The idea for this trip started about halfway through our Winooski trip. We had already started thinking about it last fall while we were still paddling. Our original plan was to take two weeks in April (the in-between season in Vermont) and paddle the Connecticut river from the Canadian border down to the Massachusetts border. All winter this is all we could think about. In early March we started buying gear and doing our research. As our start date, April 15th, drew nearer we were closely watching the rivers. Unfortunately, it was a very cold March and April so the rivers weren’t melting very fast.
I’d been watching the rivers and finally on April 7th as I was trucking snowmobiles south for summer storage, I saw free flowing water. Of course it still had icebergs, but the rivers were finally free. The next day we loaded up our boards and hit the Winooski River! The water was cold and high, but we had a blast! This day of paddling got us thinking that maybe we should consider a different option for our paddling trip, something warmer with less of a chance for flooding.
A couple days before our trip we drove over to the CT river for some scouting. We found that at least 30 miles of the river was still frozen, the thawed sections would still have ice chunks with possible ice dams, the river banks were still covered in ice and snow and we would be putting our tents up in snowbanks. All these factors made us change to plan B, which was still just an idea. I quickly called up my family down in Pennsylvania to try and find us some river shuttles and we shuffled our plans around. The new plan was to drive to PA, paddle 100 miles, visit with family for two days and then paddle another 100 miles on a different river before driving back home. With two days to go we had a whole new plan and we started gathering our stuff, printing maps and straightening out our logistics.
We left early on April the 14th and drove 500 miles to Warren, PA. As we were driving southwest, the CT river was flooding and we were driving through pouring rain. As we drove farther west we watched the temperature drop until we pulled into the Allegheny National Forest when they finally dropped below freezing and it started to snow. What a great start to our trip. We had planned to camp and organize our gear for an early morning departure. At this point the greatest decision of the whole trip was made, we booked a hotel room and ordered pizza. In the warmth and dryness of our room, we organized and packed as the snow fell outside.
We woke up to an inch of snow on the ground and decided to sleep in. We still had plans to start our trip on the 15th, we just wanted to wait for it to warm up a bit. We drove to the Kinzua Dam where our trip was going to start. The Dam is in the Allegheny National Forest and there were bald eagles flying around the massive reservoir above the dam. After stalling all morning, arranging our gear and making last minute adjustments to our dry bags, we put on around 1pm. We paddled hard for the first couple hours to get some miles in and to keep our blood moving and our fingers warm. The water was still on the high side and we cruised down the river. We paddled through channels and around islands. Close to 5pm we started looking for a good campsite. A majority of islands on the Allegheny river are open for camping, so we just had to find the right one. At this time of year it wasn’t hard to find a spot, the grass hadn’t grown up yet and all the pricker bushes were just beginning to take over. We set up camp, put the water on for hot chocolate and dinner and settled in to eat, look at the map, plan the next day and then head to bed in our nice warm tent.
Our second day on the river started very leisurely. We cooked ourselves scrambled eggs and toasted up a couple bagels for the carbs. We got on the river around 10:30 with the plan that we would paddle 24 miles to Baker Island which would put us in a good spot to get off the river in 5 days. We made time for a relaxing lunch by the river, which consisted of our standard river lunch; PB&J on a bagel and tuna on Ritz crackers. Somehow, this lunch always tastes better on the river than at home. Being cold, tired and hungry makes anything and everything taste so much better. After lunch we kept paddling through beautiful valleys lined with bare hardwoods that would be an unbelievable sight during fall foliage. The current kept us moving even though our arms were tired from not paddling all winter. Around 5, we pulled up to our planned island and found the perfect campsite. All of our campsites ended up being perfect on this river. After setting up camp, we sat down to a tortellini dinner with bits of summer sausage. Like every other night, we were in bed snoring before the sun went down.
Day three was a big day. First thing in the morning we paddled out of the Allegheny National Forest. From here down, the camping was more scarce and so we had to choose a place to paddle to before setting out for the day. We chose a small island just north of Franklin, PA meaning we would paddle 30 miles in total. This was the most either of us had ever paddled in one day. The biggest challenge is just sticking with it and continuously paddling. You don’t have to paddle at race speed, just steadily throughout the whole day. We put in a full day of “work” paddling from 9am to 5pm. The last mile was directly into a strong wind, and it was brutal. After paddling all day the last thing you want is a headwind. We clenched our teeth and set in for the longest mile of our paddling career. We could see our destination, but it was seemed almost unreachable. We pulled off the river, both dead tired and wolfed down some trail mix before setting up camp and having two servings of dinner. The next day would only hold 20 miles, which seemed like nothing after day three’s marathon.
We got up late and made ourselves pancakes with maple syrup on top. Despite being limited to a couple dry bags and what could fit on top of our boards we ate well, really well! We got on the river around 10 am so that we would have ample time to paddle our 20 or so miles while looking for a campsite. It was a beautiful day and we cruised through some giant, slow oxbows. At one point we were headed under some low hanging evergreen trees and saw a mature bald eagle take off and head down river. I took a look around me and as I was looking up river, a younger bald eagle (without the white head and tail) swooped down from the branches that we just went under and dove into the water. He came up with nothing, but it was still a rare sight for us New Englanders. We kept paddling totally in awe of what we had seen until we came up on a waterfall running directly into the river. We paddled right up to it and even poked our heads under it. Just across the river, I spotted a picnic table up on the river bank. Upon further investigation, it was the perfect campsite, the Taj Mahal! We had flat ground, the afternoon sun, a picnic table and a little shelter. We couldn’t pass it up, so we took off the river at 3pm and basked in the afternoon sun and relaxed. We spent the afternoon on dry land playing cards and walking down the rail trail. As darkness approached, so did the porcupine. Our little friend came into camp and started gnawing on the shelter. Apparently the plywood tasted so good, he kept at it all night (or so JJ claimed, I heard nothing).
We saved 14 miles for our last day and planned to meet my grandfather at 2pm in Emlenton for a shuttle back to our truck. We hoped to have a relaxing last day and not paddle too hard. Instead we got up late, took too long to eat and only made it on the river by 11. Our Taj Mahal campsite was just too good to leave behind. To make it worse we had a hearty upriver wind to battle as we tried to make our way to the take out without making my grandfather wait too long.
We paddled into Emlenton at about 1:55 and started looking for the public boat launch. At exactly 2 we pulled up to the launch which was just before the bridge. It wasn’t the best maintained launch, but it got us out of the water. We loaded up and drove the couple hours back up river to the Kinzua Dam. We drove up to the Rimrock Overlook that provided us with a great view of the Allegheny Reservoir. My grandfather set up the charcoal grill and cooked us up some steaks and asparagus which was paired perfectly with an ice cold Yuengling!
What a great way to sum up a 5 day, 107 mile river trip!