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Yough rapids stay closed

For kayakers who shoot the Youghiogheny River rapids, the thinking goes like this: Why go around the 20-foot waterfall in Ohiopyle State Park when you can simply go over it•

And to that, Doug Hoehn, the man who runs the park, responds: “I just don’t think it’s a risk that’s justified.”

Which is why, for as long as he’s around, he’ll continue to prohibit kayakers from going over Ohiopyle Falls, despite all the requests to the contrary.

Ever since the park closed the waterfall to kayaking in the 1970s, kayakers have been asking for it to be reopened, arguing that going over is a safe stunt for people who know what they are doing.

In all those years, they’ve not had luck in persuading the state to do so.

Their only break has come in the form of the Ohiopyle Falls Race and Freestyle, an annual three-day event in which kayakers, under guard by rescue teams and safety boaters, are allowed to plunge over the waterfall.

The fifth falls run was supposed to be wrapping up today. But this year the river is too high, so the American Whitewater group was only holding a race around a section of the river known as “The Loop” on Saturday.

Still, the group said it will forge ahead on in its mission to get the falls open to kayakers.

“It’s just so irrational that they’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us what’s dangerous,” said Barry Tuscano, a Bolivar resident and past president and current board member of American Whitewater, the organization that sponsors the falls run.

“The waterfall is part of the river. I don’t understand how anyone can separate the waterfall from the river,” he said.

Tuscano helped organize the first legal falls run, held in 1999.

The event has become popular, drawing people from all over the country. Participants have made at least 6,000 runs over the waterfall, according to Jason Roberstson, American Whitewater’s national policy director.

The run came about after the organization applied for a special use permit to hold the event. The idea was to gain access to the falls and to demonstrate to the state that going over could be done safely.

And after five years, Tuscano said they’ve not had any major injuries, excluding one victim who suffered cracked ribs.

“I think at the (water) level we run the race, Ohiopyle Falls is harmless,” he said. But he qualifies that statement by stressing it’s harmless only to those who have the skills and experience.

But part of the reason there’s never been a problem at the annual falls runs, said Hoehn, is that they have been held under controlled conditions. The run only goes on when the river is around 1.8 feet deep. Spotters keep kayakers going over one at a time. Other boaters stay nearby to help if someone gets in trouble.

And watching the whole thing is a rescue team ready to dive in if something should happen.

“You just wouldn’t have that at other times of the year,” Hoehn said.

After the race was launched in 1999, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources began revising regulations for its parks, and the association floated a proposal for year-round waterfall access. It suggested allowing it when the river was at a certain level and during morning and evening hours so it wouldn’t interfere with people who wanted to look at the waterfall without the distraction.

But the proposal never went anywhere. Instead, the state wrote a new regulation stating that waterfall running was legal unless otherwise posted. That essentially left the decision up to the park manager.

And Hoehn said he has no intention of allowing it.

“You have a couple of choices when you’re in my position. You can choose to become callous to the aftermath of drowning or death, or you can be cautious. I choose to be cautious.”

He has good reason to be cautious. Since 1976, 19 people have died on the Lower Yough.

Hoehn has two problems with opening the falls. One is that some kayakers seeing others paddling past the Middle Yough takeout — the last takeout before the falls — may get confused and unwittingly go over the falls. The other is that some kayakers would decide to make a run in bad conditions and get in trouble, thereby imperiling their rescuers.

“We have ample demonstration of whitewater boaters not taking proper precautions,” he said, pointing to a boater last week who was swept over the falls — without his boat. That boater, he said, was on the river alone and tried to swim for shore when he realized he was going to go over.

“There’s a lot of people out there who don’t seem to be overly concerned about the consequences to themselves,” he said.

Robertson contends that Hoehn’s arguments don’t hold water.

He said waterfall running is self-regulating. People won’t try it because it looks too dangerous, he said.

He argues that making falls running illegal doesn’t really protect people from themselves.

“You still have yahoos who are going to break the rules and who are going to act irresponsibly if there is or is not a ban,” he said. “Having the ban doesn’t change anything.”

Those who are caught could face charges under the state criminal code — criminal trespass — or under Fish and Boat Commission regulations — reckless operation of a watercraft. The first carries a fine of up to $300. The second carries a fine up to $1,000.

The issue will churn up again next June. Hoehn said he plans to retire by then.

And the whitewater group plans to ask his replacement to open up the falls.

“The river should be complete,” Tuscano said.


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