Down the River


“In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass.” –Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

We hoped to be on the water by noon. When, by 2pm we finally pack and launch our kayaks, I feel an itching sense of urgency that is only alleviated by the sight of the Kinzua dam receding in the distance.

It feels odd to start our trip at such a controversial point. The Kinzua Dam, constructed in the 1960s, displaced over 600 Seneca families from their reservation and flooded 10,000 acres (nearly 1/3) of their territory. Later, a four-lane highway was built through the rest of their remaining land.

The purpose of the dam was primarily flood control—for white people only apparently—and secondarily for hydroelectric power generation, the revenues of which the Seneca will never see. The final use of the dam was the creation of the Kinzua Reservoir for recreation, which the Army Corps of Engineers saw as an added bonus.

As our kayaks drift away from the industrious mound, I can’t help but think of Ed Abbey’s disgust over the Glen Canyon Dam, and his account of an extinct adventure through the canyon that no longer exists.

“PLAY SAFE. SKI ONLY IN CLOCKWISE DIRECTION; LET’S ALL HAVE FUN TOGETHER!” read the signs by lake Powell. The phrase reverberates in my head until we round the first bend, and all, finally, goes silent.

The river is high and swiftly carries us past the first island. Before long though, we come to lazy, meandering bends and find ourselves having to paddle fairly hard. We are not equipped properly for this trip. One kayak is for white water, one is heavy and over thirty years old, and the last sits low on the water with no storage space at all. The three of us have to pull ourselves through the river when it slows around the curves. We have sleeping bags stuffed in garbage bags strapped to the boats, extra clothes and sleeping pads forfeited at the car for lack of space. A cooler strapped to the front of the white water kayak sinks the short small boat into the water. We look like a group of ignorant college kids with no planning skills or forethought—which I guess is precisely what we are.

The good news is that no one else is on the river to see us.

To our right sit fancy riverside houses (mansions) fully equipped with canoes, kayaks, fire pits, expansive decks, and clean mowed yards. But we barely see a soul. To our left is the Allegheny National Forest, thick with so many trees, I can’t see more than a few feet in. A doe and her two speckled fawns stand at the river’s edge, watching us pass by.

We start out our trip talking and laughing and pointing at every bird, every animal, every cloud in the sky. We whoop and holler at the refinery (our halfway point for day one) as we sail through class 2 rapids, all soaking wet, and thankful we didn’t tip over. After a few hours though, we stop, drain a good portion of our bag of wine, and continue on in hot buzzed silence. For the next hour, we let the river carry us slowly along the bank, until we realize it is getting late into the evening, and we are still miles from our campsite.

By the time we reach Crulls Island, the sun is setting and the air is getting cold. We set up camp, start a fire, and I warm up by the smoking damp wood while the boys take a swim in the river. All is still and quiet—and besides losing one bag of hotdog buns to a sneaky raccoon, we don’t hear anything else on the island for the rest of the night.

Morning on the river consists of oatmeal and a quick camp teardown before jumping back into the kayaks. My back and elbows are aching, my butt is soaked before we even push off from the island (thanks to the shallow kayak) and we all look a little defeated by the river.

Because it looks like the rain is going to hold off until the evening, we let the river do most of the work and rest our paddles on our laps, floating backwards and sideways and any way the water wants to take us.

While floating past an island, backwards through small shallow rapids, feet dangling in the water, I notice something white dropping down through the trees. Bird shit. I look up to see a bald eagle perched on a dead tree, just above my head. Its orange beak is the size of my foot, its body as big as a medium sized dog. Over the next few miles, we see 5 or 6 more eagles, a river otter, soft-shelled turtles, a wood duck, and dozens of mergansers. This stretch of the river runs mostly through the national forest and state game lands. The difference in wildlife is immediate and incredible.

By the time we reach Tidioute, the end of our 30 mile trip, where car number 1 is parked, we are exhausted and starving. It takes all of our strength to empty out the kayaks, drive back to the Kinzua dam, pick up car number 2, drive back, load the kayaks onto the car, and find a place to eat.

But we feel exhilarated. We feel as though we could do this forever. We are already planning our next trip before the first one is even over. Where can we camp next? Where else could we kayak?

When Ed Abbey took his adventure down the river, he lost his map after the first rapid. He packed chunks of meat and bread for food, slept on the ground and dug out holes for his hips and shoulders. He built fires and went exploring and drank the water straight from the river (definitely not advisable today though).

You don’t need fancy kayaks, ultralight gear, special shoes, special clothing, freeze-dried food, or any of that crap to have an adventure. You just need to pack up and go. You need to be safe, but not so safe you never leave your house. You don’t need to count your miles and track your time. It’s not a race. Just sit back and let the current take you down the river.


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