Saturday, July 17, 2010

Upper Yough, Western Maryland

If only I'd discovered boating in my teens -- I'd likely not be writing this now, nor live in Alaska, nor have the kids I have. I'd be a river rat.

The reason is that in my teens I lived in Northern Virginia, where it gets into triple digit temps and near 100% humidity in the summer. Stupid me. Back then I was climbing slimy rocks and camping in the humid Appalachian forests when I could have been paddling the cooling Potomac and other creeks and rivers west of there.

It seems quite likely that exciting water sports would have not only satisfied my yen for physical adventure, but also cooled my body enough to stay around here (I am currently visiting my Mom in Northern Virginia). Boating may well have been enough to keep me on the East Coast, instead of moving to Alaska.

For the first time I have brought my packraft to paddle Virginia and Maryland, particularly after watching hardshellers dropping Great Falls of the Potomac on YouTube.

This week I have packrafted below Great Falls (won't be dropping them on this trip, but the Virginia line looks in the realm of the packrafting-possible) on Thursday with Alan Dixon (co-founder of and Saturday with Cody Roman (who's been on a road trip out here). On Friday, Adam Cramer, an attorney with the Outdoor Alliance, led me down western Maryland's Upper Youghiogheny, from Sang Run Road to Friendsville.

Now I boated in the East last year. That was a remote, seldom run creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Hazel Creek, a three day solo trip of hiking and packrafting.

But this Upper "Yock" trip was very different from anything else I have yet done. First it was a dam released flow. Second the steep creek was crammed with boaters. And third it was pretty much the wildest run of adrenaline I have had east of the West Virginia border.

There must have been a hundred boaters or more. Mostly hardshell creek boats, but some play boats, a canoe or two, some long, oddly shaped downriver boats, some black cats, and a handful of short commercial rafts.

At the put-in the middle aged hardshellers gave me the normal stink-eye I have come to expect at paddling centers around the world, while the younger boaters ask, "WOW, is that a packraft?" (Yep, it's a packraft) "Cool! I've never seen one for real...just in videos."

During the run I got the "Can you roll that?" (Sometimes) and "That thing really spins and turns on a dime," (Yea but they don't move fast and can't boof far).

By the end of the day, even the gray-beards and bald-heads had quit their taunting and were asking, "So did you learn to paddle a kayak first?" (Nope).

It was neat that how many people had heard of the packraft and associated it with Alaska. In fact I met a Vermonter named Danny who had paddled with Ganey who posts YouTube videos of packrafting (but has recently turned to hard shelling). I met a pony tailed guy who was moving north and knew a kid from PA, a friend of Nathan Shoutis, who had run Bird Creek with me last summer. Small world of paddlers, I guess.....

The dam releases at 1 PM, we put in at 2 and by the time we'd reached the "National Falls" midway down the steep mile of beefy, boulder drops at 4 PM it was running over 700 cfs.

There were heaps of -- for me -- stacked drops. From above "Bastard" and for the next hour or so, whenever looking downstream I was shocked that we were heading onward. I could usually see a few other boaters ahead, and nobody, I mean nobody was getting out to scout.

If it had been me and Thai, or Paul, or even Brad on some empty river we would have been getting out and looking at every drop and walking most of them. But not on this run. I only got out to dump my boat and steal a glance at what was coming.

Sure it was pretty smooth boulder-garden rock-hopping and boat scouting, but mostly it's familiarity. It's all been plumbed and probed and piloted. Adam would just say, "Follow me," and then a half dozen or more times he'd wave me into an eddy and describe what moves to make for what was coming next on juicy drops named "Bastard," "Charlies", "Triple Drop", and "Tommy's Hole".

This Upper Yock run reminded me of a brown NZ run with smaller rocks and way more people. Friendly people who all seemed into the idea of a packraft as whitewater craft by the end of the four miles of whitewater. And I had paddled the best day of boating since the Hokitika, best in the sense that I pushed my experience level in juicy (500-700 cfs) combined with steep (150-170 ft/mile for the middle miles) and technical. Following a Class V kayaker who's made literally 50-100 runs of this mid-Atlantic gem helped push my envelope.

Nowhere on the Yock did I drop the single hardest rapid I have yet run, but there was a half mile in there that felt like it was my longest stretch of continuous hard paddling without getting out of my boat to scout, a stretch ending right below National Falls. I was grateful to hear that below it was still big but no AS BIG as the Bastard-National stretch.

Overall, the Bastard to National was harder than Six Mile's Third Canyon at 9.8 feet, harder (technically but not psychologically) than the must make moves on the Upper Hokitika, but not as out-there as I've felt in Canyon Creek in the pre-thigh strap days.

If I'd made this run in June, instead of walking the Magic Mile, I would have given that Mile a lot more of a go. At the level that we saw the Kings that day, we could have done it, given what I have learned after the Upper Yock. While the Upper Yock is not so steep, it had twice the flow and quite similar architecture in the technical bits and holes.

On the Yock and following Adam I boofed and I carved and rode up on pillows and made lots of moves through holes that I normally avoid but here simply couldn't. Boofing into eddies to the sides and below of 3-4 foot drops was new for me -- as was dodging kayakers.

In addition, I felt like for the sake of all us whitewater packrafters out there, I had to deliver a clean run of all the big, named drops. But doing so left me with a kink in my neck!

Adam said he normally just "bombs down" the run. By doing so we stayed ahead of the crowd which released a lot of the pressure I would have felt with a bunch of people all around the goof in the clown craft/pool toy. Thankfully I was able to drop National with all the people and video cameras running there above the carnage pit of a hole that eats people and swallows them and spits them out fifty feet downstream.

Forrest McCarthy had set Adam and me up for this "blind date" of boating, and I was grateful that Adam was helpful but not hovering, encouraging but not sand-bagging. In short, he was the best guide I could hope for, a great conversationalist on the drive and a great partner on the water.

Next year, if I have a solid roll, stronger boof strokes, and a couple 15-20 footers under my bow and stern, maybe Adam'll take me down the Virginia Line at Great Falls.

Now that's something to aspire to!


  1. So much for low water boating :)

  2. Roman, I see you've now discovered a small taste of East Coast boating. I'm not saying Alaska's not the best, but DAMN there's A LOT more goods than you could ever imagine out that way, all on the side of the flippin' road, dam release too. I bet a swim on the Magic Mile would be much worse than the Yo, at least much colder:^) I do miss the lazy, roadside boating days a bit, it's almost too easy, but maybe that's why I moved...

    Timmy J.

  3. Yea and the (bigger) water is so warm!

    I'll be coming back here and so need to start a new list.


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