It’s been a chilly winter in Pennsylvania, but wonderful spring weather will be here soon! We’re already itching for the perfect warm day to take advantage of the very thing we were named for – our river towns’ rivers. Western Pennsylvania is full of some of the most beautiful places to kayak.
New and experienced paddlers alike, however, would do well to prepare for the season by brushing up on kayaking safety tips. Emergencies and accidents can happen to anyone, so knowing how to prevent them is key to keeping your paddling adventures safe, warm and minimally dripping wet!
- Always wear a PFD. A PFD, or Personal Flotation Device, is your first line of defense should you fall out of your kayak somehow. Don’t try to argue your way out of wearing one because you’re a good swimmer, either! A bad spill could make it hard for you to swim. Both regular life jackets and kayak-specific life jackets will get the job done, so take the time to decide which one will be more comfortable (and fits better) during your paddle.
- Respect your limits. While kayaking is a great way to get moving, you should never push yourself on the water the way you might in a gym. Respect your limits and make sure that you plan on ending your paddle before you’re too tired to continue. Also, never venture into a body of water that you cannot comfortably navigate. (NOTE: The ideal kayaking environment has protection from wind and waves, a good access point for launching and landing, lots of places to go ashore, and minimal motorized boat traffic.)
- Wait for some sun. Spring and summer days in western Pennsylvania can be beautiful! They can also be dark, stormy, and dangerous. Always check the forecast leading up to your paddle – and reschedule as needed. Your safety comes first!
- Dress appropriately. The key to a great day on the water is what you wear. Rule 1: never wear cotton while paddling – it dries very slowly and won’t be comfortable if you hit a splash zone. Bring layers as well based on the day’s forecast and your own temperature preferences. And pack up a spare outfit for the journey home, just in case.
- Respect the water – and its traffic. Always consider the conditions of the water you want to paddle on before you hop in. If the river you want to paddle on is running particularly swiftly or is full of rough waves, spurred on by gusts of wind, it’s time to reschedule your paddle! In addition to respecting water conditions, you need to respect its traffic. A number of Pennsylvania rivers are used by boats carrying people and cargo. Large boats always have the right-of-way on the water, so it’s impossible for kayakers to avoid them for everyone’s safety. The best way to do this is to just paddle along the shoreline, no matter how tempting the middle of the river may be.
- Drink up! Kayaking, like any exercise, can lead to dehydration – especially as temperatures begin to rise. Bring a couple of water bottles on any river trip, and take breaks every 15 – 20 minutes to stay hydrated.
- Bring a buddy. We recommend kayaking with at least one other person, if not with an entire group. Kayaking is a very safe activity, but sometimes emergencies happen. Having a buddy with you will ensure that, should an accident occur, help is ready to pull you from the water.
Sticking to these tips will make your paddling adventures safer and more enjoyable. And if you’re looking for beautiful places to kayak this year, there’s no need to google “kayaking areas near me!” Our website includes an entire section dedicated to local river recreational options – just what you need to plan your next day on the water! We just ask that you leave no trash behind in our gorgeous rivers. Happy paddling!
We’re dreaming of the beautiful outdoors! An approaching spring and summer means that soon, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots for scenic hiking and exploration. Western Pennsylvania’s woodlands and hills provide the best backdrop we could ask for. Still, hiking shouldn’t be considered a walk in the park. A misstep here or a mistake there can lead to injury, and poor preparation can contribute to an emergency situation.
Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to make your next day of hiking as safe as possible. So before you Google for “nice places to hike near me”, take the time to make sure you adhere to all of these guidelines:
- Plan for your trip. Even if you only plan on hiking for an hour, it’s worth preparing for it. Make a gear list in advance and check it off to ensure that you don’t leave anything behind. Gear includes layers, water, snacks, a compass, and so forth. A map should also be packed, as digital batteries and GPS signals can both fail!
- Research the area. In the age of the Internet, it’s easier than ever to get familiar with new hiking territory. A little online research can help you learn more about the wildlife you may come across, as well as the types of poisonous plants you need to watch out for. The more you know about the trail and region it’s based in, the more prepared you can be for it.
