Life is a long and winding road, or rather, RIVER. Now, recording this episode in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, more than ever, we appreciate how precious life is, and how quickly things can change. Life, like a river, ebbs and flows, builds and falls. At times, it is rough, others, calm and peaceful. So, yeah, Life, in a lot of ways, is like a river, and a river is like life.
Listen to the audio of this episode by clicking the arrow below:
A lot of times, I try to bring elements of music and art and literature into these episodes about nature and history in the highlands of Western Maryland. And the Youghiogheny provides a wonderful opportunity to do that. (And that clip you just heard is the legendary baritone Paul Robeson, for whom that song, Ol’ Man River, was written, in the mid 1920s about life on the Mississippi River by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern a key feature of the broadway musical Showboat. ) Why wouldn’t artists be inspired by majestic rivers big and small? With so many features, rivers can be brought to life in so many different soundscapes. And so today, as we learn about and meditate on the natural beauty, history, recreational features, etc. of the Yough, I will also be playing in the background some of my favorite river music, for your listening pleasure.
The Yough is a unique Natural feature in our state, because it is the only so called, “Wild and Scenic River,” and is home to a growing white water kayaking and rafting community, as well as some unique flora and fauna that are hard to find in other places. Basically, I would call the Youghiogheny River, in a word, precious. And perhaps not surprisingly, maintaining its beauty, its wildness and its recreational value, require a difficult balancing act, as we will see later on, as we try to be worthy stewards of this natural gem. Today, we’ll visit the Yough as it was when the Indians camped on its banks for hunting, as it served to transport logging, coke, and coal resources mined from the Western Maryland, it’s unique environmental value, and a little about the river boating and kayaking now making it a recreational paradise for many.
As I said, I’m recording this episode of Wildfulness during the global pandemic, a particularly difficult and trying time for all of us. I think it’s interesting to note that throughout human history, rivers have not only provided practical things, like recreation, and transportation, source of power, source of lifegiving water, home and habitat to endangered creatures, but they’ve provided a source of comfort and healing. Their presence, their ability to bring us perspective and a source of respite when we are embattled and burdened with the trials and tribulations of life can be truly transformational. I think of songs like Ol’ Man River, which you just heard part of, and most recently a Josh Groban song called simply “River,” that express how in these kinds of trying times, a river that runs through it, can run through us and cleanse and heal us, at least to some extent. Here’s a clip from that song by Josh Groban that reflects this and leads us into our river journey along the Yough. (A full version of Groban’s song, River, will be played by me at the very end of this podcast, due to licensing issues and there’s a link to the Youtube video of Josh Groban’s complete song).
Alright, let’s get down to brass tacks now. The Youghiogheny River /jɒkəˈɡeɪni/, or the Yough (pronounced Yok /ˈjɒk/) for short, is a 134-mile-long (216 km) tributary of the Monongahela River in the U.S. states of West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It drains an area on the west side of the Allegheny Mountains northward into Pennsylvania, providing a small watershed in extreme western Maryland into the tributaries of the Mississippi River. Youghiogheny is a Lenape word meaning “a stream flowing in a contrary direction”. The Youghiogheny River is an incredible and unique resource, both as a natural and a cultural asset.
Yes, most rivers run north to south, but the Yough flows south to north, for the most part. It is a relatively “big water” river that flows from the crest of the Appalachians northward, flows over 132 miles, 365 days a year and maintains an amazingly cool temperature throughout the heat of the summer. The source of the Youghiogheny is two springs on Backbone Mountain along the border of Maryland and West Virginia, southeast of the town of Aurora, WV. The ridge line above the springs is Hoyes Crest (3360′), the highest point in Maryland and the Eastern Continental Divide, with the headwaters of the North Branch of the Potomac on the other side, sending its water to the Atlantic. Below the springs the Yough meanders back and forth across the border, flowing into West Virginia and then it passes through Silver Lake before flowing northeast into Garrett County, Maryland. It then flows past Oakland, Maryland and roughly parallel to the West Virginia border. The river enters southwestern Pennsylvania on the border between Fayette and Somerset counties. Upstream from Confluence, Pennsylvania, approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) north of Pennsylvania border, the river is impounded by the 184-foot-high (56 m) Youghiogheny Dam to form the Youghiogheny River Lake, a reservoir that stretches upstream into northern Maryland. That dam was completed in 1944 primarily for flood control. I call that, the “other” dam, because there is also the Deep Creek dam, which created Deep Creek Lake in 1925 by the Youghiogheny Hydroelectric Company. Much more of this early history can be found on several excellent websites listed in the shownotes: HistoryoftheUpperYough.com and several others. Other rivers in the Mid-Atlantic may contain some of these qualities, but no other rivers has all of them rolled into one package like the Youth. And, it’s Maryland’s only river to receive the coveted “Wild and Scenic” designation, more on that in a minute.
