Ohiopyle Falls is an inflection point. After meandering downstream of the Pennsylvania line, the falls marks a shift in the river. Over two hundred and fifty years ago, that shift was enough to divert George Washington from his intended pathway, as the “rough, rocky, and scarcely passable” channel made down river travel impossible. Traveling west, he began a skirmish that would mark the beginning of the French and Indian War.
And for over two hundred years, Washington’s view was the prevailing one. The falls were impassable; even jumping from them in the lowest water years might bring you death. Of course, that was also the prevailing view of waterfalls in general within the sport of whitewater boating. Waterfalls, and their resulting hydraulics, were death traps.
Much to our surprise there was nothing to it, and now everybody is doing it.
Then in January of 1973, Martin Begun ran Potter Falls on Crooked Fork Creek in East Tennessee. It was the feature image of the summer edition of American Whitewater. While the reaction in the larger boating community was mixed, it cemented an idea in the minds of two raft guides in Ohiopyle, PA.
Dan Demaree and Jim Snyder had been pushing themselves as racers and river runners. Together they would guide people down the Upper Yough on their off days. And as they stared at the falls, they imagined what would be in store form them should they tempt it. For weeks they practiced paddling into the base of the falls, flipping over, holding their breath and feeling the currents. They would swim into a hole in Railroad rapid, practicing their escape skills. They honed their line; imagining what today we know as boofing, gliding out past the maw at the base of the falls. And in July of 1973, they were ready. Or so they thought.
“The only daredevil was the guy who tried it first”
While their falls run was ill-fated, what came of it was not. The same inventive spirit that saw them guiding boaters down the Upper Yough, and even tempting the falls in the first place, saw Dan imagine a different type of boat. Shorter. More dynamic. Its influence was seen in Jim Snyder’s first commercial boat, the Slice. And today, it is the spirit that imbues play boats throughout every companies line.
Of course, Ohiopyle Falls was not the only inflection point. The boating community operated in a series of silos in those days; the knowledge shared at events throughout the country, but developed with a regional spirit. What Dan and Jim were learning on the Upper Yough and Ohiopyle Falls, others were learning on Potter Falls or the Chattooga. Vladamir Vanha was shaping a similar style of kayak in the south. The myriad ways water and kayak could interact were the same no matter which side of the Appalachian mountains you were on. And likewise on the west coast, as Tom Johnson was shaping River Chasers and molding boats in plastic. A decade that began shaped by slalom boats would end with a wider variety of options, and new branches to explore in the sport.
The falls themselves became something of a joke. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, guides would hang posters around town advertising a “race”. They were designed to whip the park staff into a frenzy, while no race would happen. And on full moons and early mornings, they would sneak in falls runs.
The first legal runs of Ohiopyle Falls began in 1999, during an organized race. More than two hundred and fifty people ran the falls over one thousand times that day, including Jim’s brother Jeff Snyder on his Stryder. In the final portion of the day, boaters held a freestyle competition. In boats half the size of the racers; with chopped off ends designed to surf and throw ends, they hurled themselves off the falls. What was “impassable” for nearly 250 years had become a playground in less than 25 years.