Ohiopyle to allow boaters to take plunge at the falls

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The prospect of tumbling 18 feet over a waterfall is enough to bring terror to many people's minds.

But not to enthusiasts at Ohiopyle State Park, who have been pushing to get permission to go over the falls for two decades.

Now, they'll get their wish.

Beginning on Sunday -- and continuing on a trial basis daily through Sept. 12 -- the Ohiopyle Falls along the Youghiogheny River will be open to qualified kayakers and canoeists willing to take the chance.

The state Bureau of Parks lifted the ban earlier this month. If the trial run proves to be successful, the program will continue next year from mid-May through mid-September.

There will be several regulations in place to ensure the safety of the paddlers going over, but everyone involved sees it as a likely boon to the economy and recreation on the Yough.

"It can be done in a way that can be managed appropriately and safely," said Stacie Faust, the assistant park manager for Ohiopyle State Park.

Boaters' access to the falls was closed when the park was developed in the late 1960s, Ms. Faust said. Beginning around 1999, working with American Whitewater, a nonprofit group dedicated to white-water enthusiasts, the park has had one day a year designated as the Over the Falls Festival. This year's festival is today.

Over the years, during that one day of access, Ms. Faust said, some 14,000 runs over the falls have been made. There has never been a drowning.

But beginning on Sunday, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., paddlers will be able to go over at will.

Among the regulations for running the falls, the boater must have his or her own kayak or canoe. Rentals will not be permitted.

"We didn't want someone who's never been on white-water to think, 'hey, I can do that,' and go rent a kayak," Ms. Faust said.

Paddlers who want to go over must have at least three people in their party -- two to serve as spotters -- either from on shore, or in the water. They also will be prohibited from going over if the water is running too high.

When the river gets above a certain level, Ms. Faust said, strong churning currents, called hydraulics, build up at the base of the falls, which can trap someone under water.

To go over the falls, the boater must check in at the Lower Youghiogheny Launch Booth and get a launch permit. There, the boater must talk to park staff to show familiarity with white-water boating to ensure competency, Ms. Faust said.

Mark McCarty, Ohiopyle's mayor and an owner of Laurel Highland River Tours, praised the decision to open the falls, though he doesn't believe it will affect a huge number of people.

The area receives more than 1.5 million visitors annually, though according to park statistics, only about 1 in 10 people visiting actually does any rafting or boating.

"The paddling community isn't that big of a group," Mr. McCarty said.

One of the borough's concerns was the need for rescuing those who have problems. That's why the park built in the requirement that three people be present with each boater running the falls.

"You can't watch out for everybody all of the time," Mr. McCarty said. "The individual has to take responsibility for their own actions."

Vince Zapotosky, chairman of the Fayette County commissioners, said commissioners are confident that the pilot program will not be abused.

"We feel these are responsible individuals, who are trained," Mr. Zapotosky said. "There are folks out there that are very passionate about it."

Being an experienced boater is essential, Mr. McCarty said.

"You have to be able to right yourself if you should flip the boat," he said. "You want to be in complete control of your boat."

While he hasn't run the falls in 25 years, he said there's an exhilaration that goes with it.

"The apprehension or uncertainty escalates because of what it is -- the perception of danger," he said. "It's just like skiing off an uncharted course. After you've done it, it becomes commonplace."

For more information, go to: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Article/view/articleid/30802/display/full

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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