2013-09-12 / Local & State

Despite Deaths, Pa. River Rock Likely To Stay Put

By Miles Layton

(UNIONTOWN) HERALD-STANDARD

OHIOPYLE, Pa. (AP) – The wild and wonderful Youghiogheny River has been a source of excitement for ages.

Thousands of thrill-seekers and nature-lovers raft or kayak safely down the fast moving river each year.

But on occasion, someone drowns when navigating its waters, particularly in the area around Dimple Rapids in Ohiopyle State Park. That stretch of water is either Class III or Class IV rapids, depending on the level of the water. The International Scale of River Difficulty grades rapids from one to six, with the higher levels the most difficult to navigate.

The physical structure of Dimple Rock, which is off to the side of the rapid, is difficult to navigate.

That natural formation challenges river enthusiasts who know to paddle around the rock or potentially face its ugly underside – a tough current that can drag even the most experienced rafters underwater and underneath the rock.

“If you ever talk to anyone and ask them if they’ve been to Dimple Rock, they’ll say `I go four times a year when the water levels change – it is so exciting.’ But most people will say, `That is one of most exciting, thrilling experiences in my lifetime and I’ll never go again,”‘ said Fayette County Coroner Phillip Reilly, who has conducted inquests over the years of people who have drowned in the river.

Reilly said Dimple Rock has a cavity with a big opening and a small hole on downside. He said that cavity has not been a factor in deaths in a long, long time, though in July, a Lancaster man whose raft capsized died in a nearby area called “Swimmer’s Rapids.”

“There are people that will jump up and say, `dynamite the rock,”‘ he said. “But there’s an equal number of people who will say that (it is) a natural habitat, don’t touch it, don’t do anything.”

Multiple drownings have occurred in the Dimple Rock area within the last decade.

“Experienced rafters, they don’t go the hard way,” Reilly said. “It’s in these individual risk takers who take the challenge.”

Reilly said while there are occasional deaths, the odds are in favor of river enthusiasts because of the measures taken on behalf of park officials and whitewater rafting companies.

“ When you count the number that go to Ohiopyle, a quarter of a million visitors up there, a huge number of rafters _ what kind of track record do they have? Probably exceptional,” Reilly said.

Ben Scoville, operations manager at Wilderness Voyageurs of Ohiopyle, said rafters are made aware of the risks, and sign waivers protecting the company from liability long before entering the water.

“It is always good to know that there are inherent risks before you go rafting,” Scoville said.

Stacie Hall, assistant park manager at Ohiopyle State Park, said wild-water enthusiasts are informed about the risks before getting into a boat.

“People are getting information before they go on the boats about what they are about to do,” she said.

Though Dimple Rock was blamed for three whitewater rafting deaths in 2000, a panel of coroner’s jurors convened by Reilly did not recommend demolishing the rock. After eight hours of testimony, the jury asked Ohiopyle Park officials to post signs and conduct further studies to see what type of material could be used to fill in the area under the rock so that rafters do not become stuck underneath. The underside of the rock was never filled.

Additionally, the panel asked for the use of stronger language in the pre-launch video rafters see.

Willie I. Pate, 46, of Cleveland, Ohio; Stewart W. Hill, 63, of Andover, Ohio; and Andrea Yeal, 16, of Littlestown, near Gettysburg, died within three months of one another, all at Dimple Rock.

Charles Walbridge, a swiftwater rescue instructor, is a former river guide and board member for the nonprofit American Whitewater organization. Walbridge said he could not recommend destroying Dimple Rock because demolishing the rock would produce unforeseen, possibly dangerous results. Walbridge said he is familiar with deaths associated with the river. He said he does not think modifying Dimple Rock would change anything.

“If you remove Dimple Rock, there are plenty of other rocks in that river that could also cause injuries,” he said.

Terry Brady, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Dimple Rapids, and others like it, are part of the wild water experience. He asked, rhetorically, if the state removed one rock then what’s to stop the removal of others.

He compared modifying the river to changing hiking trails with steep slopes that might prove potentially dangerous. Doing that, he said, wouldn’t offer the same type of experience for nature enthusiasts.

“ It is a slippery slope when you start altering things in sense of improving public safety,” he said.

Walbridge said modifying Dimple Rock would not have prevented the death of Rob Vega, the 22-year-old Lancaster man who died in nearby rapids last month.

He said if the state were to modify Dimple Rock, the state could potentially be liable for any accidents associated with that improvement. Walbridge compared rafting to hiking certain trails, where, if a person falls, the hiker assumes the risk and the park is not responsible.

“If I trip on that trail and fall, break my neck _ it’s all on me,” he said. “But if I trip in, say, a restroom at the park, someone might be able to sue because it is an improvement. If they modify Dimple Rock or anything, it goes from being a natural feature to an improvement that may put the state at risk if anything were to happen.”

Brady said it is better to leave things as they are because people expect it as part of the wild experience of rafting or kayaking in the river.

“Park officials do the best they can to maintain a balance between a wild experience and a safe experience,” he said.

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