Monday, July 7, 2008

Fourth of July canoe trip

The arrangements had been coming in for weeks. My computer screen was illuminated with the electronic correspondence of my oldest and dearest friends as they discussed the matter at hand; the Fourth of July was coming, and we needed to finalize our plans for the annual canoe trip.

Calling it annual is something of a misnomer for me: last year, due to a family near-tragedy (my mother's severe car accident) I was unable to go. My friends manage to get together maybe once or twice in a year, and to miss one of those gatherings because of something so stressful... well, it felt like missing Christmas.

To call it a canoe trip is also something of a misnomer. While we used canoes the first few times, we have in recent trips changed to using kayaks. There are many benefits to this, not in the least of which is the individual reduction in weight and speed. A kayak with one person and their gear will drag bottom in the shallows far less than a two-person canoe with no gear. Once not so very long ago my companions and I traversed the rivers in an over-large green PVC canoe that we dis-affectionately called "The Barge." This hulk was a nuisance of the first class, and nearly half of our navigable time was spent climbing out of the monster just to get it free of whatever obstruction was keeping it from moving with the current. My one condition of attendance this year was that I would not pilot "The Barge" anymore. My friend Keith, who was the caretaker of the vessel, revealed to me that he had sold it, and that its green-and-brown mass would not trouble us anymore. Whether owned, borrowed, or rented everyone was issued a kayak this year: singles for singles, and doubles for couples.

I was, much to my shame, out of the planning process for much of this. Not only because I have a particularly bad habit of not checking my e-mail every single day but also because once again I am almost completely destitute and at the whim of my friends' generosity. Anyone familiar with my web log will know the circumstances behind this turn, and I won't recount the details here. Suffice it to say that my friend Brian has helped me out considerably over the past few weeks, and I am eternally indebted to his friendship. To all of my friends I would ask that they just be patient of me, and if someday Fortune sees fit to smile upon me rather than sneering as she steps on my larynx I will be a better and more responsible friend.

So the plans were made: The morning of the Fourth, Brad would pick up Alicia's kayak. Brian, Keith, and Brad would take their kayaks to the boat launch at Kinzua Dam. Sandywould drive to the dam to stay and watch the boats. Brad and Keith would then drive to the ending point (the Buckaloons campground in Irvine) so that we would have a way to get the kayaks home. Brian drove to the Indian Waters branch of Allegheny Outfitters to rent three two-person kayaks for the attending couples (Bill and Sandrita, Tim and Alicia, and Sue and Jeff - her hunky man). On the way back from the outfitters, Brian would pick up Brad and Keith, and everyone would meet at the dam around 10:30 for cast-off.

As most plans go, ours had some small monkey wrenches thrown in just for the sake of normalcy. Bill and Sandrita were caught in traffic while trying to come home the night before, so much that they had to get a hotel to get some sleep before heading home. As a result they were exceptionally tired (as anyone in that position would be) and couldn't maintain the energy needed for the entire trip. I wasn't thinking clearly, or I could have just had Brian pick me up on the way to the dam in the morning, and I could have watched the boats, saving one less car to be parked in the visitors' lot (there wasn't enough room in the car later on to get all of the people back to their vehicles in one shot). These were just minor problems for what was essentially the best-planned trip we've had.

I awoke around eight o'clock that morning and brushed my teeth. Normally I would take a shower to wash my hair and wake up, but because I had cropped my remaining hair fairly short a few days ago and also because experience has taught me that the river is a odorous wench I felt obliged to forgo it until the evening.

For my part, I arrived at the Kinzua Dam on time and without forgetting anything that I thought I'd need. A dry bag that I had purchased at Dick's Sporting Goods was my one extravagance this trip. I tried to keep it light but brought a few conveniences as well including my camera and a towel just in case. The forecast was calling for rain and to its credit there were quite a few clouds in the morning. Noting that I was the only one parked in the lot I called my friend Bill's mom (Gayle) to see if they had left yet. She informed me that they had, but they were late starting due to the aforementioned traffic incident. I inquired to the make of Sandy's car to see if she had arrived yet and given the description I was able to place it. I made my way from the visitor's lot to the boat launch to find Sandy quietly reading a book by the pile of kayaks, still awake and keeping watch despite the fact that she had probably been there for two hours.

