Glimpses of a Good Future
© 2009 HurstMediaWorks
Not since the time of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, 160 years earlier, had one section of the Conemaugh River carried so many people during one day: On June 6, 105 boaters participated in the Stony-Kiski-Conemaugh Sojourn – the largest number in the sojourn’s 10-year history.
I was excited to float among them in my new kayak. Its bright red bow surged ahead of the soft-brown river’s quiet current, pushing small wakes with each paddle stroke – especially after more-experienced boaters told me how to hold the double-bladed paddle properly and use it efficiently. Think of sitting in a box, they said, keeping arms close to the body and using shoulder and torso muscles more than arm motion. Rather than pulling the paddle with the lower hand, they recommended, push with the upper. It didn’t seem to be a natural motion at first. But the Conemaugh’s gentle waters downstream of the Conemaugh River Dam were a good place to concentrate on paddling mechanics, and before long a rhythm emerged.
To manage the armada of 60 or more canoes and kayaks on the water, sojourn organizers sent them downriver in two clusters an hour apart. Within my group, people were friendly and outgoing, flowing into and out of conversations as different paddling paces brought boats into proximity. A sojourn is not a race, an endurance challenge or an adventure sport but simply an opportunity to experience a river in a relaxing, educational way. Participants range in age from retired to kids just reaching their double-digits. Some have been paddling for many years, others are doing it for the first time.
Within two hours our flotilla had arrived at Saltsburg, where dozens of boldly colored canoes and kayaks – in an assortment of blues, greens, oranges, yellows and reds – already lined the bank. Saltsburg’s annual Canal Days festival was underway, offering us the opportunity to stretch our legs and get some lunch. Booths of foods and crafts lined the bricked way in Canal Park, and the usual crowd coasted between them.
What distinguished this from the typical festival scene, however, were the number of parked vehicles with racks – some designed to carry boats, others to carry bicycles. On this balmy June afternoon, Saltsburg reminded me of Ohiopyle – our region’s mecca for paddlers and bicyclists.
“Isn’t this great?” asked Eric Sutliff, the owner of Saltsburg River & Trail, while sitting on the porch of his business and enjoying the crowd. Sutliff dreamed of this a decade ago when he started his canoe/kayak sales, paddling excursion and bicycle rental business in the town’s circa-1912 feed mill – before the Kiski-Conemaugh became a state-featured river in 2000, before the first sojourn, and before the West Penn Trail extended more than 17 miles from Saltsburg to Blairsville.
Upon returning to the now-Kiskiminetas River (which begins at Saltsburg), we paddled for another couple of hours before loading our boats back on vehicle tops in Avonmore. Then we drove to Quemahoning Lake, in northern Somerset County, where sojourners were to camp for the night.
Pulling into the Quemahoning Family Recreation Area around 5:30 p.m., I was treated to yet-another impressive sight: Three-quarters of the sizable parking area were filled with vehicles, many of them with boat trailers. All of the campground I could see contained tents, trailers and RVs. At least two picnic shelters to my left were occupied, other people were down at the beach, and still others were fishing. The place was full of life. Yet this was just a nice spring Saturday – not a holiday weekend – and most of the activity was unrelated to the sojourn.
What an exciting day! My new kayak had performed well on its maiden voyage, and the sojourn had attracted historical numbers. But most importantly, I’d been given glimpses of our future.