Adventure just around the bend on overnight kayak-canoe trip

gretchen mckay/post-gazette

BELLTOWN, Pa. — Every paddler has her moment when the only thing on her mind is placing her water shoes on dry land. For me, it came about five hours into the overnight kayaking trip my husband and I took a few weeks ago on the Clarion River.

We’d slid our boats into the water under sunny, late-morning skies about 12 miles upriver under the bridge at Arroyo, Pa. Having kayaked the family-friendly Clarion on a number of occasions, we figured we’d travel at least 4 mph — maybe 5 mph if we put some muscle behind the paddling — a pace that would take us through this tiny crossroads in Elk County not long after we’d eaten our picnic lunch on one of the many giant rocks at the river’s edge. From there, it’s be an easy 5 miles to camp at Clear Creek State Park, leaving us plenty of time for a walk through the woods before a grilled steak dinner.

Talk about miscalculations. We wouldn’t pull our boats to shore at Clear Creek until well after 6 p.m., more than three shoulder-aching hours off schedule.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a gorgeous, meandering ride as the Clarion zigzags through narrow valleys of old-growth hardwood forests bustling with wildlife. (We spied several hawks and a blue heron.) Virtually alone on the water, with nothing but the occasional ripple of whitewater or a jumping fish to break the solitude, we were totally immersed in its natural beauty.

It just took a bit longer than we expected.

Slowed by a strong headwind and stretches of shallow water, a GPS we’d carefully packed in plastic in a life vest revealed we were only traveling a little more than 2 mph. Thank goodness, then, I’d taken my father’s advice and thrown a pair of paddling gloves into my kayak, and remembered to pack plenty of water along with the Pringles.

Tired as we were, when we finally pulled our kayaks out of the water and carried-dragged them to the rustic log cabin we’d rented at Clear Creek, we also were pretty darn happy. If you’re looking to commune with nature while getting a little exercise and fresh air, an overnight paddling trip is the way to do it.

Luckily, you don’t have to own your own boat to take an overnight paddling trip. Several paddling outfitters rent canoes and kayaks for overnight adventures of varying lengths on western Pennsylvanian rivers, often with a shuttle service that eliminates worries about how to get back to your car when the trip is over.

Indian Waters Canoe and Kayak in Tidioute, Warren County, for instance, offers several two- and three-day trips on the Upper Allegheny (15 to 45 miles, $55 to $100 per canoe), with overnight tent camping at developed campgrounds or on public lands along the river. For more enthusiastic paddlers, there’s also a seven-day, 107-mile excursion from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta ($300 per canoe, with a three-canoe minimum).

Generally, two adults and two small children can fit in a canoe, while kayaks can have single or double cockpits.

All trips are self-guided. But that’s not as scary as it might sound to beginners because the Upper Allegheny, a Class 1 river like the Clarion, is fairly calm and slow; some spots are shallow enough that you can wade across without getting your shorts wet.

Heading south, Westmoreland County’s Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters can arrange a two-day paddle on the Youghiogheny River ($66.50 per boat, three boat minimum). The 28-mile trip starts in Connellsville, with most boaters over-nighting in tents on Layton Island, and ends at its livery in West Newton.

Securing a kayak or canoe, though, is only one part of the equation. You’re also going to figure out what equipment and gear to bring on the paddling trip, what will work best for meals and how to best prepare for any emergencies that might pop up.

Obviously, it’s a bad idea to set off for a weekend trip without at least some basic paddling skills — say, how to get in and out of the boat without falling in the water and how to properly hold a paddle. (If you’re traveling in a group, it’s important to know every paddler’s limitations.) Keystone Sojourns in Ellwood City offers a two-hour class in paddling Tuesdays and Thursdays ($25) at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park. You can also try your hand at paddling through Kayak Pittsburgh, which offers free kayaking 4 p.m. to dusk Monday-Friday in Lake Elizabeth on Pittsburgh’s North Side, near the National Aviary (10 a.m.-dusk Saturday and Sunday, $5 per boat).

You’ll also want to make sure no bad storms are brewing and that the river you’re paddling isn’t too swift or high for your ability (searchable at www.rivergages.com).

Piper Lindell, who with husband Josh runs Allegheny Outfitters in Warren, Pa., maintains packing for a paddling trip is no different that car camping or backpacking in the woods, especially if you’re traveling by canoe, most of which can hold upward of 800 pounds.

“You just need to rethink the space,” she says. Kayaks are a bit tricker, thanks to an enclosed cargo area. Her advice: Figure out what you want, and then “cut it in half.”

How much is too much? There should be a minimum 6 inches of freeboard (the distance between the water line and the top of the boat).

Must-haves include a life vest for each paddler, and a throw bag and rope that can be used for water rescues and to retrieve a boat pinned by the current. You’ll also need a sleeping bag and tent, unless like we did, you rent a cabin. Bring a flashlight, an adequate water supply and bungee chords for strapping everything down. That way if you flip, all your supplies won’t go astray.

Speaking of unintended dips in the water, you’ll want to make sure you dress properly in quick-drying synthetic fabrics that wick perspiration away from the skin, instead of cotton and wool, which have no insulating ability when wet, notes Dave McQuaid of Keystone Sojourn, a Western Pennsylvania guide service. Don’t forget rain gear.

McQuaid also suggests including a tube of topical aloe vera in your first aid kit to soothe mild burns, sunburn and insect bites, along with bug spray and non-water based sunscreen. To keep items like cell phones, toilet paper and iPods safe and dry, invest in a good dry bag (or two) because “plastic bags don’t work.” Except for gathering garbage, that is, so be sure to bring at least one along for your trash.

Other essentials include waterproof matches or lighter and a small ax or saw for cutting firewood. If you have room, a starter log also is a smart idea.

In planning your menu, it helps to make a list of ingredients for each snack or meal. Remember, there are no mini-marts in the middle of the river, so you’re out of luck if you forget sugar for your coffee or ketchup for your hot dog.

Remember, too, that in Pennsylvania it’s illegal to drink or be under the influence of alcohol while operating a boat. So wait until you’ve pulled to shore to enjoy happy hours.

The difference between a boat that stays on shore and one that disappears downstream can be a matter of inches. Be sure to pull your canoe or kayak onto higher ground when you’re setting up camp or secure it with rope. Also, don’t tempt critters by leaving food out in the open or tempt fate by pitching your tent under a dangerous dead branch.

Perhaps most important of all, let someone know where you’re going to be paddling, and when you plan to return because your cell phone may not work on the water.

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