We exchanged pleasantries (or as pleasant as I get, I suppose) and waited for the others. While we talked I snapped a few pictures of the dam from the boat launch. From that angle I could only get pictures of the earthen side, but I still noted how the sky was fairly cloudy.

I had barely arrived when a blue pickup carrying three kayaks pulled up behind us, announcing the arrival of Brad


and Brian

Already the clouds were starting to dissipate, and one could tell that the skies would remain pleasant, sunny, and blue the rest of the day. We took the kayaks out of the pickup and placed them on the concrete steps of the boat launch as Sue and Jeff arrived

Shortly after they got there we were joined by Tim and Alicia. I didn't get any "first impression" photos of them, though I would have if I had been thinking about it. Tim is something of an almost mythological figure - he is oft talked about, but never seen. It was good to finally meet the husband of the "middle-child" of our group (Sue being the little sister). He seemed like a pleasant-though-disturbingly-quiet fellow, and we discussed the day's events while we waited for the last of our pack to commute. I took the time to offer my compatriots sun block and bug-spray. Jeff refused any sunscreen except for his nose, despite our repeated warnings. Keith opted for a full dress - a large hat, fingered gloves, long-sleeved shirt, and even a splash-skirt for his kayak. While other people would see this as being a little excessive, anyone who actually knows Keith knows that he is the "go-to guy" in case of emergency survivalist situations, and should never be mocked for being better prepared. The more experienced rivermen of our group opted for short-sleeve shirts, long pants, and padded, fingerless gloves, with SPF 30+ sunscreen. The less experienced generally wore shorts and tank tops, which would later result in glowing red sunburn. Usually, I fall into the latter group, but this year I count myself among the former, and I'm happy for it.

Bill and Sandrita arrived a little worse for wear, but not late, and we actually disembarked only a little later than we had planned.

I took Brian's little green kayak, even knowing that it would be slower and harder to paddle than his longer, yellow one simply for the fact that I didn't feel that Brian's enjoyment of the day should suffer because of my mooching. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the form factor too - the thin, lithe guy should have the thin, long kayak while the short, squat guy should have the wider, shorter kayak.

The next couple of hours were magical. The northern half of the Allegheny River has, in my admittedly limited opinion, some of the best and most tranquil scenery I've ever experienced while kayaking or hiking. It's not a fun rapids-ride for most of it, as the elevation of the river only changes gradually, and for the most part you can see the bottom. The dam regulates the depth of the water more than anything else, and at the river just below it the water sometimes just barely covers the pebbles on the bottom. Just for clarity, you can really only experience the full beauty of the river on a kayak, as most other boats will drag bottom.

It was in this first stretch that Bill and Sandy started to lag behind, not just because they were exhausted, but also because their boat had trouble going in a straight line. We tried to instruct Sandrita on how to steer it, but none of us had firsthand double-kayak experience, we could only tell them how a canoe worked. Even when they were in a current drift, the boat seemed to want to go to the right, making us wonder whether it wasn't bent somehow. Rentals are hard to figure out that way.

As we traveled downriver, we came to one of the settlement areas - an area of river with houses on it. These houses have road access on the other side, but the people who live in them generally have adapted to living on the river with all manner of watercraft and equipment. This year, one of the houses had a pretty cool piece of carved art, which could only be seen from the river. It was a tree carved like a totem pole, and it was awesome.