Although it wasn’t always the case, today, the superb water quality, consistent water volume, gradien and water temperature have conspired to set the stage for the Youghiogheny River to be a national outdoor recreation destination. When the part of the river between San Run and Friendsville gets supplemental white water flows from dam releases off of Deep Creek Lake, it’s an unrivaled river playground for white water adventurers. Listen to some of the wild and crazy names of the wicked rapids this river: “Meat Cleaver,” “Bastard Falls,” “Tommy’s Hole,” “Lost and Found,” and others.
Finally, in terms of its history, the Yough River Basin has played an instrumental role in the development of our country, witnessing George Washington’s first battle, the development of the commercial coal and coking industries, the first civil insurrection of the U.S., and the launching of the boats used by Lewis & Clark (see endnotes for links to good history websites about the Yough.)
Now, here’s a quick tip: While I personally love the history, the biology, and the cultural aspects of the river, if all you wanna know is what’s the cool stuff you can DO on or about the river, just fast forward to the last five minutes of this podcast, or the last paragraph of the shownotes at www.wildful.wordpress.com and you can get right to that information. But then, you will miss the spine-tingling story, of the Shoot Out at Sang Run ….when the rights of local property owners along the Yough corridor became subordinate to the Wild and Scenic legislation provisions, and those property owners let the boaters know just how much they wanted their property to be left alone.
AND, BEFORE WE DIVE INTO THE HISTORY BEHIND THIS RIVER, LET’S PAUSE FOR THIS MESSAGE: (plays message)
Fascination with the Mighty Yough, Starting with its History
So, what’s the big deal, what’s the fascination with the Mighty Yough? Well, this wonderful river means so many things to so many different people. But maybe a good place to begin, is with its history.
What has it meant historically? The Youghiogheny River has a varied and rich historical background. Many events have transformed this river from the French & Indian War to the boom and bust of industry to the modern era. We only have time to hit the highlights in today’s podcast, but the show notes at www.wildful.wordpress.com contain links to several history sites that go into fascinating detail. Historyoftheupperyough.com and https://www.faywest.com/youghtrail/information/history.php are two of the best.
The waters of the Youghiogheny River have been witness to many historical events over the past few centuries. Even before white man arrived in what is now western Pennsylvania, this river saw Native American tribes come and go for hunting expeditions, trade, and even war along its banks. The first signs of inhabitants of the Youghiogheny basin date back approximatley 10,000 years. The Monongahela people lived here dating back about 1000 years, but vanished from the landscape just prior to the arrival of European settlers in the early 1600’s. The Monongahela were mound builders, and a prime example of their earth shaping can be seen at Fort Hill, 5 miles
north east of Confluence. Following the Monongahela People, the Shawnee, Seneca and Delaware tribes utilized the area as a hunting grounds but not as a permanent home. In fact, the name Ohiopyle comes from the Lenape Indians, members of the Delaware nation. Their name for the area was “ahi opihəle” which means “it turns very white,” or “white frothy water” referring to the falls and the whitewater in the area.
During the colonial era, and in the early United States, the valley of the river provided an important route of access through the mountains for settlers and military forces from Virginia to western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Country. In 1754, as a militia officer of the British Colony of Virginia, George Washington followed the river in an attempt to find a water route to Fort Duquesne, then held by the French. In 1754, a young British colonel by the name of George Washington was scouting western Pennsylvania, trying to find a water route to quickly retake a fort at the Forks of the Ohio (present day Pittsburgh).
Washington floated the Yough from near the modern day location of Confluence towards Ohiopyle. As he grew closer to Ohiopyle the river quickens as he noted in his journal “The river became so rapid as to oblige us to come ashore..” This was in reference to what we now call Ohiopyle Falls, a 19-foot river wide falls. Washington and his troops returned to the main road (present day Route 40) to continue west by land.
