The American writer Richard Bach was born in Illinois, but would feel at home in Western Pennsylvania.
"The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go," Bach wrote. "Our true work is this voyage, this adventure."
Western Pennsylvania is a land of flowing rivers, and spring and early summer are prime times to explore and enjoy them. Western Pennsylvania boasts 370 miles of officially designated water trails on its major rivers, and thousands more floatable, fishable miles on smaller streams that are just as inviting as the designated routes. A canoe or kayak, tackle, personal flotation device (PFD) and a sense of adventure can lead the paddling angler to new possibilities around every bend.
Northwestern Pennsylvania is especially blessed with floatable streams. The mid stretch of the Allegheny River winds through forested tablelands for 85 miles from Kinzua Dam in Warren County to Emlenton, Venango County. The scenery is superb and, except for one sometimes tricky series of standing waves just below Warren, the entire route can be easily journeyed by beginning paddlers in any style of kayak or canoe.
"People tell us they enjoy the Allegheny because it is such a great family river," said Pat Beddard, co-owner of Allegheny Wilderness Outfitters in Tionesta, Forest County. "It's calm and serene but still an adventure."
The modest current allows floating anglers to concentrate on the Allegheny's diverse fishery. Smallmouth bass, northern pike, muskellunge and walleye are abundant throughout the Kinzua-Emlenton stretch. Due to cold water releases from Kinzua Dam, trout fishing is popular from the dam downstream for 8 miles to Warren. Anglers catch big brown trout in this stretch on flies and lures. Trout may not be killed or possessed except from the opening day of trout season until Labor Day, when two trout, 14-inch minimum, may be kept. Bass may not be creeled on any river or stream in the state until June 13.
River floating, though, is about more than fishing.
"You pack your lunch, your fishing rod and you leave the world behind," said Beddard. "There is great fishing and people tell us they see otters and eagles, deer and big turtles, so there is something for everyone on the Allegheny."
Paddling any part of the 100-mile Clarion River water trail between Johnsonburg, Elk County, and the Allegheny River near Foxburg is a lesson in the potential of river restoration. Once considered one of the most polluted streams in America, the Clarion now attracts thousands of paddlers each summer and offers good fishing for smallmouth and trout.
"The Clarion is one of the finest outdoor experiences in the eastern United States," said Brent Lipford, owner of Cook Forest Canoe Rentals in Cooksburg. "It's in the heart of Allegheny National Forest, moderately fast, but not threatening, and it just flows through a beautiful forest valley."
Reforestation and improvements in managing effluent from paper mills and other industries brought the Clarion back to life. Like the Allegheny, the Clarion's gentle flow welcomes paddlers of all skill levels. Its scenic course along the southern fringe of the Allegheny National Forest and through Pennsylvania State Forests and State Game Lands qualified the Clarion for congressional designation as a National Wild and Scenic River. Popular access points are at Johnsonburg, Portland Mills, Hallton, Clear Creek State Park and Cooksburg. Trout fishing is best in the upstream stretches.
"We're close to things but it seems that you are out in the middle of pristine nowhere," said Lipford. "The fishing can be phenomenal. They're even catching trout at Cook Forest, and there is very good smallmouth fishing. Last weekend people were seeing bald eagles over the river. Five years ago we never saw an eagle. This is a very family oriented area for enjoying the outdoors."
Though not an official water trail, historic French Creek offers more float-fishing options. French Creek flows for 117 miles from southwestern New York, through Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties to the Allegheny River at Franklin. French Creek's clean but fragile waters harbor one of the most intact aquatic ecosystems in Pennsylvania, including hard-fighting smallmouth bass. Most paddlers float parts of the section from Cochranton downstream to the Allegheny.
River-floating anglers have a better selection of watercraft than ever before, including kayaks designed especially for fishing. These boats are generally wider and more stable than whitewater kayaks, have angler-friendly features like rod holders, tackle consoles and pulley-operated anchor systems, and can be ordered in camouflage patterns for stealth on the water.
Safety is always the primary concern on river trips. Staying off water that exceeds your paddling skills, and always wearing a PFD are the most important rules of river safety. Only 2 of 10 boating fatality victims in Pennsylvania last year wore a PFD.