Twila Fike can hardly wait for the hordes of white-water enthusiasts to emerge from the river here to sample the "raftburgers" she plans to serve at her Old Mill Grill. But down at Sang Run, the property owners who've held the land for generations hope they never come to the Youghiogheny, Maryland's only official "wild and scenic" river.
With the spring thaw has come a classic battle between the private entrepreneurs who would use the river (pronounced Yock-a-heny) for commercial gain and the private proprietors of the river banks who want to ban such activity here on the Allegheny plateau. The fight is particularly bitter because state law prevents the owners from developing land on either side of the "Yock," as the river is best known.
More than a fight over a river, however, it is a complex conflict between an incongruous wedge of the state and a distant government that folks here feel does not understand or respect them and their ways. Phrases like "benign neglect" and "double standard" often are invoked here to describe the state's attitude toward the only Republican county in Maryland.
In a sense, Garrett is to Maryland what Alaska is to the "Lower 48" states -- a last frontier many mountain ranges removed from population and political centers, a place peopled by individualists where resentment of outside government runs high and where rules and regulations are tolerated but seldom welcomed.
As the natives see it, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which owns 18 percent of Garrett County, seems only too willing to accommodate the recreational needs of city folk in this rugged land but is often unwilling to respect residents' wishes.
"People here do care and have given a whole lot of thought to issues raised by persons out there who get more fun out of raising issues than seeking solutions," said DNR Secretary James B. Coulter, in Annapolis. "There are things that just don't change very quickly. The Youghiogheny and the landowners are symptomatic of that."
It was Coulter who -- by administrative fiat, later ratified by the legislature -- slapped controls on the 22-mile "scenic corridor" on either side of the river in 1974, initially to stop strip mining and to curtail logging. Now, landowners who only reluctantly accepted state regulation are angry at him for refusing to bar rafters who have suddenly discovered the churning white water of this strangely northward flowing river.
The rafters speak with awe of the Upper Yock as the last frontier of white-water rafting east of the Mississippi. The lower part in Pennsylvania, they say, pales by comparison, and West Virginia's Cheat, New and Gauley rivers are but stepping stones to Maryland's mighty Yock.
"On the Cheat, the big word is the Yock, just like the Gauley was a couple of years ago," said Dion Carroll, a guide with the Upper Yough Whitewater Expeditions, located in an old storefront here in Friendsville.
"Right now, the Yock is in the spotlight," added Rick Stargill, the pony-tailed head of the company, which is geared to guide 2,500 customers in 1982. "It's definitely gonna be the No. 1 River."
But not if the landowners can help it.
John E. Hinebaugh, 61, spent 37 years working for the federal government in the Washington area and lived for much of that time in nearby Vienna, Va. But home is Garrett County, where his great-great-great-grandfather, John Friend, first settled in 1765, where Hinebaugh was born and where he now lives in retirement on an ancestral farm known as "Friend's Delight."
Hinebaugh's land comes within 30 feet of the river in a cluster of dwellings known collectively as Sang Run, well within the protected "scenic river corridor." Inevitably, Hinebaugh and others say, rafters will go ashore to eat lunch, to scout ahead, to litter the land.
"A lot of these boaters come in and say, 'You don't own the land; you're only the stewards of it,' " Hinebaugh said. "Well, you want to make someone mad? They're ready to take up arms" around here over such talk.
"As I told one guy," said Hinebaugh's neighbor, Col. Richard C. Browning, a square-jawed retired Marine with family roots also deeply imbedded in Garrett soil, "if you want the river, buy it."
Yet, under the law, the property owners hold title to the river bottom but not to its watery surface. The legal distinction is understood if not appreciated by Browning, president of the Youghiogheny River Association, which he organized "to promote and preserve the lawful constitutional rights of the property owners" along the Yock. He likes to point out that, before they were amended, the original state rules would have kept him from flying the flag.
"My approach to things is to be nonviolent, to work within the law," said Browning, who said he is a veteran of three "shooting wars."
So far, nobody has shot at the rafters, although some say they have been threatened. In fact, anger over state regulations spawned several incidents three or four years ago. One rafter, charged with trespassing at Sang Run, was fined $1, which outraged the property owners, but turned him into a legendary figure among fellow white-water enthusiasts.
