Conemaugh River Trail
Upper Section- Johnstown, PA
May 27-28, 2023
"If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans."
I spent much of the winter searching out some local canoe tripping possibilities and found a seemingly nice prospect in the Little Muskingum River in Ohio. I researched drift speed at various water levels and camping opportunities, found an outfitter in Marietta, Ohio who was willing to shuttle me 60 miles upstream and even made tentative plans to paddle it as a non-solo trip when Tony from OCHRA indicated that he might like to come along.
In my estimation, it would be a great test paddle for the strip canoe that I would build over the winter and an opportunity to make sure I had the right boat for my trip to Ontario this coming summer... Yep, everything was going my way... and then reality creeped in.
Memorial day rolled around and the boat was not built, the Spring had been very dry and the water level on the Bloomfield gauge was at 2.75 feet when minimum of 4 (max of 6) is recommended. I would not be paddling anything through that rock garden much less a boat that wasn't even built.
I did, however, find a good deal on a solo canoe that I found intriguing so I decided that this Memorial Day would involve a canoe trip of another kind... a road trip.
Early Friday morning I fired up the rusty, trusty Ranger, filled a thermos with coffee and headed toward Geneva, NY.
About 3 1/2 hrs into the 5 hour ride, I stopped for gas and noticed that the rear of the truck was sitting crooked... One of the spring hangers had rusted out and collapsed. It looked like the end of the spring was pretty securely wedged into what was left of the mount and I figured AAA would cover towing with or without a canoe on top so I proceeded north where I examined and purchased a Sawyer Summersong which was really in very nice shape for its age with barely a scratch.
A very flat keeled solo canoe, I asked the seller about using it in moving water and he assured me that, while it's a very fast, straight tracking flat water boat, there was no way it should be used on a river as it doesn't turn worth crap at speed.
My planned trip into Ontario this summer does include some river travel but appears to be mostly lake paddling, the price seemed reasonable and I'd already driven 5 hours to see it... I paid the man, loaded the boat and headed home.
The ride back was uneventful and the front of the spring remained wedged somewhat securely into the wreckage of the mount although I stopped pretty frequently to look for movement, avoided highways so I would be moving more slowly when it inevitably broke loose and, of course, I cringed with every bump I hit (if you've ever driven the southern tier of New York or anywhere in PA, you'll know the ride was one continuous cringe).
About 12 hours after leaving home and some 400 miles after noticing the broken mount, the Ranger, the Summersong and I made it safely home. (There's a very good reason that I'm fond of that truck)
On the way home from NY, I spoke with my son and I casually mentioned that I'd need to get the new boat on some moving water to see just how poorly it handled and he enthusiastically suggested that we try the Conemaugh the following day as he was off work all weekend and didn't have any family commitments until Sunday night. We had talked about taking a Conemaugh River trip "someday" but hadn't gotten further than idle speculation as to how long it would take & some preliminary thoughts on camping possibilities.
For the first 2 1/2 miles or so both banks were lined with concrete as part of the city's flood mitigation efforts (understandably, floods are taken rather seriously here) and we paddled our way through Johnstown's west end with remnants of past industrial activities mixed in among current businesses and scattered housing. Certainly not a wilderness setting but, unlike the start of my BWCA trip, I did manage to paddle off in the correct direction this time.
It is this section of the river where it passes through the Conemaugh Gorge and the top of the ridges on both sides of the river are over 1000 feet above the water. I've always been fascinated by the fact that my hometown of Blairsville sits a little over 1000 feet above sea level. What this means is that the total elevation change from our takeout, to the Allegheny River, onward down the Ohio, the Mississippi and all the way to New Orleans is the same as the elevation difference that was visible from our canoes and I'm always surprised by just how flat some of the country is once you leave the foothills here.
At mile 71.7 Findley Run empties into the river and the maps list a class II-III rapid (the first of 2 we would encounter this trip). The Conemaugh has cleaned up considerably since I was a kid but there is still enough acid mine drainage, industrial waste, sewage, etc that I would not trust a water filter to completely eliminate all of it. Findley Run looked much safer so we filled the "dirty" bag of the Platypus, sealed it until we reached camp and scouted the rapid.
We walked the right bank looking for hazards and agreed that the rapid looked pretty straight-forward with a nice line and a couple of small haystacks at the end but nothing that would warrant a portage at this water level.
Returning to the boats, we loaded up and pushed off. My old Sawyer (model unknown) once again performed admirably, remaining almost completely dry and I eddied out below the rapid to wait for Alex. He followed the same line that I did but did not fare as well. He did a very nice lob of maneuvering but the haystacks at the end completely swamped him. We pulled out, emptied the water, repacked and paddled on thankful that the day was warm.