- Travel by daylight. Never hike at night. Hiking in the dark increases your chances of getting lost, of tripping on uneven trail ground, and of running into an unfriendly nocturnal animal. If you’ll be hiking late in the day, always turn around and return to the starting point of your trip with plenty of time to beat the sunset.
- Monitor the weather. Always keep an eye on the forecast before hitting a trail. Weather patterns will at a minimum determine the clothes you need, and could be worth rescheduling your hike if it’s looking particularly dark and stormy.
- Respect your limits. Hiking in nature is not the gym – and is not the place to test your skills. Stick to terrain you can handle and hike at a pace that won’t tire you out before your trailblazing is over. Otherwise, you increase your risk of injury.
- Don’t go alone. Ideally, you’ll go hiking with friends or with a group of fellow hikers. Traveling with people is best as you can work together to navigate the trail, and take care of each other should something go wrong. At the very least, you should tell a friend or family member where you will be, and when they can expect you to finish your hike. If they don’t hear from you by a predetermined time, they can contact the appropriate parties and initiate action to make sure you are OK.
By following these safety tips, you will make your next day on the trails that much more safe and enjoyable. The next step is deciding where to hike! But before you begin sorting through those search results for “nice places to hike near me”, why not explore hiking options in our Mon Valley River towns? Many are a short drive away from the Pittsburgh area, and all will provide a beautiful day in nature during the spring and summer! All that we ask is that you remember to take any trash of yours home with you at the end of the day. Grab your gear, head on out, and have fun!
Charleroi, PA, February 8, 2018 – The Pennsylvania Water Trail Partnership has named the Mon Valley Alliance (MVA) as the managing organization for the Monongahela River Water Trail.
The Pennsylvania Water Trails Partnership, which manages the Pennsylvania Water Trails Program, is made up of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the National Park Service.
The water trail is designated with the Pennsylvania Water Trail Program. MVA plans to work closely with the Mon River Towns Program to form a strong coalition of organizations and individuals to work on behalf of this regional asset.
“Tourism is the second largest industry in Pennsylvania and the Mon Valley is a great place to visit with the river chief among many reasons to bring people here,” said Christopher Whitlatch, Chief Executive Officer of the Mon Valley Alliance. “We believe the water trail can help our current businesses as well as encourage new startups on our main streets and on our riverfronts.”
MVA will work with Mon River Towns to update signage and maps and to increase recreational access and education. “MVA is excited to work with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to continuously improve access to our river for generations to come.”
As the managing organization, MVA will be responsible to bring the eight water trail principles to the Monongahela River. They include partnerships, stewardship, volunteering, education, conservation, community vitality, diversity and wellness and wellbeing.
The Mon River Towns Program helps communities to recognize the river as an asset around which potential community and economic development can occur, and thus a resource worthy of protection.
“We are pleased that MVA undertook this responsibility on behalf of the region,” said Cathy McCollom, Director of the Mon River Towns Program. “The Mon River Water Trail has not had a central managing organization and we look forward to partnering with MVA to breathe new life into this program”
The Pennsylvania Water Trail Partnership also offers a mini-grant program for small projects along the river. MVA and Mon River Town invites your project ideas which may be submitted through their websites at monvalleyalliance.org or monrivertowns.com.
A Live Interview with Into Pittsburgh with Mon River Towns Director Cathy McCollom and President of the Mon River Alliance Chris Whitlatch.
We are excited to report lots of exciting work taking place in charming Fredericktown this season! Just over 40 miles away from Pittsburgh, this river town is a lovely get-away destination. Like so many Pennsylvania towns, Fredericktown used to support a strong coal mining industry. Today, however, Fredericktown has embraced the beautiful and green countryside surrounding it, welcoming visitors who want to explore the beauty of a rural and scenic small town.
One doesn’t have to look far to see Fredericktown embracing the natural wonders of the state. In the summer, visitors can paddle along scenic Ten Mile Creek – one of many beautiful places to kayak near the Monongahela River. The Greene River Trail provides a great location for hikers or cyclists to take in the lush scenery. And travelers can venture into the Fredericktown business district to find restaurants, bars, shopping, and lodging options after their adventures outdoors!
