Embrace America's Rivers

Allegheny River Journal...

Week #1

Chautauqua Lake, Chautauqua, NY, The Journey is Launched

Week one of the WaterWorks River Journey brought with it a flurry of events. The official launch, originally scheduled was pushed back a day to help complete a few details of the vessel construction. The vessel finally departed Somerset, PA on the afternoon of Sunday 04.September 2005 and was enroute to Chautauqua Lake in western New York state. Upon arriving in Chautauqua later that evening, the WaterWorks team set up shop at the Cambridge Inn as a staging area for duration of the first week. The boat was launched into Chautauqua Lake on the morning of Labor Day. The boat launch ramp that we had intended to use turned out to be too shallow for the boat to slide off of its trailer, so we had to go a couple of miles further down the lake to a public boat launch at Prendergast Point. We had originally rescheduled the launch for noon on Labor Day, but because we had to move our launch point to a location further away we ended up not making our 12pm appointement. The original intention was to have a departure ceremony, but because we were a bit late in arriving it ended up being more of an arrival ceremony. The photo at the right is one of Morgan Simmons pedaling the BPV Libelula towards the dock at the Chautauqua Institution

A small crowd of about 25 people had gathered at the main dock of the Chautauqua Institution to see the journey off and most of the group stuck around until the vessel arrived. There were an assorment of people present, some family, some friends, some who had read of the journey in a newspaper article published the week prior, and some who just were there to see why the crowd had assembled. Amidst all of the preparations, ceremony and continued vessel construction during the first week, we found time to begin our river and watershed education program in two of the local schools. We visited the Chautauqa Lake Elementary School on Thursday and the Bemus Point Elementary school on Friday, visiting a total of eight classrooms and 150 kids.

Even after the BPV Libelula was launched, there was much work still to be done in order to prepare the vessel for its upcoming journey. Bunks for sleeping were constructed inside the accomodations space, the galley (where we cook our food) was assembled, and a head (where we go to the bathroom) was mounted. In addition, the steering and throttle controls for the emergency propulsion, a 25 HP outboard engine, were mounted and hooked up. Two different was of covering the sleeping area (using a tarp or a tent) were implemented to keep the inside of the boat dry during foul weather. We also began the process of going through all of the items that we had packed to put on the boat in order to figure out what we really didn't need. It is quite easy when packing for a four month river journey to bring a bunch of unnecessary stuff!

Week #2

Chautauqua, NY to The Allegheny River

Week two began with crew member Aimee Rowe joining the vessel at Chautauqua, NY. Aimee has past experience working on boats and doing environmental education, so she is a perfect addition to the WaterWorks journey! She plans to be aboard for the entire duration of the journey, therefore earning the title of Chief Mate.  One of the first things we did during this week was take the boat out of Chautauqua Lake and portage it down to Warren, PA. The three small rivers that flow out of the lake (Chadakoin River, Cassadaga Creek, Conewango River) are too small for the BPV Libelula to travel on. So, we put the boat back into the water where we thought we'd have enough water to float our vessel, which draws about 16 inches of water. We spoke to numerous locals about where to put the boat back into the river, and ended up deciding on the boat launch ramp on the Allegheny River at the helipad of the hospital in Warren, PA which is pictured here.

The level of the Allegheny River is controlled by the Kinzua Dam located just a few miles upriver from Warren, PA. Some people told us they thought there wouldn't be enough water in the river for our boat to float. Others thought we would be fine as long as there was at least 1500 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water being released from the dam. On the day of our departure there was about 2180 cfs coming out of the dam, which led us to believe we'd have plenty of water under the boat. As we got underway, we learned a little bit about how to read the river. We looked for downstream V's on the surface of the water, which means there is a submerged obstacle like a rock or a tree just beneath the surface.  