We contemplated going further and looking for an island around Bolivar but we had started late, there were 2 portages to do before reaching Bolivar and we had previously confirmed that the CVC allowed camping at the launch. We opted to stop for the night and were soon glad that we did.
We made a small campfire, cooked, relaxed a bit while marveling at the fact that the site was well supplied with wild rabbits that seemingly had little fear of humans.
During the evening, my camera once again quit working (dead batteries this time and totally my fault but still... can a camera make it through a canoe trip just ONCE?) and, when we tired of trying (unsuccessfully) to touch a rabbit, we turned in for the night.
(Note: I've since checked w/ CVC and they discourage campfires as there is no fire ring there and they would not want local miscreants to think this would be a good bonfire / party spot. Signage to that effect is in the works)
DAY 2 (3?)
Roughly 2 miles downstream we passed the Seward power plant which sits on river right. The river is backed up here by a low-head dam used to supply water for the cooling towers and we were surprised to find a large number of Blue Herons nesting on river left. Perhaps, more than anything else, their presence provides evidence of the improved water quality.
Approaching the power plant, we easily located the portage on river left. It appears that it is well used by local fisherman and there are 3 access points upstream and numerous launch points on the downstream end.
I'm still unsure of how I got stuck carrying the heavier of the two boats but we managed without incident.
The map showed the next portage on river left by the New Florence power plant (again, dammed to provide water for the cooling towers) and we saw warning signs but no evidence of the dam so we paddled on thankful to avoid the second portage. (We also saw no evidence that the power plant was still operating although it is not scheduled for shutdown until 2028.)
PA has really been diligent about removing dams from streams and rivers in the past few years and, I believe, only California has removed more of them.
The day warmed considerably as the morning progressed and we kept an eye out for a tributary that looked reasonably clean. We knew we would have to scout the rapid at mile 57.2 and Richards Run comes in there which seemed convenient. As we approached, however, we became skeptical as the color of the water entering the river looked terrible and we both agreed that we could ration water rather than risk our health. I'm not sure what that water source actually was but we found Richards Run slightly downstream on river right and it looked good. We filled the dirty bag & hung the platypus while we walked the right bank to scout the rapid.
This was a much larger rapid than the last and, after swamping the previous day, we both agreed that we didn't have the boats for the task. We briefly scouted along the banks to see if we could find an established portage and then resigned ourselves to carrying in the riverbed on river right. There were many large rocks to step over and around but it probably looked worse than it was and we relaunched just below the haystacks.
Once past Bolivar, we entered the most "remote" section of our trip; Packsaddle Gap. Both sides of the river are designated as State Game Lands #153 (so no camping is allowed) and no roads pass through the gap. There are railroad tracks on both sides (as there had been since Johnstown) but, as the trains won't stop, the Gap is nearly inaccessible except by boat.
It is within the gap that you can find a unique remnant of past transportation history as the stonework of Lock #5 of the PA Canal appears on river left. The canal passed over the Allegheny Portage Railroad into Johnstown and followed the Conemaugh west. Some stonework is visible all along the route but most of the stone was salvaged for other uses when the canal shut down. Likely due to the inaccessibility of Packsaddle Gap, Lock #5 remains relatively intact as nothing other than wind and water has sought to reclaim it.
Beyond the Gap, the rail line leaves the left bank and the Conemaugh valley opens up again. Although houses right on the river are still not common, people on the water certainly were. We passed kayakers, swimmers and fishermen and I was once more pleased by how much the water quality had improved since my youth. I vividly recall the orange colored water and the foam piled high against every rock... there is no way anyone would have considered using the river for recreation in the 1970s or 80s.
The river makes a wide loop around Blairsville with the land surrounding the river being owned by the Federal Government and is the backwaters of the Conemaugh dam which was built to protect Pittsburgh from flooding.
With no danger of flooding on this particular day, it was just a casual paddle past banks full of knotweed and a group of fishermen that recognized my son.
We paddled on to the takeout where Cathy met us among the kayakers, both of us regretting that the trip was over yet resigned to getting back to the responsibilities of everyday life. We learned a lot this trip and the Summersong remains a viable option for my Ontario trip this summer while the Conemaugh (water levels permitting) earns a place as a fall tripping destination. We certainly could have used another 3-6 inches of water but the scenery on this trip would be awesome around the second week of October.
Oh… In case you’re wondering… the nearly unscratched Summersong that I bought on Friday was, by Sunday, scratched and lightly stained from the orange water of the Conemaugh river. It did well except in the larger rapids and may make the trip to Canada in mid-July but I’m going to make every effort to finish a strip canoe in time to spare it from further rocky river usage.