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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Rick Barkley's Journal--Kayaking The Allegheny--Part 5

Day 2: More Surprises

It would prove to be a day of testing my patience, one of the reasons I took on this effort in the first place. Down trees and brush blocked the stream constantly, and I walked nearly all of the five or so miles into the city. I encountered the brush dam that nearly finished the trip. It was about 40 yards wide, eight feet high, had dammed up a five foot wide stream into a pond eighty yards in width, and because of the path I ended up taking to forge a way through, required a hundred yards of portage, even though it was only about thirty yards straight through. I had to actually paddle to the left edge, find dry land underfoot, and start moving and breaking brush to find a way to get the boat through. The whole process took almost an hour, not counting the time it took to dig leaves, sticks, bugs, and mud out of the boat when I was finally through. The only good thing about the mess was that I found what I thought would be my companion for the duration of the trip, a soccer ball. I named him Franklin, after his brand name, and I felt I had rescued him from a lifetime of being stuck in a mass of branches.

I estimated I was traveling about one mile an hour, as it took 6½ hours to cover a little more than 5 miles into the city, and another mile or so through it to the Westgate. I didn’t count the deadfalls and brush dams, but there were more than I figured on, and I was beginning to dread seeing the water begin to deepen as I approached a curve, realizing it wasn’t going to mean paddling; more likely, just the opposite.

Bev was more than a little shocked to see my condition after arriving at the hotel. Upon inspection, I had more than thirty knots, bruises, gashes, and scratches on my body, and a few of them looked worse than they were. I was very fortunate to be able to walk a hundred yards, and go in the Westgate, up to our room, and after eating something so I could down some aspirin, take a hot bath to soothe the muscles, and help the anti-inflammatory get through the system faster. I made my first concession of the trip that evening. Beginning to get a whole new level of respect for what Bev was going through, when she asked if I would consider sleeping in the room instead of the tent, I decided hardheadedness would give way to a little common sense. I rationalized this decision by thinking the first two days had been tougher than I’d planned, and a better night’s sleep would help me get through this early stage. The first two days had been sunny in the 80s, and the forecast was for rain, so self-preservation seemed the smart thing to practice.

Error In Judgment

As I look back on Day 3, I’m sure I’m not the first to misjudge a challenge, after seeing some of the task at hand. The river looked to be a twenty yard wide stream bed capable of paddling, as I saw it leaving Coudersport toward the Westgate. Bev had been where and when I needed her for the entire weekend. The original plan was for her to take the gear to Port Allegany and wait for me there, while I paddled the empty kayak.

When I got up Monday morning, feeling like I was ready for whatever lay ahead, I decided to set her free, so she could get home earlier, and get her life back in order for work Tuesday. We loaded the Murlene early Monday morning, and parted ways. It was lightly raining, so I put the spray skirt on. That lasted about two minutes. Maybe some folks can get in and out of the kayak with the skirt on, but I’m not one of them. There’s only about 24” of open space when it’s unzipped, and that’s in a narrow line, as the sides are stretched tight.

The Allegheny, probably like many streams in infancy, is made up of pools and riffles, and in this case, the shallow riffles were constant. It quickly became apparent there was nowhere near enough water to float the kayak. Once I knew this, the only way I was going to enjoy this day was to make a game out of it, so I counted the number of times I had to get out of the boat to drag it. The number could have been lower, because there were times I got back in to paddle, seeing clearly that in another 50 yards, I’d be getting out again.

I know I got out 167 times. I know the boat was almost a quarter full of water, between the rain, and what I was dragging back in with my water shoes. I know I had to get through more deadfall dams, and this time the kayak weighed about 50 pounds more, with gear on top of the hull. I didn’t count the number of times I took the stuff off the front and back, to put it in the cockpit, so I could thread the boat through whatever space I could find in brush.

What I will NEVER forget, is the three times I had to put all the gear in the cockpit, and lay on it, to get under limbs across the water, when there was no way around or over. Most of these trees had fallen due to erosion in a tight turn the early river should be famous for, and they were mature trees, with long thick limbs that, while they weren’t always loaded with leafy foliage, they still blocked the way, and many times they were out of the water, meaning there was no way over them. When I could find footing, I tried to go over, and had an easier time that way. When it was too thick, or the water too deep, weaving my way under seemed better than dragging a loaded kayak forty of fifty yards around the whole area, especially when facing five and six foot mud banks.

One downed maple will stay deep in my memory as long as I live. It had fallen over from the right bank, and completely blocked the stream. I paddled around looking at it, and the only way through without a complete unloading of the kayak and portage up and around, was to go under one forked limb lying just above the water. It didn’t allow me to slip straight through; rather, I had to start in under it, then make a sharp left turn to follow between the forks, until the brushy part entered the water. This was in a place where the water was more than waist deep, and moving pretty well. I didn’t think I needed to move the gear into the cockpit, and really didn’t have a place to get out of the kayak to do it, unless I paddled back upstream about a hundred yards.

The stuff on the front went under the first limb with no problem, and I held onto the limb as I slid down into the cockpit and eased underneath. I used my grip on the limb to swing the angle of the boat, to align more with the space between the fork, and at the same time, try to work the gear on the back under the first fork. I saw I’d have to kind of bounce the kayak a little, to get the top of the gear started under the limb. As I did this, I felt the current, with the boat now sideways to the stream, working to raise the upstream side, in effect, tipping me over. I reached out to the other fork of the limb, out to my right. That got me back on balance, but made it impossible to work the stuff behind the first limb underneath it.

I backed up a little, tried a slightly different angle, and began working the mound of equipment under the first limb. As I got started under it in the back, I felt the left side raising up again as it did before. The difference this time was, when I changed angles, I was further away from the right fork. I instinctively reached out for the limb to get back balance, but all that made contact with the bark was the tip of my middle finger. The current continued trying to tip the boat, and at the same time, I knew instantly my single fingertip grip wasn’t going to keep me righted. I got that fingertip to hold in the crease of the bark long enough to spider walk my other fingers into bark crevices, and achieve enough grip to hold the boat upright.

I backed up a second time until I had the feel of stability under me, then made a third attempt. It was more of a dragging of the gear under the limb, thinking I’d be better off if I lost a little gear in the water, than if everything went, along with the kayak itself. All this time, I had to keep in mind where the paddle was, so a branch didn’t slip it off the boat, and send it downriver without me. I couldn’t help laughing out loud when I felt the rear of the kayak pop back up as the tree lost its hold on me.

Between the switchbacks the river makes, and the pace of walking and dragging the boat, I have no idea how far the day’s travel was in miles. I only know it took 12½ hours to reach Port Allegany, and getting there at nearly 8:30, I had no daylight to work with getting camp set up. The tent went up, water was boiling for dinner, I made a quick call to Dave saying I made it, ate, and collapsed to sleep.

Fifth 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.

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