"They have these state parks out here where they want $2 to get in and $10 to ride the snowmobile trails," groused Rusty Thomas, on whose property the trespass occurred in the famous $1 fine case. "Then they want everyone to come down and use our property for nothing."
For centuries in fact, the Upper Yock simply went unnoticed by the outside world. It begins in West Virginia, then flows through Maryland and Pennsylvania, its waters feeding the Monongahela and eventually the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Then, a decade ago, the first white-water kayakers and rafters began to test its treacherous course through Garrett.
On these voyages of discovery, the steep waterfalls and swirling rapids were baptized. The river runs over Gap Falls and Bastard Falls, over rapids known as Snaggle Tooth, Triple Drop, Zinger, Meat Cleaver, Lost-'n'-Found, and Double Pencil Sharpener, plunging precipitously for three miles at 115 feet per mile, perhaps the premiere white-water experience east of the Mississippi.
Six miles of it are ranked as "Class V" white water, defined as "exceedingly difficult; long and very violent rapids with highly congested routes, which should always be scouted from shore. Rescue conditions are difficult and there is significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap."
One of the first to run the river more than a decade ago was Imre Szilagyi, a native of Budapest with a master's degree in mathematics from Ohio State.
"It was raining when we started," he said. "Toward the end, with the really big stuff behind us, the rain stopped and the sun shone. The rain released the odors of the forest. You felt absolutely alive, like everything inside you is alive. It is one of the really high points of one's experiential history."
For years, veterans of the Upper Yock were a small fraternity of 50 or so adventurers. "If you paddled the Upper Yough, you wore that as a badge," Szilagyi said. Now, as president of Appalachian Wildwaters Inc., based in nearby West Virginia, he is promoting the Upper Yock as "the ultimate challenge . . . where the action's at" and has purchased 100 acres of riverfront property from which to launch his commercial expeditions.
The lure of the Upper Yock has been boosted by a population explosion of rafters on other rivers -- 115,000 a year, for example, on the lower Yock in Pennsylvania, and on West Virginia's trio of tributaries, as many as 10,000 each weekend in the white-water season. This recent rush to white-water, which began around 1970, prompted West Virginia to declare a moratorium last year on additional rafting companies.
"Can you imagine what it would be like living here with thousands of people coming here?" asked landowner Hinebaugh, near the banks of the Upper Yock. "A lot of people are afraid of being overwhelmed."
Alarmed at the prospect, Hinebaugh wrote Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes in February. His emphasis, he now says, was misplaced on white-water safety rather than property rights. The result: new safety rules for rafting on the Yock were issued April 12, satisfying no one.
The state also said that rafting companies may have to apply for an exemption to the long-standing ban on commercial use of the riverbanks. Szilagyi, for one, said he isn't sure he needs to apply for such an exemption since his customers pay him in West Virginia before being bused to his land.
Frustrated by the state's response, property owners asked the county commissioners to prohibit "flotation devices" on the river and also to ban forever commercial activity on the river.
The commissioners demurred and are seeking legal help.
"We're just trying to get some sense of direction, now," Commissioner Ernest Gregg Jr. said at his drugstore across the street from the county courthouse. As an aside, Gregg notes, the county -- in the midst of a severe recession with 23 percent unemployment -- certainly could use the business generated by the rafters.
The state, meanwhile, is trying to revive a local advisory committee on the river corridor that stopped meeting four years ago after members refused to comment on regulations they said were unconstitutional in the first place.
"Garrett County has had the opportunity to take responsibility for that area through zoning," asserted David Wineland, a DNR official based in Cumberland. "I wish these property owners were vocal every year instead of every fourth election year. There isn't any reason why DNR should be painted into a corner on this."
While the blame bounces back and forth, some people wish that everyone would just forget about the Yock, rafters included. It is a bit like wishing for the repeal of the discovery of America, wiser minds suggest.
So up here in Friendsville, population 565, where John Hinebaugh's distant ancestor moved from his Potomac River home in Virginia, the rafting companies are filling the empty storefronts and the merchants are ready for the rafters even if the property owners upriver are not.
"Anybody in town that has a business isn't upset," said Twila Fike. "We're even happy to see you."