Away I Go
At a little after 7 Saturday morning, September 1, I took my first step into the water, and began the three week journey. I had chosen neoprene boots for the opening stage of the trip, thinking they’d keep my feet as warm and dry as anything, and having walked the first five miles before, I knew they’d be right footingwise. I crossed under route 49, and made my way downhill into the woods. I’d found an easy way to carry the Nashua, by the oarlocks, over my head. Progress was good, and I remember thinking that Gilliland was like so many other media types I’d been involved with before, that early in the morning out in the country, they didn’t come through often.
I’d been walking about 45 minutes or so, and my head was down a lot, picking my way through the rocks. They were sandstone, mostly flat, in a wide shallow stream bed, with only a trickle of water running through it, so I was making good time. Suddenly a bright flash of light in front of me startled me, and I looked up, only to see Don Gilliland perched on a log lying across the stream bed. As I took back everything I ever thought about him, he gave me an impish smile, and stuck out his hand.
He had missed me by no more than two minutes up at the start, and his uncle owned a farm up by the highway, so he knew the lay of the land. He talked to me about the start for a few minutes, relented to let me keep going, but mentioned to me that there was a tram road running along the stream bed, about 20 yards up the hill, that would end up at Seven Bridges, where I was to meet Bev, and the walking would be much easier. I declined his suggestion to subvert the project so early on, and struck out through the rocks again
I was a little down that the beavers I saw on the recon walk of the first stretch didn’t show up. The dams were all bigger now, but no wildlife photos for me. Somewhere between three and four hours, I reached Seven Bridges, but I have no idea where that name came from. The only bridge I knew or cared about, was the one over the stream, where Bev was waiting. It signaled the entrance into the Roger and Kerrie Dunn farm pasture, and thankfully, they had, as promised, shut off the electricity to the fence. I gulped some Gatorade, smiled a lot for Bev’s benefit, than a little before 11, I hopped back into the stream. Don had told Bev he believed the afternoon half of the day would be a lot tougher. He had no idea how correct he was.
As I made my way through the stream in the pasture, I was quickly aware of a major change in the conditions. The bed was now a sharp cut in the terrain, about 10 feet wide and three to five feet deep. Gone were the flat sandstones I had enjoyed, replaced by river gravel. Not the small stuff you can walk on, but large egg-shaped rocks, largely jutting up out of the water, which was now ankle to knee deep. Footing had deteriorated to the point where I was often making seven or eight steps, to gain one step forward. I had to fight for every step, because a fall would no doubt break something. The overhanging brush grabbed the Nashua at every turn, further taxing my balance, and even pulling it by rope left it victim to thorny crab apple limbs. I was sure the boat wouldn’t get through without puncture. I had duct tape in my day pack for that purpose, and wondered if I brought enough.
There would be greatly appreciated stretches where a silt bottom replaced the rocks, and I could actually look around a little at the terrain. This was all the more trip I had to experience to realize it isn’t best to expect to reach a certain point by a certain time. I suppose the smartest way would be to try to backpack enough gear to camp, and take more time walking. I can vouch for the fact that with a backpack on, I’m sure there’d be plenty of falls, grabbed by the tree limbs as well as slippery rock, meaning gear would no doubt suffer some damage.
I got two quick peeks at beaver swimming past me midway through the afternoon. Too fast for a picture, they came out of the dams back at me, then disappeared into the banks underwater. The water became waist deep in a couple spots, and I thought it would be best to switch boats. I would regret this decision almost immediately, but there was no way to know then. I didn’t want to fall into a deep hole with a loaded daypack.
Luckily, there was a gravel road leading from the stream out to the highway. It turned out to be beside the Rigas fish ponds, which had been used no doubt to entertain clients in the past, but now was open to the public. I walked to the highway, and miraculously, was able to get enough cell signal to call Bev. I told her to drive along 49 until she found me, and 20 minutes later, she did. We made the switch, I climbed in the Murlene, manned the paddle, and 50 yards later, around two quick bends, I was dragging the kayak over a deadfall. A steady diet of 12 more fallen trees assured me of a good night’s sleep.
Somewhere in the 3:30 range, I could see the roof of one of the Rigas Barns where I was to camp. The other barns came into view, and I felt a great relief and accomplishment. I had made it to the spot I had planned, and about the time I thought I could get there. Bev was on the small bridge over the stream with a camera, so I sat down in the boat and tried to paddle to the bridge. It was a pretty sad example of paddling, and would have been easier to continue walking and leading, but I felt the need to have some fun at the end of a day of mostly work.
Under the Stars
Bev went into town to find us something for dinner, while I set up camp. I changed, hung a clothesline, and tried to dry my clothes. It was during the change I saw the blisters on the ends of both big toes. I hadn’t felt a thing, probably because they were wet. About the size of quarters and rather pruned, I figured they’d be a problem soon enough, though they didn’t hurt at the moment. I just gave them some air, and moved to other things.
After talking about the day, and what lay ahead, Bev kissed me goodnight, and went back into town. I jotted some notes down, pored over the map, hoping for some paddling water, and took down the clothes. After dark, I couldn’t wait to see the stars, and it was a magnificent show. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I was amazed. The sky was just full to bursting, and everything was bright, so easy to see. The need for sleep finally took over, and I crawled inside my nylon condo.
I got an instant surprise when I emerged the next morning. The color white was everywhere. Frost covered any dense surface in view. Coffee was being delivered, and a little shivering got my heater going, as I started preparing for the second day.
Fourth Installment: Rick Barkley kayaked the Allegheny River from it's beginning near Gold, PA to it's end at Pittsburgh this summer. Solomon's words chronicled that trip from Rick's brief reports from the river. This is Rick's in depth journal of this adventure of a lifetime, presented in installments, as it is quite lengthy. I think you will find it very interesting. Editor.