"Back left! Back left!" he yelled above the roar of the rushing water. "Now dig in! Everyone forward!" Adrenaline pumping, muscles straining, we paddled furiously through the rapids, avoiding a spill in the ice-cold river. Our eight-mile run through eight rapids gave us a Rocky Mountain high, but the thrill of white-water rafting is available -- and affordable -- a lot closer to home.
Only 190 miles from Washington in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, is the starting point of rafting trips on the white-water Youghiogheny (pronounced yock-a-gainy) River. We started off from D.C. on Saturday at a leisurely pace with a scenic drive through western Maryland, detoured for a state park picnic, and still arrived in Ohiopyle with time for a walk along the "Yough" to check out our next day's adversary.
Our trip the next morning, conducted by one of the river's four licensed outfitters, Mountain Streams and Trails, lived up to the expectations of novices and more experienced rafters alike. Although our first view of the swift-moving river had given us reason for pause, we were reassured by the guides -- one for every three or four rafts. Several experienced kayakers assisted in controlling the pace of the trip as well as being on hand to rescue any "involuntary swimmers." After explaining the fundamentals of safe rafting, our trip leader outlined the way through the first rapid. Raft by raft, we headed off on our wet and wild adventure, regrouping to receive instructions before each successive rapid.
Since the high water level (six feet) at this time of year creates a fast current, ours was a quick three-hour trip. Later in the season, the same eight-mile trip can take as long as five hours. Normally, the outfitter provides lunch at a halfway point along the shore, followed by a swim and sunbathe. The high water prevented us from lunching along the way, but we were able to enjoy the lunch with our fellow rafters and guides in the relative comfort of dry clothes at the end of the trip.
Commercial rafting on the Yough started in 1969. A dam-fed river, the Yough has a long rafting season -- from mid-April to the end of October. The experts say the most enjoyable rafting time is late May through early June, but the crowds tend to come during July and August. Reservations should be made as early as possible, keeping in mind that most outfitters require full payment in advance. Prices of guided rafting trips average around $30, with weekdays less expensive than weekends.
Because other accommodations were booked when we attempted to make reservations nearly a month in advance, we stayed at the Ohiopyle Youth Hostel. For $5.25 per person, we got comfortable beds, access to a fully equipped kitchen and a touch of local color from the river stories told by house mother Sue Moore.
Local guest houses and inns are inexpensive and comfortable. For instance, the old- fashioned general store, complete with soda fountain, souvenirs and sundries, rents double rooms upstairs for $18 per night. And, of course, camping is always an option at one of several campgrounds in the Ohiopyle State Park. RAFTING DOWN THE RIVER REACHING THE YOUGH -- From the Beltway, take I-270 to Frederick, then I-70 west to Hancock, U.S. 40 west from there, then north on Maryland Route 381 into Ohiopyle. The four licensed outfitters serving the Yough are Laurel Highlands River Tours, 412/329-4501; Mountain Streams and Trails, 800/245-4090; Whitewater Adventurers 412/329-8850; and Wilderness Voyagers, 412/329-5517. OTHER RAFTS, OTHER RAPIDS -- The Cheat and Gauley rivers in West Virginia are also within driving distance of Washington. The popular Cheat, in Albright (about 250 miles from D.C.), is comparable in difficulty to the Yough, and has 23 licensed outfitters. The more expensive and challenging Gauley in Summersville (about 300 miles from D.C.) is not recommended for inexperienced rafters..