It wasn't all that long that we came to the Glade Bridge in Warren. This landmark is generally the end-point for the people who rent from Allegheny Outfitters, as they are often inexperienced or unwilling to commit to a farther endpoint. This area is also noted for the last place to stop before the notorious Warren Rapids (please note my use of sarcasm). It was at this point that we rested for a short lunch break. We turned upstream to a little tributary in order to stop at the Dairy Delite, an ice cream stand just East of Warren. Bill's Mom (Gayle) had made me a lunch, so I decided to use this time to see what was in it. There was a sandwich, an apricot, an apple, a bag of potato crisps, some Oreos, and the most unusual thing of all, a shish kabob. Bill and Sue (who are brother and sister, by the way) didn't seem to think it was unusual, and it was quite good (as was the rest of the lunch) and consisted of ham, turkey, chicken, tomatoes, pineapple, bacon, and scrambled egg. As bizarre as it seemed to be eating it, nevertheless I have to admit that it was a welcome inclusion. I gave my apple to Brian, who enjoyed it while we waited for the others to return from ice cream and "the men's room" (actually just a tree on the island between the river and the tributary).

Some excitement came as we began to pack up and leave our current location. I managed to get my kayak out into the tributary, but the current was stronger than I had anticipated and I ended up getting caught in a tree that was spread out from the shore. I tried to push myself free, but found that I was quite caught in the little branches. Fearing at being caught underneath the water should I let go I called to my friends for help. They thought it quite funny (rightfully so), and there were numerous shouts to stifle help until Keith managed to get a few shots of my predicament. Sandy and Bill finally pulled me free with a few scratches, but I became unbalanced and fell into the water anyway. Bill and I dumped the excess water out, and Brad managed to recover a sponge of Brian's that nearly floated away in the excitement. I didn't lose anything or get too badly injured, although the poncho I had brought in case of rain was now filled with river water.

The next site that we passed was the United Refining Co. of Warren. This dinosaur of a petroleum refinery has been a sore spot on the riverfront for as long as I can remember, but unfortunately it is also one of the last well-paying places to work in Warren. As the demand for Oil increases, I don't think that they have expanded their output, but I could be mistaken. I do know that in years past the company was accused of dumping waste into the river and exhuming pollution into the air. Over the next couple of years they have placated the public by telling them that the white clouds coming from their smokestacks are steam, and by only burning the hazardous pollutants at night when you can't see the black smoke pouring out. Despite these facts it is quite interesting to look at, and some of my best pictures were taken here.

I noticed as we were drifting towards the rapids that there was a trenched river running under the refinery. I had never really noticed it before, and I tried taking several shots of it. Regretfully, I wasn't able to get even one good shot in the five photos that I took because the increase in movement required me to shoot them one-handed. As a result of trying, I was soon left far behind the others as they crossed the rapids.

I had to hurry to get my camera back in the dry bag before hitting the rapids, as one is sure to get wet while traversing them whether one falls out or not. It was the most fun part of the entire trip, though it probably would have been more so if I had gone through it with my friends instead of pursuing a fruitless quest to get pictures of the refinery. I was bounced, I watched water fall over the aft side of the kayak, but I didn't go under, nor did I capsize - the successful part of any navigation.

We were nearing downtown Warren now, and by the time we got to the Liberty Street Bridge we could see the last vestiges of the Parade ebbing to a close.

The phallically-challenged members of our troupe (the girls) jumped at the promise of a "pit-stop" at Brad's apartment, which was only a short way from the bridge. We parked our boats on a sandbar for a short respite while they took care of their business.

While we waited I listened in on an exchange between a mother and her child, whose solution to everything seemed to be to throw rocks at things ("Look mom, ducks! Can I throw rocks at them?" "A fountain mom - look! Can I throw rocks at it?"). His mother found him quite charming, and I have to say that this is the perfect example of the level of ignorance anyone will find in America's heartland.

Once again we parted with the land and set out on the open river.

Almost immediately, we ran into some geese.

I managed to snag a few pictures, but couldn't get the close-ups of the babies that I wanted because I was already a few steps behind the others.

From that point on the river was wider and deeper than before, and there seemed little chance of dragging bottom in any part of it. I struggled to catch up to the others, but Bill and Sandrita were almost completely out of gas. Brian, being the ever-helpful sort tethered them to his kayak and pulled them. It is a testament to Brian's strength that even with Bill and Sandrita in hock I couldn't catch him.