Washington’s troops encountered and routed a small party of French soldiers in the Battle of Jumonville Glen. One of these soldiers escaped to Fort Duquesne. Washington was forced to quickly build a fort to prepare for the oncoming French attack, aptly named Fort Necessity, just to the southwest of Ohiopyle State Park. This by the way, was the start of the French and Indian War. Washington’s forces were overwhelmed by the French and their Indian allies in the Battle of the Great Meadows at Fort Necessity. This was Washington’s only military surrender…. ever.
So, fast forward a few decades, and we have an interesting tale to tell about whiskey and the importance of the famous Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, farmers and whiskey distillers of the mid-Yough Valley took up arms against federal tax collectors. They were angered by the whiskey excise tax that had been enacted to hep pay the war debts of the American Revolution. President Washington dispatched 12,000 troops to western Pennsylvania to confront what had now become known as The Whiskey Rebellion. This was the first critical test of the federal government’s authority and is credited as the catalyst for the founding of the Republican Party.
In addition to whiskey, coal mining became an important industry along the lower Youghiogheny River during the 19th century. At that time, the name was often spelled Yohoghany (or variants thereof), and during the 1860s and 1870s that spelling was used as the name of a post office near what is now Shaner in Westmoreland County. In the early 1900’s when the river was frozen during the winter, the West Penn Railways ran street cars from McKeesport to the Boston Bridge along the ice for skating parties. The company would have their employees sweep the snow from the ice and many local merchants cut ice from the river and stored it for refrigeration in the summer.
In the late 1800s, Garrett County’s economy prospered with the agricultural, coal, and timber industries. When the B&O Railroad arrived in the area after the Civil War, resources were able to be harvested at a maximum to make room for the railroad. The railroad provided transportation for passengers as well as a way to export timber and coal. Because of the multitudes of waterfalls in this stretch of the Youghiogheny, timber could not be floated down the river. Logging railroads went through the Youghiogheny river valley, permitting exploitation of its timber and coal. Towns like Kendall, info about which is featured on the Friendsville Interactive History Tour, rose and eventually fell as the timber and coal resources were exhausted by the mining companies.
Due to the mines and lumber industry, the population increased very rapidly and new towns developed all along the river. With no laws in place, the mines and lumber mills dumped their waste into the river and towns piped their raw sewerage into the river. In a few years, the Yough River was just an open sewer; the water was so laden with mine acids that it would not freeze thick enough for ice skating in the winter, and the fish life had completely disappeared.
People became distraught over what was done to the river during the 1920’s, so organizations were formed to clean the river and pressured State Officials to do something about it. One of the first steps taken was the sealing of old mines along the Casselman River. During this time, many of the old coal mines along the river were worked out and the lumber mills had also ceased operation.
But as the song recorded here by Alison Kraus so poignantly reminds us, the river can sometimes be a source of tragedy as well as a source comfort and inspiration and commerce.
Famous river floods have dotted history’s timeline, and the Yough has had its share, with the Pittsburgh and Johnstown floods of 1936 being prime examples.
Wild and Scenic!
Before we go any further, we need to pause once for an important message:
This project was funded in part by the Mountain Maryland Gateway to the West Heritage Area & Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. Wildfulness is grateful for all their support in this effort.
The Youghiogheny River isn’t just known for its white water rafting, it is also known for its large number of brown and rainbow trout. There is also a large aquatic insect population that consists of mayflies, caddisflies, and large green drake. There are plenty of sculpin and bait fish for the trout to feed on, making this river a prime place for fly fishing, which is open all year round. In the spring, the tailwater has numerous hatches of aquatic insects, making springtime a great time to fish. In the summer, the water stays cool and provides good fishing. In the fall, the brown and brook trout spawn, and the fishing is excellent. In the winter, one can catch trout using midges as bait.
There are also trails used for hiking—the best trail access can be found at Swallow Falls State Park. Other access points and trails are very primitive and require the use of map and compass. One can also cruise the many trails of the Scenic and Wild Yough on mountain bikes that are available for rent. And I’d like to give a shout out here to a group called All Earth Eco Tours, because they have the best kayaking and guided trail tours, both along the Yough and in the Savage River Reservoir, and we have their info in the shownotes. They do a great job. Even trails along the river have some controversy, as many ecologically minded folks believe too many tourists on the trails will compromise the natural beauty and delicate eco-system of the river. It’s my hope that we can find a way to accommodate both.
