Background

I wanted to spice up my first summer in Pittsburgh with a little adventure. I knew I wanted to build something, as I had done in summers past (e.g., tree house, trebuchet). Camping was dear to my heart, and traveling without assistance for several days was always a thrill. This reinvigorated an old idea – to build a raft for a multi-day river trip. This idea first came about when I was living in New York City, and considered rafting the Hudson River down to Battery Park. When people warned me about the lack of camping and dangerous commercial traffic, the idea was shelved. However, having had a chance to eye up rivers in the Pittsburgh area for almost a year, I was convinced a similar raft trip could be mounted successfully.

The first order of business was finding a crew of three or four brave souls. Bryan Pendelton was enthusiastic from the start, and we tackled much of initial preparation together. Julia, a undergraduate intern visiting CMU for the summer, overhead Bryan and I talking about the trip, and, long story short, enlisted. Once construction began, it became clear there was no way to accommodate a fourth rafter.

Planning

The trip required months of planning before even the first screw was purchased. The most difficult pre-trip component was figuring where to raft. Several conditions had to met:

  1. Relatively close to Pittsburgh
  2. No commercial river traffic (dangerous in unmaneuverable raft)
  3. No dams and/or locks (again, dangerous)
  4. Deep enough for a equipment-laden raft
  5. Sufficient river current to make trip interesting (and not just sit there or have to endlessly paddle)
  6. Minimal river obstacles and rapids (since raft is highly unmaneuverable and potentially badly constructed!)
  7. Areas to camp overnight legally, and with sufficient density to accommodate an unknown/variable pace.

Bonus points for:

  1. Beautiful surroundings
  2. Minimal human footprint
  3. History of rafting

Fortunately, we found such a river: The Allegheny! The upper part in particular met all of our criteria. However, even once we selected the general river segment, it still took considerable effort to identify areas on which we could camp and have camp fires. Our final list comprised land under federal, state and town jurisdictions. Simultaneously, we had to mark down all possible put-in and, more importantly, pull-out locations. Our final route took us from Warren to Tionesta, about 35 river miles.

Figuring out the route was one of many concurrent efforts. Putting together a complete list of food and equipment took weeks - acquiring all of the items took equally as long. Getting hold of life vests (required by law) and paddles proved particularly difficult (expensive to buy for a one-off event). We were saved by generous access to the CMU Explorers Club equipment room. We also had to acquire a use permit from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Construction

Two factors dramatically limited the design possibilities. The foremost obstacle was achieving the necessary buoyancy to float the raft, three people, food and equipment – about 600lbs. Secondly, everything had to fit in or on top of my car, a hatchback.

We quickly abandoned hulled pontoons (too complicated), as well as lashing together hundreds of two-liter soda bottles (too unwieldy). The most robust and portable design relied on four, 55-gallon drums, one in each corner. We bought these for $20 a piece at a local used/refurbished barrel place in Pittsburgh. We based our design loosely on Captain Fletch’s barrel raft – borrowing, most notably, his cabling scheme. To survive a real river, we hardened the design considerably, adding wedges and other supports to keep the barrels in place, as well as variably tighten-able eye hooks.

About two-thirds of the “deck” was covered with coarsely spaced planking. A portion near the front was covered with plywood to act as a staging ground (for cooking, playing cards, etc.). The remaining area was either open or covered with burlap. The latter was included as a sort of miniature, ad-hoc hammock, which turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. To support out weight, the netting was wrapped around the frame several times and reinforced with nylon rope.

Once the frame was together, we added on a rudder, which was controlled via a simple pulley system. A small canopy was also included to provide us some shelter from the elements. We designed it with the ability to retract (in case of nice weather or intense winds).



First Float Test

Before construction wrapped up, we took the frame out for a float test. We wanted to see three things: 1) the raft could be successfully transported on top of my car, 2) the frame held together and supported our weight, and 3) the barrels provided sufficient floatation. All three were easily achieved.

Second Float Test

Once the raft was fully assembled, we once again returned to the Monongahela for a float test. This time was the real deal: all three of us, no tether to shore, paddles, life jackets, and equipment. We found the currents to be surprisingly swift and the raft highly unmaneuverable. It was clear paddling upstream was going to be impossible – if we needed to come ashore somewhere, we were only going to get one shot. Additionally, our rudder got banged up (since it hung low in the water) and didn’t seem to help much. Other than that, things were great. The raft easily floated us and our equipment. We were able to rotate the raft fairly easily with paddles (and thus keep properly oriented). With partial equipment, the three of us could just manage to carry the raft - necessary when pulling out at night to camp. Pictures courtesy of Brian Lim.

