Darren and I had been planning a kayak trip along a short stretch of the Ohiopyle. We liked the looks of the Ferncliff Penisula section “The Loop” of the Youghiogheny River. Darren had paddled that section several times. And we were flexible on the day of our paddle since my son and I were visiting Pittsburgh for twelve days. With no sense of urgency Darren and I took our time deciding on when to paddle. There were moments when we were close to scraping the paddle due to heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures.
We did pick a day. New Years Eve, is when epic became real. Darren picked me up before sunrise and my son and I traded hugs and high fives. I waved as we rode off not knowing that what I thought was going to occur was not going to be the reality. Sunrise was 7:20am and we wanted to be on the water before 8am.
We quickly zipped through the “entrance rapid”. Before we coasted over to the bank to discuss the next series of rapids we threw snowballs at each other in celebration. I even had the chance to do some quick bow rudder spins into eddies.
As we paused to scope out Cucumber Rapid and Camel and Walrus Rapids, a couple snowshoeing along the Yough’ remarked “yinz nuts, that’s cold water”. They were even more shocked to learn that I was visiting from Florida. We smiled after the encounter and paddled off.
I will admit that water was cold. I rolled near the end of Cucumber. It was a good recovery. Then the real fun began going down Camel and Walrus. The throat of my paddle broke during a brace as I exited Camel Rapid. I was upside down as I entered the Walrus Rapid. I could not recover from my starboard side and due to the water and a rock I could not recover on my port side.
Darren remarked about how cool it was watching me nearly recover and watching me calmly float out of the rapid holding on to the kayak and paddle and drift into a calm eddy. I was in the water for less than a minute. Darren did an excellent job doing a contact tow. And I was out on the shore very quickly. However, the time perceived by me was very different.
I recall doing a low brace on my post side. Doing a little hop then a hard low brace on my starboard side. Then taking two strokes and capsizing when my right blade went in the water. It was odd no bite when I attempted to roll on my on side. And my off side was bouncing on rock. All I could see was orange. All I could hear was a jet engine and fire crackers going off. After three attempts I reached for the grab loop. I could see that neon green loop waving in front of my eyes taunting me as it wiggled around and away from my neoprene gloved hands. Thankfully I was using a skirt that had a safety off strap across the deck. I gave that blue webbed strap a tug and I was free from the boat.
In the water, I was, being slammed by a freight train in my back. Feet up and dancing across the rocks. In my mind I had only one thought. If my foot gets caught the leg will break. If leg breaks then it will be a compound fracture. Compound fracture in this environment equals several hours of waiting in the back country before getting to the hospital. End result would be amputation. Happy thoughts, indeed.
Finally calm water sounded me. An icy claw encircled my throat and a ice giant stood on my chest. Coughing I started looking around. I could hear nothing, see nothing, but I felt the bump and pull of Daren’s kayak moving me to shore. Thankfully, I never let go of my boat or paddle. This was probably in part to always practicing rescues to establish muscle memory and God’s helpful hand.
I remember not saying a word to my paddling buddy. He remembers me saying “ok…ok…shore…shore”.
The day would reach a high of 35′F from a morning low of 22′F. And we had a few choices to make. I could use another paddle and continue down the river or we could portage. It was a little after eleven and it gets dark quick. Sunset was 4:54 but realistically it would get dark sooner; due to, the mountains and trees would obscure the sun and bring on darkness sooner. Clouds were also starting to form and there was a possibility of snow.
We discussed our options and then chose to…
– I will continue this post in five days, Jeff