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Friday, November 30, 2007

Rick Barkley's Journal--Kayaking The Allegheny--Part 13

Day 21: An Eerie Discovery

Though I was in the shadow of the Oakmont Bridge, the mist was my friend for a change, and I had no fear of being seen, as I took a long bath with the last of the biodegradable soap. The water wasn’t even the slightest bit cold. The radio told me it was 64° at 6 a.m., and it was set to break a record high in the Pittsburgh area. It’d be a good day not to have to paddle.

I thought about a lot of things regarding the trip and Allegheny that day. One thought was how much the river changes width, even in the lower stages. Many places, it wasn’t too much more than 100 yards wide, even after I started locking through, but there were places it was easily more than 300 yards wide.

By noon, every stick of gear was bone dry. I began packing up what I wouldn’t need, and cleaning out the kayak. I think there are a few leaves under the seat that may never come out, but other than that, it looks like it just had been out for a daily paddle in the lake near Buffalo. I have one freeze-dried entrée left, and one bottle of water. This means no coffee in the morning, but I know I can do anything necessary tomorrow. I went through a lot of fluids the day before, including indulging in a bottle with green tea mix. The forecast isn’t for blistering hot on Saturday, so I should be fine. I have pretty good hunger pangs, and don’t want a headache, so I munch down two granola bars.

I’ve been on this island 20 hours, and one squirrel is all I’ve seen. Another thought I had today, is all the more wildlife I’ve seen throughout the trip. One bear, six deer, eagles and osprey, and not much else. Well, there was the bobcat. Check the photos, if you don’t believe me. I would have bet I’d see ten times that many deer, and stumble on turkey or coyote. I once rode in a car from the NY state line to Buffalo on the Thruway, and saw both about 10 miles apart, right along the road. But 350 miles of river, and not a one of either.

It’s kind of fitting I see a squirrel here; Oakmont Country Club is up over the hill a couple miles, and the squirrel is their logo. I’ve also been amazed at how bug-free the river has been in general. True, I’ve been in the tent by dark most nights, but there have been relief breaks during the early hours of the morning, and never a bite. (See Stats page).

This place doesn’t look like Buckaloons, so if the Boy Scouts care for it, they’re a different strain, but it’s certainly good enough for camping. Someone took a piece of machinery through the woods, clearing a wide trail, and pushing brush back to create many camping spots around the island’s upper end. I’d been intrigued by the campsite next to me, and only suppressed my curiosity because I was sure there were people in those tents. By 11 o’clock in the morning, I figured the tents must be empty; there hadn’t been a sound or sight of a person. I kind of tip-toed over, and slowly took in the entire place. It was very strange, to say the least.

There was a very rickety but usable boat dock in the water. There was an old motorboat tied up to it. Onshore, a welcome area greeted me. There was a homemade traffic light, a hula skirt tied around a tree, photos of young people in frames on a tree trunk, and a homemade Welcome sign nailed to a tree. Behind the ‘foyer’, was what seemed to be the kitchen. All of this is out in the open. Several tables, all covered with red and white checkered tablecloths. Some have several large hard shell coolers lying on them. One large table is covered with pots, pans, cooking oil bottles, spices, an open beer can, and cooking utensils.

A large tent is next, wide open. The door has been rolled up and tied. A sleeping bag is on the floor of the tent, unzipped and thrown open. Sunglasses are in the mesh pocket. Other personal items are lying on the floor, and it certainly appears someone just got out of the sleeping bag, and stepped out of the tent, which also has a 10” tear in the rear wall. There are other tents, all zipped up. Not all the same size or make, there are at least eight. Behind the first tent sits a three wheeler. Childrens’ toys sit in various places through the compound in the sand.

Off to one side, an automobile motor sits on a wooden pallet, with three 12 volt batteries hooked up to it. A short distance away, a full length mirror stands up against a tree trunk. Just beyond that is a horseshoe pit, complete with chairs for spectators. As I passed one table on my way out, I noticed a photo lying on it. Out in the weather, starting to delaminate, but not blown away or ruined, it was a photo of a group of young people, taken in the camp. All seemed happy, and there were Mohawk haircuts on some.