Designation as Wild and Scenic
The portion of the Youghiogheny River located in Garrett County, Maryland is the wild and scenic portion. The State Scenic and Wild River System was created when the Maryland General Assembly passed the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act in 1968. The process of designating a river as scenic, wild, or both occurs in four steps:
- an inventory of the river’s resources and landmarks is taken to decide if the river is eligible to be determined as scenic or wild,
- local governments officially propose and endorse the designation of the river,
- The Scenic and Wild Rivers Board reviews the proposal, and
- the Maryland General Assembly officially designates the river.
To be determined as scenic, the river must be a, “free-flowing river whose shoreline and related land are predominantly forested, agricultural, grassland, marshland, or swampland with a minimum of development for at least 2 miles of the river length.”[ To be determined as wild, the river must be a, “free-flowing river whose shoreline and related land are undeveloped, inaccessible except by trail, or predominantly primitive in a natural state for at least 4 miles of the river length.”
Links for you to explore, about the wild and scenic area of the Yough:
Now, before we move on to the modern day transformation of the river into a kayaker’s paradise, let me tell you that spine-tingling story, with help from Chris Preparato, whose “History of the Upper Yough” website first got me interested in all the Yough’s past, of the Shoot Out at Sang Run.
Here’s a direct quote from Chris about that:
“ In 1976, they declared the Youghiogheny to be a state Wild and Scenic River, effectively rezoning the river from Oakland to Friendsville, and placing tight restrictions on how the land could be used. The residents of Garrett County, already not particularly fond of the politicians in Annapolis, were furious. The word “communist” became commonplace among the residents, and they organized a network of communication to keep out-of-towners from enjoying the area. For boaters, this meant angry, and often armed, confrontations at the bridge in Sang Run. The boaters hadn’t created the law, and though many were supportive of it, they were taking the brunt of the response. Yes, blaming the politicians would be easy, but it would also miss the larger context for the law, and why, at that time, in that place, it was the only way to save the river.”
The “Wild and Scenic” designation meant that land could not be sub-divided, that no new roads or buildings could be built within the corridor, and that anything within sight of the river had to match the natural aesthetic. The joke in Sang Run was that you now needed a permit just to paint your shed. Locals were angry that a state agency seemed to be taking over their land, land they saw profit in from coal and timber companies, and they weren’t being compensated for the change. The passing by Maryland of the Wild and Scenic legislation for the Yough setup a friction-filled battle between local Garrett County residents, and boaters and others who saw the river as a playground or an environmental gem, but weren’t perceived as respecting the land-owning rights of the local Garrett County residents. And the focal point for the anger and resentments of the local people, were the boaters and kayakers. There were even shots fired at kayakers, slashed tires, and other manner of hostile and harassing behaviors. Not good.
As time went on, the boaters found several local landowners with whom they could develop relationships, pay to use their land for put-ins for their boats, and the hostilities slowly began to fade.
Kayaking and Rafting on the Yough
What about boating activities today? Well, there are no longer worries about being shot at, and the rapids have become the favorite haunt of many kayakers and rafters up and down the East Coast.
But, before get to all that great boating info, I have to let you know that this project was funded in part by the Mountain Maryland Gateway to the West Heritage Area & Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. We really appreciate all the support they have given us.
Info for Boaters:
Amazingly 112 miles of the 132 miles of the Yough are navigable in one kind of a boat or another, beginning at the bridge in Oakland, Maryland the entire way to the mouth at the Monongahela River. The rapids on the river range from Class I to Class V rapids, so there’s something for boaters of all experience levels. The first paddlable section is called the “Top Yough” and is quite rowdy starting with 25′ Swallow Falls in Maryland, this is a class IV-V section of whitewater.
Next up is the Upper Yough, beginning at Sang Run MD and extending to Friendsville, MD , this section is commercially rafted, thanks to dam releases from Deep Creek Lake. This section ends as it flows into the upper reaches of Yough Lake.
Below Yough Lake and between Confluence and Ohiopyle is the section of river known as the “Middle Yough“. This is an 11 mile section of class I-II whitewater that is surounded by Ohiopyle State Park, and an amazingly lovely canyon that feel like wilderness. This is an ideal piece of water for families with kids or those looking for a relaxing day on the water.
One of the key features of the Yough River is Ohiopyle Falls, a 19-foot waterfall located 100 yards away from Route 381. Below Ohiopyle Falls, the river bends around in a horseshoe curve, creating a “loop” in the river. The inside of the “loop” is Ferncliff Peninsula, a biologically important and diverse location that is a rare “National Natural Historical Landmark.” Boaters can start paddling at the put-in, run 1.5 miles of Class III rapids, get off the river at the end of the loop, and walk back to the start. A short, sweet paddling trip with no shuttle required! This is the beginning of the Lower Yough a 7 mile, class III gorge. So, as you see, there is something for everyone on the Mighty Yough.
