Coordinator’s Column: Happy New Year!

I am truly looking forward to the new year and am optimistic that 2021 will be an improvement over 2020. I like to think back about all the positive things that happened this past year, but I am also reminded of all the family and friends lost this year. Hopefully with the vaccines and improved medical treatments we will move out of this gloomy time.

This New Year reminded me of some of the past New Year traditions we used to follow. One of my past traditions back when I was a white-water canoer was a New Year’s Day paddle. We would go in any kind of weather, but we took all the precautions as far as cold weather gear and always had a backup plan. One year we arrived at the Casselman River in Western PA to find the river full of slush, like a giant flowing snow cone. We launched in the slush and soon found out that the slush would break apart in the rapids but quickly reform after it reached the pool below. It was cool to paddle in but later in the day as the temperatures dropped the, slush forming in the eddies would freeze. We would use the eddies in a rapid as a sanctuary but as they froze your boat would just bounce off and throw you back in the current except now you were running the rapid backwards. At the takeout, one of our friends jumped in the water and floated by us with just his head sticking out of the slush, wish I had a camera ready.

This tradition was started by my friend Charlie who told us his father and grandfather had an old tradition of hiding money outside on New Year’s Eve and then bringing it back on the house on New Year’s Day, meaning you would have money coming in the year. The Charlie tradition was if you paddled on New Year’s Day you would have plenty of water and good paddling throughout the new year. One year I received a call from one of my paddle companions who wanted to paddle Sewickley Creek in Western PA on New Year’s Day. As far as I know we are the only ones who ever intentionally paddle this stream since it flows right below a hazardous waste site that was controversial with lawsuits and later becoming a super fund cleanup site and with US Steel and the waste site operator buying out houses in the nearby community of Yukon, PA. I know many residents took the money and still stayed in their homes, but a large portion of the residents got the hell out.

Other than a couple of class III rapids the stream really had little to offer, the banks are wooded but also piled with tailings from some old coke ovens and steel mill waste, so it would make a great backdrop for a horror movie. As we planned, I met Tom at the takeout and rode together with our boats to the put in. Tom lectured me about keeping our boats upright since a swim would probably result in a trip to the emergency room. But being white-water paddlers, a little toxic waste or raw sewage would not keep us off the water. There are several streams in this area that are only runnable after a major rain event which usually means the sanitary sewers are overrun and leaching into the stream, so a great paddle sometimes means with sewage.

We parked just before a bridge over the stream on a narrow road. Being a stream of this caliber meant there were no trails to the water, not even a fisherman’s trail because who would want to fish this stream even if any fish survived. So, a bushwhack to the water would be necessary. After fighting our way through the thick brush, we finally reached the bank. I immediately launched into the current at the top of a rapid since we had to launch single file. I had to ferry upstream to midstream and do a peel out to catch the current and ride it downstream. After passing under the bridge, I caught an eddy behind a bridge pier, so I was able to look upstream. As soon as I stopped paddling, I could hear some yelling and cursing realizing it was Tom coming through upside down, he was not a happy camper. The rest of the day was without incident, but Tom was in a foul mood to say the least. Neither one of us ever mentioned wanting to paddle this stream again.

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