Over the falls — Cucumber Falls that is — go 3 kayakers in Ohiopyle
Kayaking over Cucumber Falls at Ohiopyle State Park is a near-impossible run paddlers have pondered for decades, usually over late-night beers in the watering holes near the 20,500-acre park in Fayette County, enthusiasts say.
Fed by Cucumber Run, the waterfall trickles over layers of sandstone, shale and coal, inviting visitors to duck under its gentle spray on hot summer days. Below the 30-foot drop lies a rocky, shallow pool of water that meanders through fallen trees toward the Youghiogheny River.
No one had attempted to run the falls — until Wednesday.
“Most of the year, it's just a trickle of water,” said Todd Baker, a 27-year-old Harrisburg native who works at Confluence-based Immersion Research, a maker of whitewater kayaking gear. “Anyone who has common sense would know the drop should not be attempted under those conditions.”
But on Wednesday, the falls were raging, swollen by heavy rains and melting snow. It was the opportunity Baker and two co-workers, Wyatt Hyndman and Ian Wingert, both 22, had anticipated since last summer, when a freak storm swelled the falls.
Hyndman's kayak was the first to go over. Wingert followed. Baker was the last, aiming his bright green boat to hit the top of the fast-moving falls at a sweet spot the three had mapped out. If they missed a 10-foot wide, relatively rock-free spot in the pool below, they said, they risked breaking their backs, or worse.
“It was pretty spectacular, the few seconds before going over,” said Hyndman of Washington, D.C. “I've run a few waterfalls a little bigger, but this one, the impact at the bottom was pretty hard, and I'm still sore.”
Wingert of Annapolis, Md., struggled to put the experience into words.
“It's just a euphoric feeling,” Wingert said. “You imagine yourself going over it, but when you are in the air, there's nothing going through your mind.”
Baker said his adrenaline was pumping before his kayak hit the water, building as the men struggled to pull their boats up the steep, ice-covered rocks to the top of the falls.
“The only time you have to think is when you're paddling up to, pretty much, a giant cliff,” Baker said. “Do I have the right speed? When you get to the crest of the waterfall, you stop thinking and training takes over.”
Hours later, the men posted a Facebook video of their feat, which drew about 68,000 views in 24 hours. Among them was Stacie Hall, an assistant park manager who said the three men are believed to be the first to go over the falls in the park's 44-year history.
Hall said she wasn't surprised because officials realized that, despite the dangers, someone eventually would try it.
Christina Novak, spokeswoman with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the men will be notified not to try another run, and the area will be posted as closed to boaters.
“This is a scenic falls viewing area, and it is not managed for whitewater boating,” Novak said. “It poses significant hazards and dangers to boaters.”
By late afternoon Thursday, a handwritten sign prohibiting boating had been posted at the entrance to the falls.
Baker, Hyndman and Wingert said they are aware some of the thousands who commented on their video criticized it as irresponsible and reckless. But Hyndman said viewers don't see the months of preparation and planning.
“As scary as it looks, we were in control the entire course of the run,” said Hyndman, who has been kayaking for four years. “We're all professional kayakers, and this is well within the ability of all of us.”
Hyndman said the men adjusted for safety with each run, including when he, as the first to go over, became entangled in a log and fell out of his boat.
“I was able to get out of it myself,” Hyndman said. “I was never out of control. Definitely not ideal, but not out of control.”
Two of the three, along with Justin “Shadow” Stephens of Bloomsburg, Columbia County, waited at the base of the falls as each went over, ready to help in an emergency.
Wingert said the landing was among the most important safety considerations, especially with the fallen trees as obstacles.
“You needed to land with the correct body position so you didn't hurt your back or hit your face,” Wingert said.
Since the video was posted, the men said, they have taken phone calls and messages from professional kayakers worldwide.
Baker speculated the allure may be Ohiopyle's reputation as a whitewater-rafting destination.
“Some of the best kayakers in the world, and a lot of people who live in the area, have not attempted this drop, probably because they weren't there when the conditions were appropriate,” Baker said. “This is pretty rare, to see this much water going over it.”
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.