The first thing the prospective Washington white water hotshot needs to know is how to spell Youghiougheny. Then he has to find it on the map, be willing to drive half a day to get there, paddle like crazy to survive the wild water and drive half the night to get home.
The Youghiogheny River runs through Ohiopyle, Pa., whjich is west of Cumberland, Md., and about halfway to Japan. You pronounce it Yock-a-hainy, but once you're in with the wet crowd you can just say Yough. That is, "Yock."
The lower section of the Yough, from Ohiopyle to the takeout at Bruner Run, may be the most popular white water attraction on the East Coast. Last year close to 100,000 people made the eight-mile run. Mostly they went in rafts with commercial outfitters, but a good many found their own way down in canoes and kayaks. Countless others enjoyed shorter, three-mile "loop trips," where they could walk back to their cars.
Last weekend alone more than 1,500 river rats pounded through the rock-strewn curlers at Double Hydraulic, Cucumber, Bottle of Wine, Dimple and Railroad Rapids.
The lower Yough serves as a midsummer salvation for serious Washington-area paddlers, who are legion. Its flow is controlled by a dam and, because river-running is such a popular and prosperous trade there, the dam operation is keyed in part to keeping the river at proper levels for rafting and boating.
This time of year, when most rivers have dried up from the summer drought, the Yough keeps pounding along. The cars plod ever westward, groaning under the weight of burdened roof racks.
"I try to make the Yough three or four times a year," said Dave Brown of Fairfax, who makes his living repairing wrecked canoes and kayaks and who spends almost all his weekends on fast water.
"I save the Yough for when all else fails," he said, adding that those circumstances have arisen often enough that by now he feels, "I could do the Yough in my sleep."
He invited me to join him Sunday. We drove all morning in his red Datsun with the yellow Berrigan, a two-man decked canoe Brown's colleagues laughingly call "the banana," strapped to the roof.
A Berrigan is not a state-of-the-art white river boat. It's a cruiser. You almost never see them on the rivers these days because they look so old and clunky. But Brown loves his Berrigan. He's single and he can take beautiful young women, or even crotchety old writers, out for a spin in it.
"Yeah," said one of his river mates Sunday, "and if you get hungry you can always peel it and eat it. Lots of protein in a Berrigan."
One of the latest things I asked Brown before we put into the 66-degree water was whether, once and for all, this was a safe trip.
"Sure," he said. Then he buttonholed a passing paddler and asked him loudly whether "they pulled that C2 off the rocks at Killer Falls yet?" The man grinned and nodded. "Did they get the bodies out okay?" Brown asked.
This is paddling humor. Ho, ho, ho.
In fact the Yough is just hairy enough to raise one's blood pressure to scarifying levels without putting life in immediate jeopardy. Glenna Turner, who has worked in the office of Ohiopyle State Park for more than a decade, said the injuries and few fatalities that occur on the river are generally in private, unguided groups that rent rafts and run the river without supervision.
She said "hard boaters" (as opposed to rubber boaters) seem generally to be able to take care of themselves.
The Yough is for hard-boaters of only the top caliber, with many rapids in the Class III and IV ranges, which involve steep drops, heavy water and restrictive safe paths."Rubber rafts bounce off the rocks," Brown pointed out. Hard boats stick to them, which is good for his business as long as they're somebody else's hard boats.
Brown and I were with a top-flight group of decked-boat paddlers that he had assembled. When they got in trouble, they'd simply go under in the raging surf and pop back up some place safe, executing swiftly the difficult Eskimo Roll.
We came out of the Berrigan once, at Railroad Rapids when Brown zigged and I zagged. The only rolling we did was onto our backs so we could schuss through the boiling Class IV water, our feet out in front to ward off boulders and our life jackets and helmets firmly in place.
We put in after 1 p.m., just behind the final rafting armada of the day. That is Brown's general plan on the busy Yough. Otherwise, he said, it's like running the parking lot at Zayre's the Saturday before school opens.
At the takeout, a pair of weary park employes waited to shuttle us to our cars. "You're the last of the Mohicans, aren't you?" they asked. "They had already shuttled 728 people before us.
For all the use, the Yough remains an inspiring white water adventure, undiminished by its popularity. Brown and others credit that to the good work of the Pennsylvania state park people, who schedule the raft trips with European railroad efficiency and keep an eye out for safety hazards.
It's organized, which is untrue of just about any other white water stretch in the East.
Four rafting concessionaires take novices down the gorge on the lower Yough. They are Wilderness Voyageurs; White Water Adventures; Mountain Steams and Trails; and Laurel Highlands River Tours, all out of Ohiopyle.
There is a state campground near the put-in and private raft-rental organizations all around.Even the local Dairy Queen rents rafts. Groups seeking to run their own raft trips with private or rented rafts need to get permits in advance from the state park. Hard-boaters can put in on their own schedule, but this is not a stretch recommended for inexperienced canoeists or kayakers.