upper Youghiogheny in Western Maryland or the Cheat Canyon in West Virginia, each rapid on the Lower Yough is separated by a stretch of mild, rolling water. There is plenty of time to float along, rowing gently, and enjoy the lush green of the surrounding Allegheny Mountains.
Navigating the white water, onthe other hand, is hard work, requiring fast and ferocious paddling, firmly planted feet and dependable quadriceps for balance. Even if you manage to stay aboard, you will get wet. Soaked. Saturated.
You also will get lunch. About midway down the river, our convoy pulled over to the shore to line up for a "buffet" on the rocks -- bologna, salami, American cheese, peanut butter and jelly, cookies, apples. Real food for real outdoorsmen. We
slapped together fat sandwiches in true pioneer fashion, sat on the rocks and inhaled.
Just after lunch, we would meet up with "Dimple," the most treacherous rapid on the river, also known as "Lose Your Lunch." There were a few tumbles there (of bodies, not lunches), but by this time, most of the group -- even us dweebsters -- had given up on fear. It definitely got in the way of a good time.
Instead, there were water battles between rafts, 20-year-old men hitting on 35-year-old women, 35-year-old women jumping out of their rafts (allegedly for a swim) so they'd have to wrap their arms around the hulking shoulders of their guide to be pulled back in.
Yeah, this really was a lot like camp.
But it was also a lot like fun.
Finding a guide
The following outfitters run guided raft trips down the Lower Youghiogheny River, located in Ohiopyle, Pa., about 4 hours from Baltimore. The 8-mile Lower Yough, considered beginner to intermediate in difficulty, is popular with novices.
Children must be at least 12 years old to raft. Prices vary according to when the trip takes place; reservations are recommended.
*Mountain Streams & Trails Outfitters (800) 245-4090. $24-$49.
*Wilderness Voyagers. (800) 272-4141. $22-$49.
*Laurel Highlands River Tours. (800) 472-3846. $24.95-$51.95
*Whitewater Adventurers. (800) 992-7238. $24-$51.
Other rivers suitable for beginners are the Shenandoah in Harper's Ferry, W.Va. and the Middle Youghiogheny in Ohiopyle.