Written by Chris Preperato

The High Water Mark

The High Water Mark by Chris Preperato

Nobody makes it through Tommy’s Hole unscathed.

Jack Wright and Frank Birdsong were the first to contend with the Upper Yough at high water. In the late 1960’s, they found themselves at the Sang Run bridge, the water hovering around the three and a half foot mark. Their contemporaries considered two feet a difficult level, pushing the skills of even the best boaters. What Jack and Frank were considering was more than three times the flow.

After completing the run through National unscathed, they both found themselves trapped in holes just downstream, in a rapid that had not yet been named Tommy’s Hole. They regaled their fellow boaters with tales of their carnage around the campfire that night. Dan Demaree was a young boater then, and the story captured his imagination. He wanted to run the Upper Yough and see what Frank and Jack were talking about.

The worst swim of my life.

By 1973, Dan Demaree had guided dozens of boaters down the Upper Yough, naming half the rapids in the process. As one of the raft guides in Ohiopyle, he ran the river weekly with other guides like Dan Isbister. The two spent the early part of 1973 training hard for the spring slalom season, and in a lull between races, on April 23rd, they found themselves in Friendsville with the river raging. With no other takers, they ran their own shuttle, passing under the bridge in Sang Run with the gauge reading nearly four and a half feet…and the memory of Jack and Frank’s ill-fated trip in the back of their mind.

By the time they arrived at Gap Falls, the water was likely at 5000cfs, a level nearly ten times the normally run flows. Boulders begin to disappear, the eddies along with them, as the gradient forces the water furiously downhill. As the Dan’s scouted Triple, they were surprised to see a large breaking wave where they expected to find massive holes between the rocks. Dan Demaree remembers going airborne through the crashing V, only the tail of his boat remaining in the water. Safely eddied out in the pool below National, both men let out a sigh of relief thinking the hardest part was over. Their next challenge wasn’t known as Tommy’s Hole when Frank and Jack ran the river, and they had no way of warning future boaters of the two massive holes that lay over the next horizon line.

Both Dan’s entered into the rapid at the same time, Demaree taking the right side, and Isbister taking the left. There were both met with a several foot wall of water crashing back upstream. Vicious beatings ensued, each man trapped in the spin cycle of light and dark. After coming out of his boat, Dan Demaree made the furious swim to shore. Dan Isbister had managed to stay in his boat, but his skirt imploded, and he barely made it to river bank before disappearing around the corner into the unknown.

I was breathing hard, my heart was beating. My boat was gone.

-Dan Demaree

We just sat there, sort of gasping, glad that we had made it out.

-Dan Isbister

When they finally collected themselves, they began hiking downstream. Dan Isbister eventually put in downstream of Double Pencil Sharpener and paddled the remainder of the run while Dan Demaree walked back to town. Neither man was in a hurry to return to the river for redemption, or to try and push the high water mark even higher.

When you are young, you think you are invincible.

After Roger Zbel and Phil Coleman started Precision Rafting at the start of the 1980’s, they were paddling the Upper Yough every day, sometimes even multiple times a day. Their unending knowledge of the river found them trying to push the bar higher and higher each spring, wondering if there was a line where the river became impossible. And other boaters like Jess Whittemore, John Regan, and Jeff Snyder ran the river in the three to four foot range routinely. At one point, Jeff led a high water raft trip down the river, trying to set a new speed record from bridge to bridge. His two commands were “paddle” and “paddle harder”.

But after six inches of rain fell overnight in June, they found the river roiling through town. None of them remember the exact level, but seven feet is the best guess. Somewhere between ten and twelve thousand cfs pulsing through a gorge meant to contain a tenth that flow, and more than double the flow of Demaree and Isbister’s failed run.

Nobody makes it through Tommy’s Hole unchanged.

Jack Wright and Frank Birdsong were among the best boaters of their day, best known for running rivers high and pushing the limits. Dan Demaree and Dan Isbister were skilled slalom boaters and guides, intimately aware from their many runs of the challenge the Upper Yough posed. Jess Whittemore and Jeff Snyder invented new facets of the sport, pushing the sport into three dimensions and inventing new types of crafts. And yet with all their skill, all their knowledge, they met the same fate after they dropped into Tommy’s Hole. In their attempts to find the limits of the river, they found their own limits, and the river left its mark.