Launch and Day One

We loaded the car the night before in preparation for our 6am departure. After a brief stop for ice (for our perishable food items), it was full speed ahead to Warren, PA, our launch point. During a quick breakfast stop, locals told us to keep an eye out for bald eagles, which had returned to the area. Dark storm clouds loomed overhead for much of the drive, which worried us a little. We got to the launch point around 10am, and had assembled the raft and loaded the equipment by noon. By this point, it had started to rain. Undaunted, we decided to launch, break out some lunch, and celebrate the start of our journey. Almost immediately, the weather intensified, and we found ourselves swiftly moving downstream in torrential rain, thunder, and lightening. After a few near lightening strikes, there was talk of pulling out to take shelter. During the confusion, we strayed too close to shore and almost got whacked by a low hanging tree, which could have capsized us. Julia had to ditch her paddle to brute force it over the raft while Bryan and I paddled ferociously. An eventful first hour to say the least. Fortunately, the weather dissipated as quickly as it had arrived, and we enjoyed overcast, but dry weather for most of the day.

Rafting the Allegheny required more navigation than expected. Every half an hour or so, there was an obstacle or island to navigate around. It was hard to go for more than 10 minutes without at least reorienting the raft. Although this kept us on our toes, there was plenty of time to relax, chat, and snack.

The river was amazingly clean, and so swimming was fun and refreshing. We even spotted a bald eagle gliding overhead. With sunlight dwindling, we decided to come ashore on Stewart’s Island for the night. After quickly setting up camp, we began to cook our lavish first dinner - chicken fajitas with all the extras. Bryan built a roaring campfire to unwind next to. We indulged in way too many s’mores.

Unloading the raft.Attach barrels, begin loading equipment.
Starts to rain as we launch...Starts to thunder and lightning while on the river...
Crew reaction.Weather improves.
Warm sun, swift current, and high spirits. Swim.Camping on Stewart's Island.

Day Two

Rain plagued us for most of the night - we awoke damp, but in high spirits. We quickly packed up and got back on the river. We opted to skip a land-based breakfast, instead deciding to try cooking on the raft. Julia tried her best to make pancakes sans butter or oil (my oversight) – no easy task, especially considering the limited space, rocking surface, open flame, two hungry men, and various river obstacles. We made sausages concurrently just to add to the challenge.

This was our first full day on the river, and so we tried to cover as much distance as we could. However, still water between islands hampered our progress. Our average speed was just over 1 mile per hour, making it the slowest day of the trip (we peaked at about 5mph when we hit riffles). Along the way we saw turtles, some sort of beaver/otter/mammal-thing, and lots of jumping fish. The weather was lovely, and much appreciated given our experiences on the first day. After about 11 river miles, we pulled ashore on a wooded little island for the night. After setting up camp, Bryan and Julia whipped out their slings for some practice. We went all out and had a fresh salad and chicken curry for dinner, followed by s’mores.

Awake and wet.Packing up.
Cooking pancakes and sausages on the raft.Full speed ahead.
Canopy-retracted mode.Come ashore near Siggles Island for the night.
 Slinging some rocks before dinner.

Day Three

We awoke to heavy fog on our final day. It was very quiet, as if the river had yet to wake up. Now proficient at packing up, we simultaneously brewed some coffee and snacked on trail mix. We were on the water by 7:30, and making good speed. The fog quickly burned off, welcoming us to a big blue sky. It got pretty hot under our canopy; numerous dips were taken to cool off. We also ran aground a few times in shallow water, forcing all of us to get out and drag the raft. Being a Saturday, there was increased river traffic. For the previous two days, we basically had the river to ourselves, only encountering two boats the entire time. We asked a passing kayaker to take a picture – the only photo with all three of us in it.

Lunch, as with previous days, primarily consisted of trail mix, tuna, crackers, and fruit.

We had hoped to make it to a public access point in Tionesta, but as we approached the town, we encountered strong headwinds. Even with our canopy folded down, we were occasionally getting pushed upstream. After covering barely a mile in two and a half hours, we decided to pull out next to the Eagle Rock motel in Tionesta, which had a ramp down to the river. The friendly owner let us drag the raft ashore and bum around until Joy, Bryan’s wife, came to rescue us. When she arrived, we used her car to retrieve my car, about 45 minutes north by road.

Wake to heavy fog.Allegheny quiet and beautiful.
 Passing kayaker takes photo of the three of us.

Video Clips

Despite limited space on our memory cards, we couldn't resist taking the occasional video. Here are various clips montaged together.

© Chris Harrison