Well, I wish we had time for more Youghiogheny lore, because there is a lot more, but please, visit these websites I referenced earlier and in the shownotes, and begin your own journey of exploration, discovery, and fun by letting this river run through you, and bring you the its majesty, it’s beauty and it’s peace.
Meanwhile, Stay Wild my Friends.
ENDNOTES, Better Known as ExtraCurricular Information
THINGS TO DO ALONG THE RIVER TO GET THE FULL YOUGH EXPERIENCE
NOTE: Due to restrictions of COVID-19/Coronavirus, make sure to contact each venue to see what protocols and limits may be in place.
Kendall Trail – https://www.friendsville.org/kendall-trail/ Kendall Trail is a 10.2 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Friendsville, Maryland that features a river and is rated as moderate. The trail is primarily used for hiking and walking and is best used from March until November. Dogs are also able to use this trail. Explore the history of the old mining town here. There is an awesome secluded swimming hole also at the end of the trail.
All Earth Eco Tours – https://allearthtours.com/ Peace and quiet, abundant wildlife, and gorgeous mountain scenery. Boats, equipment, guide and lunch provided. A day in nature you won’t forget. Wild to mild guided hiking tours to a variety of locations. The 2-hour Swallow Falls Nature Tour is a great way for families to have a fun learning adventure and get acquainted with the area. The tour features a visit to some off-the-beaten-path areas and a visit to the famous waterfalls and old growth hemlock forest. Families love the Family River Walk in the Youghiogheny River Wild and Scenic River corridor. They also do Wildflower Walks and Snowshoe tours in winter when the level of snow permits.
Multimedia Tours of Friendsville and Yough River Area https://friendsville.org/historytour/
Community Center at Friendsville – https://www.friendsville.org/town-park/ Right on the Yough River, with tennis courts, pavilion, picnic area, and home to the Celtic Festival.
Celtic Festival at Friendsville – http://gccelticfestival.com/about Reluctantly cancelled for 2020.
Waters Café in Friendsville – A lovely little hipster cafe and hangout, right on the banks of the Yough, in Friendsville http://www.wscmd.com/
Rafting Expeditions – https://www.precisionrafting.com/the-rivers/upper-yough-river
Catch and Release Fishing Area – Hoyes http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/youghioghenycr.aspx
OhioPyle (across the state line into Pennsylvania) Wonderful waterfalls and river activities. https://www.laurelhighlands.org/outdoors/ohiopyle/
Fort Hill Earthworks (Indian Mounds) https://arcofappalachia.org/fort-hill-earthworks-2/
The Biology of It All -Fascinating River Facts
What happens in those hidden waters of the river? What about, say, FROGS!? Frogs breathe differently than turtles. For the most part, aquatic frogs absorb oxygen through their skin. Because of this they don’t burrow into the warmer mud like turtles when they hibernate in the winter. They like to lie on top of the mud at the bottom of the pond or river, so that they can get still enough oxygen to breathe. This means that they often need to be able to endure colder temperatures.
At this point you may be thinking, “well great they can breathe down there, but what’s keeping them from totally freezing stiff as a board.” The simple answer is sugar. Frogs and turtles in this part of the world have adapted to the cold winters by pumping their cells full of glucose while allowing the water between the cells to freeze. The glucose prevents the actual cells from freezing, and special proteins in their blood protect their cells from being torn to shreds by ice crystals. This has given some frogs the ability to let parts of their bodies freeze solid while keeping their vital organs protected.
While a frozen pond or river may seem like a desolate lifeless landscape at first glance, if you look a little bit closer you’ll find that there’s actually a lot going on in the cold and under the ice.
AND WHERE DOES ALL THAT RIVER WATER GO, WHEN IT FINALLY MAKES IT TO THE SEA!?!? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mGh0r3zC6Y
RIVER Music Referenced in this Episode:
“Ride the River,” J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2FNkWzeE_M&feature=youtu.be
“River in the Rain,” Alison Kraus, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPMaX_p0aoM
“River,” by Josh Groban, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uoKsEqFppo
“Songs About Rivers” – Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV9DhMglJp8