Wednesday, August 12, 2015


My wife Inna and I recently ran the upper stretch of the Youghiogheny River (affectionately referred to as the Yock, like rock).  It is Maryland’s only wild and scenic river.  And according to those in the know, it's the toughest white water on the east coast.

Our trip began at the Sang Run Bridge and ended in the little town of Friendsville, Maryland – about ten miles of incredible thrills and chills.  You can only run this stretch of the river on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays when Brookfield Renewable Energies Partners release water from the Upper Dam.  The outfitters working the river all launch between 1-3 in the afternoon and the boats ride a pillow of water that  only lasts a few hours.  After that, it's too shallow.

We went with Precision Rafting Expeditions which Outside magazine rated #1 in the East. The guides are mostly wild-haired boys and girls who know the river like the back of their hands.  And there are safety kayaks that shadow the front and rear of each flotilla like mother ducks protecting their yellow-helmeted flock.  The owner, Roger Zbel, has been running the Yock for many years and is a no-nonsense fellow who blows a loud whistle like a drill instructor.  His confidence can be very reassuring.

This is nothing like the more popular Ohiopyle run further north on the Yock.  Let's start with, you would never even think about doing this trip on your own, or in a tube.  You would get seriously injured, if not killed.  I've done some serious white water in my time and I was pretty jumpy in the biggest rapids. 

The Upper Yock is the real deal.  You need to be in shape and ready for a rip-roaring ride.  The runs through each rapid are incredibly technical, like pinball racer, with big drops and snaggle-tooth rocks everywhere.  Several paddlers got launched into the water and were quickly retrieved without injury.

We were in paddle boats and that's not something I'm very familiar with.  I'm used to the large Grand Canyon rafts with the boatman rowing big oars.  And it took me a while to get with the program.

Inna had never done anything like it before, but she's tough as nails and she totally loved it.  But she too was a little freaked out.

The trip starts with flat water before a two-mile series of wicked three’s they call the “warmup”.  Then it's about four miles of non-stop five’s, followed by a couple more miles of three’s, and then it's mostly flat water into Friendsville.

For those unfamiliar with how rapids are rated.  A one or a two rapid can be run in a tube.  A three can be a bit hairy and requires experience – and a real boat.  And five’s are the highest rated rapid and should only be attempted by, or with, professionals

To be honest, I don't even know how Roger figured out the runs through most of the boulder mazes.  In two of the big ones, we started by dropping in backwards over a ledge and then quickly spinning the raft forward before sailing down another ledge while ricocheting off big granite boulders.  They actually have to use the rocks in some spots to bounce through narrow gaps.  It was insanely fun!

There were times when my arms were so drained, I couldn't even lift them. Thank god they gave us a rest when they could.  But it's bang, bang, bang with little eddies in between the non-stop rapids to catch your breath and let the guides explain what's up next.

We didn't start well.  At the last three, right before the five’s began, Matt got slightly off line and dumped the side I was sitting on into the edge of a large suck hole.  I went over the side, but my right foot was still wedged into the foot sock.  The raft slid sideways onto two large boulders.  And there we sat, the boat leaning on edge and pinned on the rocks, with me lying backwards in the water, on the downside of the boat, with the river rushing over my head like a fire hose blasting up my nose.  I'm sure it was amusing to watch.  But I really thought I was in big trouble.  Matt and Inna finally pulled me back into the boat like a beached whale.  Then Matt fearlessly jumped onto the rocks, pushed the raft into the main flow, and off we went.

We pulled into a big eddy with the other boats while Matt explained that we were now going to start the really nasty part of the trip.  I was in total shock.  My hands were shaking.  And I truly wondered whether I had gotten in over my head – no pun intended.

Matt, who is a young lawyer from Martinsburg, West Virginia when he isn’t running the Yock, gave us a little pep talk.  "Look, on this river, you can get in the wrong spot real easy.  It can happen before you know it. That's what happened back there.  So, we have to work as a team.  And if you follow my instructions, we'll do just fine.  But we all have to work together.”

We did really well after that.  We had our moments when we teetered on the brink of flipping, but we really got into total attack mode as we sailed through rapids with names like Bastard Falls, Snaggle Tooth, Triple Drop, Zinger, Trap Run, Boulder Dance, Meat Cleaver, Powerful Popper, Lost and Found, and Double Pencil Sharpener. 

At National Falls, an amazing boulder drop where several boats had some spills, we were in the lead and when we powered through the bottom, Roger screamed from his kayak, "OUTSTANDING RUN!"

And I felt that rush of adrenaline that comes from putting your life on the line and performing like a champ.  That is a feeling I have not felt since my days of running the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.  And I can honestly say that in those brief moments, often tinged with pure terror, you never feel so alive.

Afterwards, we all gathered at Precision's funky old headquarters above the river, ate some yummy burgers and dogs, pounded some tasty IPA beers from their tap, and watched the video and photos they took of our trip from each rapid.

Running the Yock was definitely the trip of a lifetime, and we can't wait to do it again next year.

For more info about running the Upper Youghiogheny:

*  All photos were taken by Jay Moffitt and Jess Shimrock who work for Precision.  Precision offers a digital photo package of your trip for $30.