Life on the water: Locals who venture away from Pittsburgh's shores see a new world
Bob Cessna goes below from the top deck of the Lydia C, the boat that he lives on with his wife, Lydia. "It?s a very uncomplicated way of living," Lydia Cessna said.
Bob and Lydia Cessna on the Lydia C, the Pluckebaum houseboat that they live on docked at Fox Chapel Marine on the Allegheny River.
The Cessnas say they aren?t cramped on their houseboat. "Sometimes I have to holler to see where she?s at," said Mr. Cessna, who stands 6 feet 4.
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Tourists flock to the inclines on Mount Washington for the postcard image of the fabled Pittsburgh skyline. But a growing number of residents familiar with the three rivers say the best view is from the water.
"It's such a different perspective from the river," said Laura Kinzel, a 25-year Pittsburgh resident and fledgling kayaker. "It's such a beautiful way to see the city."
Decades of improvements in river quality and a steady re-emergence of wildlife along Allegheny County's 14 miles of waterways have been mirrored by a gradual shift in attitude toward recreational boating.
Generations of Pittsburghers who were raised to steer clear of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers are dipping one toe in at a time.
Others who are not familiar with the industrial abuse of local waters for more than a century are jumping in, kayak first.
The number of registered powerboats in Allegheny County -- less than 25,000 in 2011 -- has been declining for more than a decade, but the number of non-powered watercraft have dramatically increased.
Dennis Tubbs, regional outreach and education coordinator of the Fish and Boat Commission in Southwestern Pennsylvania, estimates there are 20,000 owners of kayaks and canoes in the county today, watercraft that were virtually non-existent when he grew up here in the 1960s.
A budding community of houseboaters also is emerging in the summers, with some calling the river home year-round.
Whether you prefer the peaceful lapping of the water on a kayak, the wind slapping your face on a speeding powerboat or lazy days lounging on the deck of a houseboat, the rivers are ready to be explored.
"Most people don't realize the amount of adventure that can happen just in their backyard," said Lora Woodward, Venture Outdoors program director.
The flowers in the yard were withering, and the lawn was dying. For empty nesters Bob and Lydia Cessna, it was time for a change. So they made a drastic one.
Nine years ago, the couple sold their Monroeville house and bought a used 73-by-18-foot 1977 Pluckebaum houseboat.
Now, their backyard is the Allegheny River.
"It's a very uncomplicated way of living," said Mrs. Cessna, a real-estate agent, as she sat at the table in her eat-in kitchen earlier this summer. "It's very relaxing."
The Cessnas are among a community of like-minded, sun-kissed residents who traded in home ownership for a boat slip at the Fox Chapel Marine.
In the summer months, they get together for happy hour a few times a week, watching the sun go down and welcoming the night with a cocktail.
When lobster went on sale at Wholey's last month, 10 couples signed on for three each and brought a dish to a dinner party on the decks of the largest boat at the marine. At dusk, the captain pulled away from K dock for an evening cruise.
"We have more interaction here than we did with the people in our neighborhood at home," Mr. Cessna said.
They bought the boat, a fixer-upper already docked at the marine, in 2003 at a bargain price and renamed it the Lydia C. They have completed about $40,000 in renovations to the 1,400-square-foot living space.
The boat spans three levels with two bedrooms and a cuddy, a full bath, a living area, the kitchen, decks off the front and back and a sizable top deck. The cost of the boat slip and utilities ranges between $500 and $600 a month.
"People get the misconception, they ask, 'Aren't you and your wife cramped?' " said Mr. Cessna, owner of Cessna Motor Sales Inc. in Penn Hills, who stands at 6-foot-4. "Sometimes I have to holler to see where she's at."
A "morning person," Mrs. Cessna kayaks up the Allegheny at sunrise and returns before her husband wakes.
In cooler temperatures, he likes to leave open the French doors leading onto the back deck and wake up to the crisp air filling his lungs.
Other than evacuating when Hurricanes Ivan and Frances flooded the region, sending breakaway docks and boats down river, or when an ice chunk had caused the boat to list, or tilt, their winters are similar to most landlubbers'.
"The only thing I miss about my house is the bathtub and the hot tub," Mrs. Cessna said. Her husband points out that it was her decision to omit both from the renovation plans.
Most often you can find the couple on the back deck of the Lydia C., where they have a few drinks on weekends, read or feed the ducks -- but never the geese.