The next few hours were uneventful. The current had stabilized to the point were if you weren't paddling you were pretty much at a stop. Rivermen of all shapes and sizes began to flood the waterways, giving you foul looks like you were disturbing the fish, though their motorized boats and the fact that they were fishing in the middle of the afternoon probably had more to do with their poor haul.

The one highlight I saw in this leg of our journey was the appearance of a Blue Heron - an endangered wading bird native to those parts. I don't have a telephoto lens, so I tried hard to paddle and then to just drift by him quietly snapping a picture as I did. Sadly it did not happen, and he flew away while I was getting my camera out of the bag. I will always remember that moment, but some moments just aren't meant to be artificially preserved, I suppose.

By now most of us were tired of sitting in the Kayaks. We came to the place where some years before we had been caught in a rather violent windstorm while traversing the river. It seems an opportune time to mention it, because at the time I had no web log, and the tale is worth telling. It was a sunny day until we passed Pleasant Township just outside of the City of Warren, when it got eerily quiet on the river. I was sharing a boat with Keith, Bill and Brad were in another, Sandy and her then-husband Kelly were in a boat ahead of us, and Brian was in his new kayak. The clouds were coming just over the hills, and we could feel the air change. We were in a straightaway spot and could see a good distance in front of us. A mist came rolling over the waters, being pushed by a wind that in turn was wrought by the rain. The wind and rain hit us square on. Water that had been smooth a moment before suddenly became feet-high waves. I pulled on my poncho as Keith steered us to an inlet on land. The ground was steep, but we managed to get the boat safely there. The others were gone - we couldn't see or hear them anymore in the chaos of the storm. We pulled our jackets tight and waited for the weather to calm. A storm that raging usually doesn't last, and this one wasn't the exception. After bailing out our boat we began to search the river for our friends, who (luckily) were all right. We all had similar tales, and in our history of these trips that one still stands out as the most exciting and dangerous.

We discussed this amongst ourselves and told the tale to the people who weren't there, but our latest trip ended without any similar incident. We reached the boat launch unscathed if not a little more tired. Jeff soon discovered why we had warned him: He was red in almost all places that the kayak wasn't covering him. On the one hand, I felt sorry for him, on the other, he's handsome and tall, so he deserved it (sorry Jeff).

Once the boats were all back on dry land, we began packing up. Bill's Mom (Gayle) had procured the campground's pavilion, and Keith and Brian's family were waiting there as well - because as a surprise we were having a birthday party for Keith, who (as his nephew Liam put it) is turning sixty-nine (not really).

After a short party (which I felt like a total heel for not being able to get Keith something), I had to have Brad take me back to my car, which was still parked at the dam. Alicia and Sandy invited us to play Pictionary with them against Keith, Tim, and Brad who they claimed were unstoppable at the game. That was later in the night, so I called my parents to let them know that I got back safe and then went to Bill's Mom's (Gayle's) house to collect Brian. I found our erstwhile adventurers slumped on the front steps exhausted.

We decided to let Bill and Sandrita get some much-deserved sleep and went to Brad's apartment.

We quickly learned that it wasn't just that Brad, Tim, and Keith were good at Pictionary, but that Sandy and Alicia weren't. I'm not saying that their drawings were bad (it's Pictionary, after all - how good could they be), just that they made some questionable decisions. In one example, the answer was "Big Ben" (the famous British clock). Brad promptly drew a clock tower, which was guessed quickly, while Sandy drew two curvy lines, implying a formation of the Allegheny Reservoir ("Big Bend"), which of course needed to be explained after we had already lost.

After we had managed to win the second round of Pictionary, Brian and I decided that it was time to sleep. I went home and tried to read before going to bed, but I was so tired that I wasn't getting anything from it. Conversely, I couldn't get to sleep because of the pain in my arms and chest from paddling all day.

Overall, it was a great weekend, and I hope that our group can continue to get together and do this in the future as well.

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