We learned that disturbed, rippled water often appears in a shallow areas, but the same surface bubbling also can 
happen in deeper waters when waters merge or when the river narrows. We learned the hard way that there is shallow water on the downstream side of an island after having gotten stuck on the large spit that forms behind it as the waters make deep channels on either side. We also learned that if the ducks are standing in the water, then it is probably not deep enough for our boat to float. The first two days were pretty tough going as we ran aground a total of over 20 times. Some of those times were a result of of our inexperience of reading the river. For example the photo at left shows us pulling ourselves out of shallow area using some ratchet straps and a dead tree that was lodged in the center of the river. In this particular case, the river split around an island, and we chose to go on the wrong side. The other side of the island wasn't that much deeper either, and there were some places on the river that no matter which side of the island we chose to navigate around it was just too shallow. We were lucky to be able to get off the boat and push through these shallow waters, and at no point did we hit waters so shallow that we had to turn around. We are also lucky that we did not poke a hole in one of our aluminum pontoons as we dragged so often across the bottom. The pontoons got scratched up and even dented in a few places, but subsequent inspections to the hull after we removed the boat from the water showed the scratches weren't too deep and the pontoons were still quite sound. We decided after very slow going and a lot of aching back from pushing the boat across the river bottom to take the boat out of the water in Tidioute, PA and find a place to put back in where the river would for sure be a little deeper.

In spite of us being delayed by our frequent groundings, we were still able to keep up with our educational program for the week. We started out on Monday at the Warren Elementary Center in Warren, PA and also visited Tidioute Community Charter School in Tidioute, PA, West Forest Elementary School in Tionesta, PA, and Seventh Street Elementary School in Franklin, PA. We visited a total of 11 classrooms and 258 students

Upon arriving in Franklin, PA and talking with more of the locals, we were advised not to put the boat back in the river here because it was still quite shallow. There hasn't been much rain this summer, so the river levels are especially low. We were advised to put in again at East Brady, PA which is where the Allegheny River becomes officially navigable by commercial traffic and depth in the center of the channel is adequate due to the pool created by the lock and dam system that is run by the Army Corps of Engineers. So we continued on down to East Brady, where on Saturday we worked on the boat a little bit more and added some doors, sealed some holes that might let water inside our sleeping area, and repacked our supplies for the upcoming week that was before us. We got underway on Saturday evening and passed by a new bridge being constructed on the river at East Brady (Photo). It had been a long week without a shower, so after anchoring for the night we jumped into the Allegheny with a bar of soap and cleaned off by the light of the full moon.

Week #3

Allegheny River by Canoe: A Different Way to See the River

We were up early Sunday morning because we were hoping to get through five locks in one afternoon. The locks on the upper Allegheny are only open on the weekends for recreational purposes since there is little commercial traffic in the area, so we had a lot of ground to cover. It was a little after noon when we arrived at the first lock and pulled the rope that sounds a bell that alerts the lockmaster of a waiting boat.   There was no response, so we pulled up to investigate and found that the operator had yet to arrive. A very friendly lockmaster showed up a little before one and apologized for his tardiness.   He patiently delivered a quick lock tutorial and we were off. Or down, really.   He first had to fill the chamber with water in order to get it at the same level as the upper part of the river.   Then, very slowly, the doors opened. A light system very similar to stoplights is posted right next to the lock doors, and when the green light glows, it serves as the cue to enter the lock. When we got the signal, we undid our lines and headed for the lock. This lock is a little bit different from all other locks on the Upper Allegheny in that instead of using a line from the boat, ropes are provided; we simply had to hold on and slide our hands down the rope as the water level decreased.   Once we were securely inside the lock, the doors were shut and the water level quickly started to drop.   This lock was also special in that it is the deepest lock we have gone through so far.   The boat descended about 24 feet.   In the photo at left, Aimee is at the bow of the boat holding onto the lock lines as the door opens to leave the lock and proceed down the lower part of the river.

As the Libelula left the lock we got a good view of the water flowing down the dam and the closing lock doors. Boaters have to be careful going downriver where locks and dams are present because the dams can blend into the river.   It is designed so that water simply spills over the side of a wall, and if one is not looking closely, it can look like the river is just continuing to flow.   It is especially tricky since the locks, where the boats have to enter to pass down the river, are on the side of the dam next to the edge of the river.   Luckily, signs are posted that warn boats of an approaching dam and the whole of the river near the dam is blocked off with buoys--except, of course, the little strip of water that leads to the locks.