"You know what's great?" Mr. Cessna asked. "Sunday mornings. I sit here with a coffee and read the Sunday paper. It's wonderful."
For the past three years, a tightknit circle of friends, most of whom are Groveton volunteer firefighters in Robinson and their spouses, spend Wednesday nights chowing down 42-cent chicken wings at Paradise Island on Neville Island.
The common denominator of the group, which can fill as many as six tables on the outdoor patio on wing nights, is the boat each piloted to get there. The watercraft aren't brand new or in pristine condition, but they serve their purpose: to explore the 7.2-mile stretch of Ohio River that these men and women have known most of their lives.
"It's become a tradition," said Deb Dankert, one of the group's ring leaders.
"Everyone enjoys being together."
At Paradise Island, boaters dock for free as they play beach volleyball, listen to live music in a sandy outdoor bar or head inside to test their bowling skills.
While the idea of boat ownership may seem extravagant to some, Mrs. Dankert and her husband Ray have found ways to make it economical.
"We had three kids in college at one time, and there was no money for vacation," she said. "Boating was vacation."
Mrs. Dankert's family owns property on the back channel of the Ohio River between the Emsworth and Dashields dams.
Her cousin, Emerson Evans, or Junior, allows many fellow firefighters to dock their boats at the property in the summer -- saving them from slip fees, which can run about $1,500 a summer at some popular local marinas.
The group tends to stick to their section of the river, which is quiet due to limited access points.
The property also has a pavilion with wooden posts and tables that makes for no-fuss cookouts and get-togethers.
"It's our piece of heaven," Mrs. Dankert said. "Nobody bothers us."
Nearing the end of a Tuesday evening beginner paddle class with Venture Outdoors, 41-year-old Dawn Gentile stopped paddling.
"Look at that," she said as she grins at the skyline and mutters about not wanting it to end, her voice trailing off.
The kindergarten teacher is taking in the moment: the gentle flow of the water and views of a bustling city that feels so distant from the middle of the Allegheny River. But that's not why she came.
Ms. Gentile bought a kayak this summer and after a few times out, her sore muscles left her questioning her technique.
"I just wanted to learn how to do it the right way," she said.
After two hours and 45 minutes of instruction, she's got it and so do most of the 20 students in her class.
Venture Outdoors offers beginner paddle courses at least twice a week at the North Shore and at a second location in Millvale.
The course costs $33, which includes use of a kayak, instruction on paddling and maneuvering, and about two hours of practice on the river.
The classes offered through Venture Outdoors and its sister program, Kayak Pittsburgh, which rents kayaks under the Clemente Bridge, in Millvale and at North Park, have become a first stop for Pittsburghers interested in getting on the water but who are not ready to make the plunge alone.
Kevin Hanley of O'Hara is among many locals who knew nothing but the river's earlier filth.
"Even though I've lived in Pittsburgh my whole life, I've been on the rivers maybe four to five times," he said.
Now he's taking a different approach than his parents, who believe the rivers are still sullied, and is learning about the water before his kids grow old enough to show interest.
Rentals at Kayak Pittsburgh's North Shore location have grown tenfold since the program began in 2004, from 1,400 rental hours to 14,000 last year.
The number of participants in the Venture Outdoors kayak programs also has grown from 600 to 2,000.
"Kayaks have become the image of Pittsburgh and its growth and transition to a healthy place to live, a place where you can live, work and play," said Ms. Woodward.
Although river use is rising in the county, many residents still won't dive in. Less than 4 percent of residents currently use the rivers, by powerboat, kayak or canoe.
Public access to the rivers has improved in recent years due to efforts in a number of local communities, but many in the boating community say it's still lacking. Ken Kisow, the Groveton fire chief who runs a river rescue at his station, believes the shortage of free ramps drives many boaters out of the county.
Residents who store their boats at home and like to go out on weekends can end up waiting in lines at the locks and public access points.
Some marinas that charge a daily fee for ramp use also feel crowded.
"There are all these boaters who would love to use the river, but nobody can afford to buy property and build a dock," he said.
Others say the rivers can't shed their bad rap. "A lot of people still have that negative connotation of the rivers and don't realize they're not the same rivers as when this was a heavy-duty industrial place," said Darlene Schiller, a volunteer with Venture Outdoors.
"They're much healthier than they were then."
Mr. Cessna's thoughts on landlubber Pittsburghers are far less complex, if not an affirmation of his laid-back, river-loving lifestyle:
"They're missing the boat."
First Published August 23, 2012 12:00 am