Kayakers flock to Ohiopyle for a chance to go Over the Falls

Story posted December 2, 2011 in Sports by Andy Colwell

Ohiopyle State Park is a tourist magnet on any given day of the year, but one August weekend has a particular draw: the Ohiopyle Over The Falls Festival.

Video: Water goes downhill

For 13 years running, kayakers have traveled to this stretch of the Youghiogheny River for the opportunity to paddle over an 18-foot waterfall. Normally closed to the public for safety reasons, the waterfall is the best known feature of the popular state park.

On Aug. 20, 2011, experienced kayakers get the chance to create a public spectacle. Onlookers cheer by the hundreds. Commentators do play-by-play over loudspeakers backed by a soundtrack of folk music that blasts through the canyon. But this is just a sideshow. People are there to see kayakers make the plunge down the face of the falls.

From dawn until dusk, what is usually an off-limits hazard becomes an awesome spectacle.

The falls are closed year-round, except for special state-approved access such as the kind granted for the Falls Race. Ohiopyle was made a state park in 1965, and with it came the ban on boating down the waterfalls. Despite the ban, boaters have been known to navigate the run illegally since at least the 1980s.

Stacie Faust, the assistant manager at Ohiopyle State Park, told the New York Times last year the challenge of running the falls was just too tempting and park police couldn't catch the daredevil kayakers. In the late 1990s the North Carolina-based paddling organization American Whitewater negotiated access with the state. In 1999 the Falls Race was born, and boaters have returned each year. Access was expanded over more days last year, but it's still the festival that draws the biggest crowd and the most kayakers.

Ccr-colwell-falls swimmies-blissel

Grace Blissel of Johnstown ,Pa., wears swimmies on her arms and a floral shower cap over her helmet as she walks to where she'll launch her kayak into the Youghiogheny River before taking on Ohiopyle Falls during the 13th Annual Ohiopyle Over The Fall /  Photo by Andy Colwell

One such paddler, Grace Blissel of Johnstown, Pa., has returned for her second Falls Race experience. A registered nurse by trade, the self-described adventure junkie has been whitewater kayaking for several years, drawn to the tight community and interactivity with nature.

Sitting in her bright pink kayak before tackling the falls for the first time this year, Blissel adjusts her pigtails before stretching a flowery swim cap over her helmet. A pair of inflatable arm swimmies stand at the ready, affixed to her upper arms, just to liven up the atmosphere even more. (Veteran boaters had told her when she began kayaking several years ago that costumes were commonplace within their ranks and she took them seriously.)

"Lots of people ask me if I can swim -- I tell them no," she said before re-inflating her swimmies. "But I've landed flat twice, and I have not gotten my pigtails wet. I'm pretty excited."

Although she opted out of the competitive Falls Race, Blissel and others still took the plunge just for fun. To give back to the event, she and other paddlers took turns working as safety boaters at the base of the falls to monitor and assist any kayakers who might get trapped in the roiling basin beneath.

"Going over the falls is really an adrenaline rush. I've been nervous for like three days," Blissel said.

Colwell yakker