Whitewater riders on a 38-year adventure
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In 1975, Ken Powley set up Whitewater Challengers, the first permanent rafting company on the Lehigh River, now in its 38th year.
(Note: This is the third of 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 rediscovery of the rubber raft, the invention of the plastic kayak, and a generation of affluent adventure seekers all elements for Lehigh River whitewater adventure tourism were in place and waiting to be discovered.
One of the first to run a commercial whitewater rafting trip on the Lehigh River was George Keener. An outfitter from the Wellsboro area whose company, Northeast Wilderness Waterways, Keener regularly ran trips on the Pine Creek in Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon. Several times each year in the mid-1970s, he set up at a campground in White Haven, and ran trips from White Haven to Jim Thorpe.
The first outfitter that came to the Lehigh River and has continued in business is Ken Powley, owner of Whitewater Challengers. Powley was in his early twenties at the time and a senior editor at an engineering magazine. He and his wife Penny, a special-education teacher, were living in Philadelphia.
"We had taken a trip on the Youghiogheny River and loved it, "Powell said. "We thought we'd get a couple of boats and do some more rafting."
With a friend, George Stefanyshyn, Powell spent the summer of 1974 scouting the East Coast, checking out upward of 15 suitable rivers.
"We started going down to North Carolina, worked our way up the East cost to Maine," Powell said. "As we were driving back to Philadelphia, we came by the Lehigh River, and we checked it out. It wasn't the toughest river we looked at. It was one of the prettiest rivers we looked at."
In 1974, we did a scouting trip where we launched at the dam and rafted to Jim Thorpe. There were six of us in one raft. It was about a 10-hour trip and we were exhausted at the end. But around every bend, it was 'Wow! This is really gorgeous.'
"It got dark around Glen Onoko. By the time we pulled into Jim Thorpe, it was pitch black. Thankfully, the lights were on in Jim Thorpe. Otherwise, we wouldn't have know where the town was."
The Lehigh was only an hour and a half from Philadelphia, which made it possible for them to offer weekend trips and still keep their day jobs.
"We put out posters about rafting in the Poconos, and told people what a beautiful trip it was. We went to the Philadelphia Sport Show with a little booth," Powell said. "In 1975, we ran our first guided trips."
Powley, Stefanyshyn and their wives would leave Philadelphia on Friday afternoon, pack a van with two six-person rafts; twelve wetsuits, life jackets and paddles; drive to Hickory Run State Park and pitched a tent. The next day, they woke at four in the morning, drove to the river, and met their guests in White Haven by the boat launch on the north side of the old Rt. 940 bridge, by the former Wilmot Engineering Company.
The wives would shuttle as the guys unloaded and inflated the rafts. As the Rockport and Glen Onoko accesses were not then available, their trip ran from White Haven to Jim Thorpe, typically an eight-hour trip.
"We saw kayakers and canoeists on the trip," Powley said, "It wasn't enormously popular because the access was difficult. We had good whitewater only in the colder parts of the year, March through early May. You had to be a die-hard paddler to go out. In the summer, the water was terribly low.
"We incorporated in 1975 as Whitewater Challengers Inc. We purchased a cabin on Rt. 940 in White Haven, and converted it to Include an office, kitchen, changing rooms, and sleeping quarters."
Three years later, Powley rented space at a Buck Mountain campground, and later bought the 25-acre site.
Whitewater Challengers is in its 38th year.
"The customers have changed a lot," Powley noted. "In the 70s and 80s, it was mainly young 20s and 30s, single, adrenaline thrill-seeking jocks. It has morphed into an activity for mom and pop, church groups, and scouts. Our marketing has shifted. We used to sell it as the 'thrill of a lifetime.' 'Now, it is a great day out.'"
Normally, the scenery from the rafts is enjoyment enough, with the passing of an occasional bear, deer or eagle as a bonus. Twice, aircraft have landed on the Lehigh River in front of Challengers trips and guides have been the first on the scene to help with the rescue.
Next: Lehigh Whitewater Wonderland