After passing through the lock, we looked at the time and realized that we were going to miss our window of opportunity to get through the other four locks that day unless we picked up some speed.   With great reluctance, we dismounted the bikes, dropped the motor into the water, and in short order arrived at the second lock.   All proceeded as planned until...the motor began to sputter just a few miles upriver from Lock #7 at Kittanning, which would have been our third lock of the day.   A quick check of the fuel tank showed that the motor was not as fuel efficient as had been predicted by the mechanic: there was only a little bit of gasoline left.   We hopped back on the bikes, but our progress was quite slow.   The presence of dams severely limit the free movement of water, which causes the river to "pool" out, resulting in little to no flow in the river when there isn't much rain.   Faced with the facts that we were moving quite slowly and the dams were going to be closed for the week, we decided to pedal to the nearest launch ramp, which was up Cowanshannock Creek in Gosford, and take the boat out of the water.   A visit from a dragonfly resting atop the tent eased the frustrations we had about our current predicament. (Photo)

We foolishly thought that we had the situation under control, but the fates had other plans.   Early the next morning after Morgan took his bike off of the boat, put some wheels on it, and headed off to retrieve the car and trailer which was parked about 25 miles upstream, Aimee heard some noises outside the boat and looked out to find a small team of Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission employees hard at work unloading an earthmover and temporary fences.   Upon further investigation, she found that they were there to tear up the ramp and replace it with a new one.  It did look like a new ramp was in order, but the timing was most inconvenient.   Luckily, the workers were sympathetic to our story and agreed to wait until Morgan had returned with the trailer.   Meanwhile, the tire on Morgan's bike had popped and been torn to shreds about three miles from the car.   He happened to be biking beside a local, however, who kindly offered to come back and collect Morgan with his car, which he did.   Just as soon as Morgan arrived back to the boat with the trailer in tow, we hauled the boat out of the water. The next moment the crew was there with the earthmover, tearing the ramp up. What timing!   We made the decision to return to Morgan's house in Somerset, PA in order to make a number of modifications that would hopefully help the boat move more efficiently through the water and increase our speed.

Before the modification work could begin in earnest, however, we wanted to cover some of the river that we had had to miss during the past week due to shallow water.   The fourth grade teacher in Tionesta, Jim Knauff, had mentioned that we might be able to borrow his leaky canoe for such a venture, and a quick phone called proved that he was good on his word.   Tuesday morning we visited the two schools along the river we had scheduled for that week in Freeport and Tarentum, PA and in the afternoon headed back up to Tionesta. Jim and his family treated us to a delightful evening, and in an interesting turn of events, he and his friend Ashley Sweda located a non-leaky canoe for us to borrow from the Tionesta Boy Scout troop #82.  Early the next morning, Ashley drove us up to Tidioute so that we could begin our journey where we first had to take the boat out of the water

A delightful three days of canoeing followed.   The first day we made it a good ways past Tionesta, stopping on an island to camp for the night amongst some very tall grass that made for a comfortable mattress.   We paused in Tionesta to admire The Hunting and Fishing Museum of Pennsylvania.   While the museum is still in its planning phase, a lighthouse has been erected to note the location from the river, pictured here.   It is a strange sight to find a lighthouse along the river.   According to the museum staff in Tionesta, there are only four inland lighthouses in the state of Pennsylvania, the other three being found on Lake Erie. The first day we also passed under some bridges that have gained a fair amount of attention in recent years. Two bridges in the region have been selected for demolition and reconstruction.   Before the process could begin, however, an environmental assessment found that living near these two bridges were the largest populations of northern riffleshell and clubshell mussels known in the world.   Scientists have been working for five years studying these endangered species and carefully moving them so that they will not get harmed during the construction of the new bridges. According to an article published recently in the Sportsmen magazine, the lead scientist feels that the river is "very, very healthy" because of the large diversity in sizes she and her team have been finding. 

The next day we learned that even on the upper Allegheny in a canoe, the going can be tough.   In Oil City we battled a class II rapid that didn't succeed in flipping the boat but did get the front of the canoe quite wet. Just past the city, the river straightened out, making a perfect tunnel for strong winds to build.   It took us a fair amount of time to make that stretch downriver, paddling against such a strong force.   Late that evening, an even stronger wind came up, which hollowed through the tent and brought with it rain that lasted for much of the next day.   This slowed our progress quite a bit, but by the time we finished up the trip in Kenderdell Saturday morning we felt satisfied that we had obtained a better sense of river life along the upper Allegheny.   It is the least developed river that we will be on during the journey, and we were reminded of this when we caught a glimpse of a bald eagle resting among the treetops.   Another animal that accompanied us for much of the canoe trip were these tiny water boatmen. They numbered in the thousands and would skitter along the surface of the water just out of the reach of the paddle as we moved down the river.

