Eagle sighting highlights kayak trip on Kiski River

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

After eight miles of paddling the Kiski River, my trip was almost over, and I hadn't seen a bald eagle.

It had still been a good day on the water — slightly overcast with a nice breeze — and I saw not one but three osprey calling out and flying between trees.

Still, I'd so hoped to see an eagle. Ever since I read the first article about bald eagle nests popping up along Western Pennsylvania's waterways, I'd had my eyes out for one on every hike and bike ride. I even wondered if I would recognize a bald eagle from a distance, but The River's Edge canoe and kayak shop owner Neill Andritz assured me I would.

The white head, Andritz said, and the size make the bird unmistakable.

“When we started seven years ago, we would see one or two a summer and now we see them quite often,” Andritz said. “Our customers are seeing them a lot. They are spectacular, really. And you can't miss it. It's such an enormous bird, and the plumage is incredible.

“I was out with my family and my nephew was in the kayak. We were coming into the Roaring Run launch and he said, ‘That bird has a white head, Uncle Neill.' I told him it was an eagle and he said no way, then it swooped right down in front of his kayak. He was blown away.”

Andritz speaks with pride about the wildlife and recreation on the Kiski River, not just because he owns the Leechburg-based business that relies on it. A paddler since the age of 12, Andritz, now 46, also is president of the Roaring Run Watershed Association. He and his wife and shop co-owner, Evelyn, are committed to the health and vibrancy of the river.

Once polluted by acid mine drainage, the 48-mile Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail between Blairsville and Freeport is recognized as an official state water trail and recently was named by the National Park Service as a national recreation water trail.

Although located in Armstrong County, it is still well worth the drive from Butler County to spend an afternoon exploring the waterway.

Neill and Evelyn Andritz began renting canoes and kayaks at their shop seven years ago. Since then they've had people from 40 states and 12 countries use their service and expect to put 4,000 people on the river this year.

Rentals are offered at a day rate that include shuttle service with a number of options. Reservations are required. Weekends fill up, and reservations should be made at least a week in advance, Andritz suggests. Weekdays are a bit more open and usually can be made a day or two in advance.

The trips are all self-guided. They provide basic instruction, but even beginners should be fine. The kayaks are designed for flat water and are very stable. And the Kiski River, even after days of rain, generally varies between several feet and several inches in its shallowest sections. The float speed is usually between 2 to 3 mph.

The most popular trip is the eight-mile section that begins at the Roaring Run Recreation Area in Apollo.

The shortest trip is four miles between Vandergrift and the River's Edge, which takes up to two hours, and the longest is an all-day, 15-mile paddle from Avonmore to the River's Edge.

Fish inhabiting the river — and attracting the birds of prey — include smallmouth bass, yellow perch, sauger, walleye, bluegill and rainbow trout. Wildlife include deer, osprey, bald eagles, and Andritz said there even have been occasional coyote and black bear sightings, although usually on the upper section of the river.

The length of time on the river depends on whether the paddler wants to make it a workout, is content to do more floating than paddling or somewhere in between.

The eight miles between Roaring Run and the River's Edge varies from floating through backyards to sections that seem far more secluded than they actually are.

Paddlers will pass under an old railroad bridge missing at least a quarter of its ties as well as active bridges. There's even a chance to pull the boat to shore and pop into a Dairy Queen.

My trip was almost over when I experienced the wildlife highlight certainly of the day if not the summer.

My car and the shop had just come into sight and I wasn't yet ready to get off the river, so I paddled to my right to see if I could navigate a shallow channel around a small island. It didn't appear passable, but just as I turned the kayak around, I saw it.

A bald eagle was in the air right in front of me.

It circled above my kayak not once but three times before landing in a tree, and it happened that the slow current was pulling me in that same direction. I floated directly underneath the tree and it seemed the current died entirely at that moment, allowing me to sit completely still and observe the bird, it's huge white head on a swivel eyeing whatever fish might be in that shallow section of river as well as, most likely, me.

After about a minute, it took off, and all I could hear was the whoosh of its powerful wings cutting through the air as it pushed off the branch and headed back upstream.

I don't think I took another breath until I was on the shore.

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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