Of course, questions abounded in my mind. Why the motor? Where was everybody? Why leave the place as if you were coming back in a minute? The photo was as intriguing as anything. Untouched by wind, lying undoubtedly where it had been placed how long ago, and wouldn’t the boat be the way to get there, instead of tied up there? It was as if the people had suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. I may wonder about this place from time to time the rest of my life.

Of course, I didn’t have time to reflect for long. No sooner had I returned to my campsite, than a large black Lab came crashing through the brush, barking and leaping all around me, and I’d left my beaver brand ball bat at the tent, some 20 yards away. About that time, I hard a woman’s voice yelling at the dog from the water. The dog, meantime, had run right past me, then returned, then ran again, telling me he wasn’t interested in a fight, but rather, a playmate. I walked out to the edge of the river, and saw an elderly woman sitting in a lawn chair in a canoe, paddling lazily along, a second Lab in the boat with her. Somehow she kept the thing upright, as the dogs alternately jumped out of the canoe, swam to shore, tore around the island, then swam back out to the canoe, and climbed in. She assured me they wouldn’t hurt me. I felt like yelling back, “After I change my underwear, I won’t hurt THEM, either!”

A Few Observations in Reflection

I took my chair to the river’s edge, and turned my thoughts to the next morning, when I would finish the journey. I had no trouble passing the time that evening, rolling back through the memories of the past 21 days. It didn’t seem right that I was so close to the end, when all along, I just kept putting the blade in the water, trying to get to the next spot on the map. Anyone reading this with the idea of doing something like this in their mind, I have a few observations. Don’t put out an itinerary. It’s nice when people can meet you, but it takes away from the enjoyment of the trip itself, if you worry that you won’t get to where you need to be on time. It was kind of like a road rally. It wasn’t a race, but you needed to be in a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. I did more worrying than necessary about lost time, and setbacks. I don’t know how to do this perfectly, because at the same time, you can’t store enough food and water for three weeks, so you need the kind folks who agree to meet you. The limited space in a kayak makes it tougher to pack right, and I imagine I’d suggest any solo trip be done in a canoe.

One major thing I didn’t discover until I saw the photos Bev took in Coudersport, was that the Murlene was badly overloaded in the stern, even though we were nowhere near the listed weight capacity. Her pictures of me paddling in empty on day 2 show the kayak drafting a lot more water than it should have been, actually being dangerously low in the water. The next day, loaded with gear, it was so low, had I been able to see it with me in it, I probably would have repacked it heavy in the nose, to try to even it out. Bev admitted on the way home after finishing, that she was scared stiff at the sight of the back half of the kayak just a few inches out of the water. Later pictures show it sitting at a much better angle, and I can only guess that the balance of weight was tipped by stored water bottles, all kept in the stern.

Another thing I noticed in the photos, was how far back I sit in the boat. I knew the seat wasn’t located in the middle, but with the hatch creating extra weight in the rear, and the seat set as far back as it is, it’s pretty hard for the stern not be weighted down. I’m a little confused by this, as I’ve had pictures take in it before, and never noticed it sitting low like this. In the picture of me coming in to the Westgate Inn at the end of Day 2, the nose of the kayak is literally out of the water, and there was no gear packed in it. Bev has a soft spot in her heart for the kayak, mostly due to its stability, and her Mom’s name painted on it, and I imagine we’ll keep it for pleasure paddling. As for myself, it’s been a painful piece of equipment. It’s like a bad kid. A lot more work than most, but you have to respect the effort and the performance in the end.

It’s hard to say I don’t like a kayak that just took me somewhere no one’s ever been before, but I would try to choose something a little better fitted for the task next time. I feel for the person who was trying to pack for this trip in a smaller kayak, unless they had support every day. Hypothetically, I could see doing the trip again, to enjoy the improved system, borne of experience, but it will have to be someone with a lot more money and daily support. A GPS is the only way to make equipment changes out on the river in the early stages, when you can’t get to easy access, but you need your crew to get to you. Day trips right before, to know the conditions in the early going, would be a big help, but it’s a whole different thing, if you’re going to put in that kind of time on something that’s more drudgery than excitement or relaxation.

The last dinner was cooked and eaten, meaning the last water was gone. I would paddle away the next morning, having left my empty bottles and granola bar wrappers in the garbage can at the Mystery camp, meaning, no one could tell I had ever been at any place I camped. I’m as proud of that as anything, especially in the face of some of the trash I witnessed along the way.

Thirteenth 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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