Week #4 

Allegheny Mile 6 to Ohio River

Week four began at Morgan's house in Somerset, PA where we had kept our vessel, the BPV Libelula while we were canoeing on the upper Allegheny River. Given our experiences thus far in the shallow waters of the upper Allegheny we had gathered enough information that led us to want to make some changes to our vessel. The biggest change was a modification to the paddlewheels so that they could be pulled out of the water whenever we had to use the engine. We had discovered that when we needed to use our outboard, the paddlewheels would keep on spinning ferociously though the water! This added drag hindered our speed, and also caused a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on the paddlewheels themselves. To fix this problem, we added a hinge to the paddlewheel support arms (pictured at left) allowing them to rotate 90 degrees and be removed from the water. Another thing we did in Somerset was to finish the electrical system on the boat. We removed about 250 pounds of batteries from the vessel, as our experiences during the first few weeks suggested we had overestimated the amount of electricity we needed to store onboard. We ended up having a bank of two small batteries that can be recharged by the solar panel on the roof of our vessel or by the alternator inside of the outboard engine. To finish up our electrical system, we installed our navigation lights that we are required to turn on during twilight or if visibility is restricted, for example when it is raining. We don't travel at night on the river because it is difficult to see where we are going, and it is also more difficult for some of the large boats traveling on the river to see us. As part of our electrical system, we also installed a radio so that we can communicate with other boats on the river and people who operate the many locks through which we'll be traveling. The electrical system on our vessel is a 12 Volt DC system, very similar to what is found in most cars. 

The modifications to the vessel in Somerset took awhile to complete and provided us with an opportunity to repack the vessel and keep onboard only the things we really needed. We finally pulled out of Somerset, PA on Wednesday morning with a boat that was lighter, more organized, and better equipped to handle the nearly 2,000 miles of river that remained before us. We had two schools lined up for this week, one in Rochester, PA and the other in Toronto, OH. In order to keep to our schedule, we drove in a car to both of these schools, as we would not be passing through them on the river until the coming weekend. Dealing with the shallow water in the upper Allegheny and the subsequent vessel modifications set us back time-wise from our original plan, but our cause was not yet lost. The photo shows the Libelula being launched once again into the Allegheny River with the help of the folks at Allegheny Marina, located a few miles north of the city of Pittsburgh. We were warmly welcomed at the Allegheny Marina, and stayed there for two nights as we continued to make preparations for yet another departure.

After getting the boat back in the water, visiting our schools scheduled for the week, and getting things as ship-shape as possible aboard the Libelula, we departed the Allegheny Marina on Friday afternoon and headed towards our first large city, Pittsburgh, PA. On our way we came across an encounter with another stern-wheel vessel, the E.L. Thumper pictured to the left. We thought some people might have never seen a real paddlewheel vessel before, so we thought we'd take a photo! At one point in time, large boats of this style would move cargo up and down the river. They aren't used so much for cargo transport today, having been replaced by the more powerful propeller-driven diesel powered towboats, but they still are a relatively common sight in certain parts of the rivers. As we made our way into Pittsburgh we were greeted with an array of bridges, of which there are quite a variety! The city of Pittsburgh is built on the point of land at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, so most ways in and out of the city involve crossing over some sort of bridge. 

We passed through the city of Pittsburgh proper during the early morning hours on Saturday, as we were forced to get an incredibly early start due to the Head of the Ohio regatta that was taking place that very morning. The Head of the Ohio is a day-long event where crew teams from schools in the east cost and mid-west come to compete. They race on the Allegheny River, which is closed to all other traffic for the duration of the event. We passed the finish line for the event just as rowers were beginning to bring their boats to the water, narrowly avoiding yet another delay. As we floated by, we also had a grand view of Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. Just beyond Heinz Field and the finish line of the regatta is the head of the the Ohio river, as the name of the crew event suggests. There is a large fountain at the point of land where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to create the Ohio River (photo). Where exactly does one river cease and another begin? Morgan ponders this very question as he looks across the point in Pittsburgh and relishes the last moments on the Allegheny River. For this river journey, such a significant confluence will happen again only one more time, when the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi almost 1,000 miles downstream.

Note: This journal continues at Ohio River Trip Log