River Rafting: The Yough
The Youghiogheny River, or Yough (pronounced Yock), is a river that flows out of the Allegheny Mountains for 134-miles. Along the way it carves a pathway through the sedimentary shale and granite formations, and creates some sizable water falls. It pours into the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Monongahela merges further downstream with the Allegheny River. The confluence of these two powerful rivers occurs in Pittsburgh, at Three River’s Stadium, creating the Ohio River. The Yough is a great river for kayaking, fishing, whitewater rafting and sightseeing.
Located in Owings Mills, Maryland, McDonogh is a pre k-12 school strategically located near many exciting geological and historic places: Appalachian Mountains, Chesapeake Bay, Washington DC, Harper’s Ferry, Annapolis, and the “burgs” (Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg). With the idea that kids learn best by doing, the teachers and administrators encouraged activities outside the classroom. Many of the school field trips were over subscribed, because they had the reputation for fun and adventure. Even with camping in the woods and sleeping on the hard ground, the teachers and students were all gamers!
Outdoor Adventure Club
The Middle School at McDonogh took full advantage of the closeness to Antietam, Sharpsburg, and the Chesapeake Bay. Trips to see a battlefield or a monument captured the imagination of the social studies, history, English, and math teachers. They all had input on the trip which included activities as varied as sailing, hiking, touring and camping all over the region. The anniversary trip to “Bloody Lane” at Antietam was always eery in its sounds and emotions. After supper on Saturday night, history teacher, Doug Cooper, would have the students lie on their backs in the lane, while he told the story of the Civil War battle in that very lane. Doug was able to channel the souls of the victims and survivors for the students to feel. The Middle Schoolers always came away believing they heard the screams and felt the mist on their cheeks and heard the buckshot as it zipped by their hats. Sleep never came easy that night.
Other faculty members, besides Doug Cooper, included Dennis O’Brien, Patty Hoffman, Butch Maisel and Bill Bomley, who were the “regulars” with me on these trips. And we always had a collection of parents and friends to accompany us. To get to the Yough, we drove in McDonogh buses or private cars taking a route west on US 70 through Frederick, across the Mason/Dixon Line, past Breezewood, PA and on to Ohiopyle and the Youghiogheny River. It took a good part of the day to make the trip, but the views were worth it.
Either on the way to Ohiopyle or on the way back to McDonogh, we often stopped at Fallingwater, which is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s true masterpieces. The house lies atop Bear Run, with water running through the house. This magnificent private home is about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Running the River
Leaving Ohiopyle and floating downstream, the river seems pretty tame. The cascades upstream however, shoot water over the Ohiopyle Falls. Floating the Falls is the territory for the dare devil kayaks with underwater experience only. It is a class IV falls with all of the hazards of serious rapids and chutes. Those of us with some appropriate shoes and gloves, could traverse the slippery rocks down to the river’s edge, to get a view from above the Falls. Also the trails into and around the falls were tricky, so when we mapped out our raft trips, we always started below the Falls, which seemed a good choice. No need to revisit the Chattooga River of Deliverance fame for the McDonogh Middle School.
Rock in Yough
Water in the Youghiogheny River flows directly from the Lake of the same name. It is often very cold as it goes from the bottom of the Lake into the rapids. Helmets and life jackets, once thought to be accessories, are critical parts of a rafter’s gear. For large groups the rafts usually come along with a guide in the lead boat and one in the last boat; however, since the Middle School had done the trip many times before, we felt we could handle it ourselves. We assigned four or five to a raft: one faculty member and three of four students. We were soon straddling the sides of the raft and paddling through the rapids in unison.
There is one particularly tricky part of the River below Ohiopyle Falls where a large boulder, nicknamed Dimple Rock, is situated right smack in the middle of the water flow. All you have to do is steer to one side or the other and the raft will move into the tongue of water and flow away from the rock. The last thing you want to do is to hit Dimple Rock. The reason is that if you hit the rock, it is difficult to get dislodged from it. And, if the rafters are not careful, the force of the water can swamp the boat. Man overboard!
One year I was the “guide” with a group of hard-nosed 8th Graders. It is impossible to tell an 8th Grader anything that they do not believe they already know. I had three boys in my raft that trip and things seemed good as far as experience, confidence and strength were concerned. Knowledge of this powerful river in springtime, however, was sparse.
Somehow, when our raft was approaching Dimple Rock, we paddled but the raft seemed to have a mind of its own. No matter how hard we paddled, the boat kept heading directly toward the Rock. Before we knew it, we were caught in a powerful hydraulic swirl. We were in fact hung up on the Rock. We were stuck and indeed, pushing off was a difficult task. The other three paddlers were jostled into the middle of the raft trying not to capsize.
In a desperate effort to dislodge the raft, I stepped out of the boat and on to Dimple Rock. Then I jumped back into the boat, pushing us off the Rock as I dove. Luckily the raft stayed steady and did not swamp. I had jumped back into the boat with such force, I lost my balance and awkwardly lunged over the far edge of the raft and into the river. I had dropped my paddle in the boat as I fell. I clung onto the raft with one foot straddling the far pontoon. The rest of my body was submerged in the water.
Man Over Board
All three Middle schoolers dove after me and grabbed my right leg before I completely submerged and disappeared into the river. They held on to my leg and foot for their lives. It is amazing how strong three Middle School boys can be when they find all but one appendage of their adult guide overboard! The problem was that the swift current swept the rest of my body under the raft. Unable to free my leg, I was pinned between the bottom of the boat and the rocks in the river. Despite the high water depth, the pointy rocks continued through a very long series of eddies, just below the surface of the water. My left leg was scraping along the bottom and pierced by the sharp rocks, as the raft flowed down river. Thrashing for freedom, I was feeling helpless. The kids refused to release my foot.
Eventually, as the raft came to a calming eddy, I yanked my leg free from their grasp. Drifting a few feet from the raft, gasping for breath, I was ecstatic to be at the surface of the river. Thank God my helmet and life preserver stayed on, or my head and sides would have been dashed against the rocks. Blood poured from my leg and hip, but slowed in the cold water. As I resurfaced and got back in the raft, blood ran down my thigh, knee and lower leg and turned my sock a queer pink. I was happy to be alive.
Back at the campsite, Nurse Hoffman came to my rescue and bandaged my leg with ointment and gauze. That night the campfire and some ibuprofen were the perfect remedy for shivering lips and bloody scrapes. I was grateful to be able to breathe air again.
Living to see another day, I have often thought of the valiant efforts those three students made to save my life. In the process they nearly killed me.
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”
The moral of the story is: “Be careful on the Yough and have a good guide in the boat. The fewer eager helpers the better, when Dimple Rock appears!.”
I was a year removed from university when I experienced my first trip on the Yough. I would go on to hit the rapids in WV and TN. I knew as a MS how much fun ww rafting could be.
PS: I heard screams at Antietam. That is my story and I am sticking to it.