(Note: This is the last in a four-part series on the history of Lehigh Whitewater.)
With the Lehigh River recovering from 150 years of environmental damage, the construction of the F.E. Walter Dam, the availability of the rubber raft, the invention of the plastic kayak and a generation of affluent adventure seekers-all the elements for Lehigh River whitewater adventure tourism were in place and waiting to be discovered.
An early but brief commercial Lehigh River outfitting operation by Northeast Wilderness Waterways was followed by Whitewater Challengers in 1974-which was discussed in part 3, and Pocono Whitewater Rafting in 1976.
After completing college, Paul Fogal, a member of the family that would found Pocono Whitewater Rafting, led week-long Canadian wilderness trips, and spent his summer as a guide on the Youghiogheny River. His younger brother, Doug, was completing a degree in business at Tusculum College in Tennessee. They had both been kayaking for a year or two using the newly-available Hollowform rotomolded plastic kayaks.
In 1977, the brothers, with financial and business support from their father, Douglas Fogal senior, decided to launch an outfitting business and set off on a search for a river where they could locate.
"We drew 50-mile concentric rings around the rivers that we knew of within 150 miles of Philadelphia and New York City," Doug Fogal junior said.
The Fogals selected a dozen rivers to explore. Doug liked the Lehigh River and the town of Jim Thorpe. He set up a scouting trip on the Lehigh River Gorge with Andy Hammond, a friend from Outward Bound.
"The first time I ran it, I put in at White Haven and ran to Jim Thorpe," Doug said. "It was a beautiful river – one of the prettiest I've ever been on."
A storm had been coming up the East Coast and the river's water level was unusually high. Doug remembers that the water was muddy on that first run.
"The rapids were good," Doug said. "I flipped and had to rely on my Eskimo Roll a couple of times. It has a nice consistent gradient, not super intimidating but challenging and fun."
"Jim Thorpe was cool enough and had a name that people would remember, so we consciously set up shop with a Jim Thorpe address," Doug explained.
As a base, the Fogals rented a cabin near their current Pocono Whitewater location on Rt. 940 in Penn Forest.
In April 1977, they assembled their first trip at the former Olympic Drive-In across from the Mauch Chunk Trust on North Street in Jim Thorpe. Two 8x10-foot umbrella tents were used as change rooms, with a guest holding each from blowing in the wind. Quickly outgrowing this arrangement, Pocono's staging moved to the Fireside Inn, now Dom 'n Ali's. They rented school buses from Lenny Marsen's Jim Thorpe Transportation.
After two years, they leased the Pocono Adventure on Mules building on Reservoir Road. They planned for a rafting center and purchased the land at their current location.
Soon, three additional rafting outfitters began offering commercial rafting on the Lehigh River: Whitewater Rafting Adventures in Albrightsville in 1980 owned by bus operator and current Carbon County Commissioner, Charlie Getz; Jim Thorpe River Adventures in Jim Thorpe at the Glen Onoko access in 1980 owned by Dave and Bob Kuhn; and Lehigh River Rafting in White Haven in 1981, owned by Joe Bennett and Matt Miller.
Whitewater Rafting Adventures was sold to Joe Flyzik in 1886 and relocated to Nesquehoning. In 2007, Jim Thorpe River Adventures was purchased by Jerry McAward and Sonya Fellows. McAward also runs the Northeast PA Kayak School. Lehigh River Rafting closed after a fire swept through the business section of White Haven destroying their rafting center in 1987.
In 2004, a roadway was completed across the top of the Francis E. Walter Dam. This permitted storage of water upstream of the dam which allows for scheduled summer whitewater releases-which has taken place over the past seven years, making the whitewater experience available to participants in the warmer weather, creating a cold water fishery, and drawing tens of thousands of visitors to Carbon County.
In addition to the four outfitters already discussed, several other options have been or are available for Lehigh River whitewate. At one time Lehigh River Rentals rented rafting equipment at the White Haven entrance to the Lehigh Gorge State Park. Their facilities were purchased by Pocono Whitewater.
Extreme Adventure Travel Outfitters offers rafting trips, river tubing and kayak instruction based in Bowmanstown. Blue Mountain Sports in Jim Thorpe rents sit-on-top kayaks.
Canoe trips in the Allentown area are offered by the Wildlands Conservancy. Those interested in private kayak trips can join the Lehigh Valley Kayak and Canoe Club or Lehigh Valley Whitewater.
Carbon County's quality of life and economic health now depends on rafting, kayaking, fishing, hiking, biking and hunting, and the historical tourism from its preserved industrial heritage of coal, railroads and canals.