I’ve not yet aged to perfection. I still have a little of that accomplishment/acquisition blood in me. Having had our exciting though short-lived trip down the upper Allegheny, I wanted to do something major even if just a little major. I wanted to go up to Kennedy to get on the Conewango Creek upstream from where we had joined it years ago. We had already decided that the Cassadaga Creek presented too many issues of getting in and out or finding our way through the marshy parts. The Conewango is larger. And on Saturday when Karen’s son Jordan (getting to be baptized into the tradition of transporting us to or from paddling as Kyle and Chelsea had in the past) drove us to Kennedy, we learned it was not only larger but also significantly overflowing its banks.
We found that the road to the public ramp was closed because of the flooding water and, in case we were considering something stupid, a state trooper showed up just then to tell us the whole area was under water and we might consider getting in at Frewsburg. He must have known that we were all wondering what would happen if we drove around those barricades and found a way to get a canoe into the creek!
Two things: We had already paddled the Frewsburg part of the creek and we took this as a closure to getting onto the water that day. At least that is what we thought at the time.
I only remember seeing the headwaters of one river before last year. It was the Arkansas River. That’s when I learned that rivers seem to be named for where they end, not where they begin. That’s an interesting notion to me! Somehow I had always thought that the headwaters of a river would be grand and obvious. The Arkansas starts in Colorado and the headwaters are a mere stream, of sorts, going through a meadow. This proved to be the same with the Allegheny.
After completing our flume/luge-like experience, our friend John was kind enough to oblige my desire to see where the river really started. I had googled it and found a sign indicating the headwaters. I wanted to see that sign and so he guided us back up river about 30 minutes to the meadow where the waters trickle together to begin the stream that becomes a river with deep waters and deeper history. The stream was tinier than Cassadaga Creek, that small waterway we had started on years earlier.
I still find it amazing that great things have such humble beginnings and I wonder if we will be able to someday say that we paddled to the other end of that river where it dumps its muddy waters into the Mighty Mississippi.
Meteorologist Mark still reported that the rain would stop early or mid-day on Friday so we decided to plan to go to the headwaters of the Allegheny and put in at Coudersport, PA. We packed Thursday night, realizing that with the exception of the amount of food and water we usually take, packing for one overnight is as time-consuming as packing for a week. But we knew it was worth it. Friday morning, we headed out to the headwaters to meet John, a friend of Karen’s who would take her van and pick us up the next day. We passed over many creeks, some of which we had canoed years ago, and realized that the previous two days of rain had significantly added to the water level. Hum. When we picked up John he seemed impressed that we were going but not concerned. As we made our way up the road to Coudersport, John started noting the river’s level. About every five minutes he said: “Wow, the river IS high.” After about five of these comments, even I became concerned.
Arriving at the put in point, the river was, according to Karen, at least a foot higher than when she and Mark were there the previous Sunday. It was raging down the narrow channel which was only about 15 feet wide. Should we or shouldn’t we? The preparations til that point had involved a lot of consideration and many miles of driving. We recalled our discomfort some years ago when we put in in Pittsburgh when the river was near flood stage. We had a blast in the end…and did we ever put miles on our trip that year! This time was different; very narrow with tree branches overhanging the river and rocks and trees in the river.
To go or not to go? We went. Of course. It was very different from our experience on the Ohio in Pittsburgh. We shot down the river like a flume at Disney Land with Karen in the rear trying to steer and me following orders as best as I could. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. We had little time to think of how to handle the bends in the river and the overhanging trees. A far cry from the paddling on the Ohio River in 2013 when, on our last day, we had to really push it to get one mile in one hour due to strong head winds.
John said he would try to get some photos of us passing under the covered bridge, a bit under two miles downstream. So, we pushed off and the water ripped us downstream faster than we had ever gone. We knew there would be none of the familiar quiet, contemplative conversation or opportunities to take photos. We were in for some of the most intense 18 minutes of our lives. As Karen said, we were out of our league. She in the stern was trying to steer us around obstructions and shout orders to me as to which side I should paddle. “Don’t paddle for speed,” she shouted, “just for control.” I laughed at one point when she politely asked: “Would you paddle hard on the left now?” I yelled back because it was hard to hear: “Forget the polite words. Just tell me: ‘Paddle hard on the right!'”
About 2/3 of the way to the bridge, Karen pronounced that we should not be doing this. I, perhaps surprisingly to her, acquiesced quickly. For one thing, I pictured at some point having to grab something with my recovering left arm and permanently damaging it. For another, I thought my daughter Chelsea might appreciate me living to September 27th when she and Brent would be married. While we had already made decisions to detour from our appointed paddle on the Ohio River, it was humbling to realize the need to do it again. But this was clearly not the time or place to be on this body of water. In retrospect, we might have been about to put in farther down river where it was wider. We still don’t know where we would have been able to camp because everything was so soggy along the river. For some reason, this leg was just not meant to be.
