Where we live: Riding the waves of the Lehigh
Reporter Chris Reber, top left, got to see the Lehigh firsthand following the weekend’s unusually large dam release. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
As we put in at Glen Onoko, I would lie if I said I wasn’t thinking about one of my recent trips there to cover the search for a swimmer who drowned just a few yards from where we were.
After reporting on the unusual rain and following dam releases along the Lehigh last week, I thought the best way to see the river would be to go myself.
While that visit emphasized the danger that the river can create if you’re not prepared, this trip was the exact opposite — a reminder that preparation can allow you to have a great time, even when the water is at a level that’s dangerous for swimming.
My fellow rafters were not local to the area, so they didn’t know much other than that some rafting trips had to be canceled recently.
Our trip from Jim Thorpe to Bowmanstown was an additional 2 miles because the high water carries you about twice as fast as it would on a normal weekend.
As we’re cruising over 4-foot waves on the Lehigh in a large inflatable raft, the hustle of nearby Route 209 couldn’t feel further away.
Each wave is like driving up and down the Packerton Dip. The raft dives forward then rears back.
The section we paddled is Jim Thorpe River Adventures’ entry-level section, but everything is advanced when the river is running this high.
If you get stuck, the fast-moving water will force you down, with the potential to kill.
Normally you would have to steer the boats yourselves, with guides traveling back and forth on sleek whitewater kayaks.
But when the water is this high, the guides steer the boat for you, Venice gondolier-style.
Kayaking for me is akin to a day at the beach, leisurely paddling on Beltzville Lake or the flatter sections of the Lehigh near Allentown and Bethlehem. On the little kayak I’ve had since middle school, this kind of surf would be nerve-racking.
Based on my past experience, I expected to have to propel the boat with my paddling. While that may have been the case on a normal day, the heavy current propelled us downstream. Occasionally, our guide Bree asks for two hard paddle strokes, but we actually spend most of the trip floating as Bree nonchalantly steers the boat with a flip of her paddle.
Bree is so good at guiding this thing, water rarely even comes into the boat as we glide over the waves (although when it does, it usually comes in my corner as the biggest guy on the boat.
If we did get wet, it’s mostly from the other boaters. Each boat is equipped with a bucket which is supposed to get water out of the boat, though we learn quickly that it’s just as effective for hurling water into other boats.
While the kayakers were mostly from outside the area, I was happy to find the guides are local people who love the river and found a way to turn it into a summer job.
Some of them started out as high school students, which is a lot of responsibility for a teenager. Sam Sterner grew up in Jim Thorpe and was always curious what the fuss was about the Lehigh.
“It was second nature to me to work on the river,” she said.
Bernie Shea teaches at Lehighton Area High School during the year and found kayaking later on.
“The river community was very welcoming,” he said.
But the attitude of the guides and the processes they follow make you forget that you’re traveling over moving water.
They seem to take genuine pleasure in helping people to enjoy the river — whether they are being paid to guide them or not.
Some of the guides from JTRA spent Sunday afternoon helping tubers who had gotten stuck on the Lehigh. As we traveled toward Bowmanstown, we could see tubes stuck in the trees.
Bree reassures us that the tubes belonged to the people she and JTRA helped rescue the day before.
I’m reminded again of the danger of the river, and the fact that I’m in good hands with the group.