Finally getting to see the headwaters

IMG_3252[1]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.IMG_3249[1]


Making the decision

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.