Fortunately, John was right there at the covered bridge waiting for us so after ducking under the bridge and bashing into it a bit, we were able to paddle hard and get aground again. It was exhilarating and fun, to say the least. However, if we wanted to shoot down waters like that, we should have been in a raft with helmets on! Not in a canoe.
Our second day of adventure in 2014 took us back to where it all began in 2001. It was a short drive to Red Bird Corners in Sinclairville, NY, and one of the public access areas to the Marden E. Cobb Waterway Trail. My family used to live 1.5 miles up hill from this crossroads. I remember thinking one day when I was driving home that one could put a canoe in the creek there and paddle for months and get to New Orleans. It took me some time to find out that Karen was up for that adventure though we knew right away that we could not go all at once. The trip would have to be many years long, a segment at a time.
When we walked to the creek’s edge, it was clear that a lot of rain had fallen. The creek was swollen and moving fast.
We wondered if we could get in above that point, perhaps even at Cassadaga Lakes, so we went on a drive to various put-in areas and found the water everywhere was over the banks, making once dry land into marshy land. We could not see how we would get in or get out. Finally we ended up at the lakes behind a fire department building where there was a place we could put in but the journey ahead somewhat resembled the Okefenokee swamps. Karen wondered if we could even find the main channel. And the wind was blowing hard upstream, a scenario we all too well remembered from our last day on the Ohio River last June. It is really NOT fun to push against wind in a canoe.
Completing our reconnaisance, we drove to Allegheny Outfitters in Ashville, NY, and treated ourselves to some new neoprene gear. Karen purchased some pants and I purchased a shirt. It’s always fun to add a new item to our gear. I remember the first year we purchased something special for our trips. We bought paddling gloves. I felt so professional! Since then we have purchased or been given wet suits and booties, tiny cook stoves, new sleeping bags and, of course, the canoe and paddles. It dawns on us periodically that we are seasoned canoeists! There were yet challenges that would confront us the next day that reminded us to stay humble, gear or no gear, experienced or not. We went back to Karen’s that afternoon and prepared ourselves for a two day trip starting at the headwaters of the Allegheny.
When we began this journey, we were both in our 40s. The idea of reaching for a goal like paddling in a canoe to New Orleans from Western New York seemed like something we could actually grasp some day. Of course, we laughed about the idea that “someday” would be when we were 90 years old and just barely able to push the canoe into the Gulf of Mexico. For me, the trip was about accomplishment and acquisition. Each year I wanted to paddle further each time we went out. Even though events like moving to New Mexico, and back six year later, or dealing with the death of parents kept us from getting out on the water as much as we wanted, the goal of getting there someday was always the prevailing metaphor.
In the last three years, I have felt a distinct shift. The aging process is part of that shift but even more is the process by which we do not acknowledge the new frontiers of aging. For instance, in an effort to be ship shape, I joined a gym in January 2014. I was getting stronger and muscles I did not know were there were popping out. And then one day, after swimming 1/4 mile doing the crawl, my back seized up. It had been up and down for several weeks. I had taken drugs which, along with a little stress at work, landed me in the ER one Friday afternoon. I went to physical therapy which I think helped but it would take a long time. Finally, a week before my departure to meet Karen in Columbus, Ohio, I called and told her I could not/should not do a big trip, far from medical care, not knowing how I would fare.
So, what our minds won’t do for us, our bodies eventually will. They will tell us to change our ways and our thinking. My body sent that message loud and clear. But because we have learned over the years that this is no longer about achievement but about process, we have learned to go with the flow. It has even become a deeply spiritual journey for both of us. So, we opened ourselves up to other options for the week we had both set aside.
We decided to try paddling the upper Allegheny River, ABOVE where we had put in years ago at the Kinzua Dam. We were excited because the river is wild there instead of dammed for navigation. There are little rapids to make the trip exciting. It had been many years since we paddled the wild part of the river from Warren, PA, to the first dam. Karen and Mark had done some reconnaissance a few weeks earlier and reported that the water was high but there were places to get in a bit downstream from the headwaters. So we were set to go on Thursday and start a new kind of journey while still adding to contiguous miles we had already paddled. It all seemed perfect. We were adjusting. And that is what life is all about.
You will see in my series of posts coming up that Karen and I did not make it to the Ohio River last year. We set the date and I bought my airfare for mid-May. But something never seemed to set right with the trip. Our usual enthusiasm was lacking. Neither of us did much to prepare ahead of time, though I did use the trip as my excuse to discover Sam’s Outdoor Outfitter (www.samsoutfitters.com) on Rt 12 outside Keene, New Hampshire. “The Biggest Little Store in America” is on the way from our home in Massachusetts to our daughter’s new home in Vermont and I had been looking for an excuse to stop in and explore this mini REI/EMS type outdoors store. I came away with a new UV protective shirt and a variety of new dehydrated dinners. But these things have yet to be used because our trip took a detour last year. Detours are certainly part of life and it is best to accept them with grace and see what unfolds on the alternative route. I wrote several blogs back in May and now, nearly a year later, I am posting them with this post as my introduction.
Now I can clear the decks, so to speak, for our 2015 plans.