Fredericktown – like all of the river towns we work with – is committed to building upon its existing beauty. To support this mission, development in the area is ongoing, and has been a focus of work during the fall and winter months of 2017 and 2018.
A New Community Park
One of the biggest Fredericktown projects to date is ongoing work on a beautiful new community park. This new park – complete with a gateway sign – has been designed for residents and visitors alike to enjoy, and to help support the river and riverwalk activities that make Fredericktown a relaxing area.
The planned community park will not only be the site of relaxing strolls. It will also be able to host festivals and will feature canoe and kayak storage – making the town’s access to the river easier than ever. The vision and layout for this current project was designed by Pashek + MTR. Planning; and work thus far has been supported in large part by a grant secured from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation by Design Center Pittsburgh in partnership with the Mon River Towns Program.
This past month, the town came one step closer to making this park a reality, with the removal of Taylor’s gas station at the entrance to Fredericktown. The old station was demolished by East Bethlehem Township through a Local Share Account Program grant, which was administered through the Redevelopment Authority of Washington County.
The demolition of this old structure was a key part of Fredericktown’s improvement plan, making way for funding and timelines to be planned for the next stages of work. Progress will continue through the coming months and years, and will result in a delightful addition of greenery to this endearing area!
Welcoming New Businesses
In addition to the development of key areas of town, Fredericktown is excited to welcome a handful of new businesses to its buzzing business district.
One new addition is Willie’s Bar and Grill. Located at the intersection of Ferry and Front Streets, the new business will replace the Bower Brothers Lounge. Mexican Mondays, classic spaghetti dishes, hearty soups, and classic comfort dishes are all here and ready for diners to partake in!
Little Tom’s Big Pizza is also set to open in Fredericktown at 526 Front Street. We don’t know about you, but we love a good pizza – and we can’t wait to see what Tom’s will bring to the local selection of delectable and cheesy pies!
And finally, in non-foodie news, Pierce Jewelers of 502 Front Street has reopened after a temporary closure. We highly recommend them for fine jewelry, watch shopping, and repairs of any of your favorite accessories.
Planning For The Future
With so many exciting changes taking place, Fredericktown is definitely looking forward to the future – near and distant alike. We can’t wait to share additional news on these fantastic developments, and hope you will come check them out for yourself!
Ready to plan a trip to Fredericktown? In addition to browsing our website for information and even itineraries for this charming river town, you can visit our website calendar to see other upcoming activities!
American Recreation Coalition has offered the Outdoor Recreation Outlook 2018 which offers specific economic impacts of the growing outdoor recreational market. The report states: “ the $36 Billion U.S. boating industry is seeing some of its highest sales in nearly a decade.” According to the report this is results from “Economic factors, including an improving housing market, higher employment, strong consumer confidence, and growing disposable income, are creating a golden age for the country’s recreational boating industry.”
Reviving an 1870 general store and so much more
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Olenik of Venango, PA (population 242) and talk about his family’s approach to business and community. Mark, his wife Tracey, and their children are affectionately known as the “Pickle People” because they got their start in business by selling artisanal pickles. They’ve since worked to open a general store, a bakery, and even start a Saturday market.
Their location in Venango, Crawford County along French Creek puts them in a “Creek Town.” We thought that some of what they’ve done in business may be of interest to those of you located in the Mon River Towns. We’ll consider it a Creek Town / River Town idea exchange (and do hope that some of you may offer some ideas back their way).
Before we get to the “lessons,” first some background:
The Oleniks decided to convert a family tradition of curing pickles into a home-based business, the Lititz Pickle Company. By their fifth year of business, their products were carried by more than 20 stores and specialty markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The family made the decision to seek a commercial property in 2012, and that’s when they found Venango, 300 miles from Lititz. Mark said that the vacant Oddfellows building kept showing up in real estate searches and they decided to take a look. Of the building and community, he said, “We came up and we fell in love with it.” (More on this later.) The family has been busy ever since renovating the property and taking on other community improvement projects. The store is not yet open for business. The building, he said, was in “utter disrepair” and they’ve been working on renovations since 2012. By the looks of the “before” and “after” images here, they are nearly there.
Lesson #1: See a Community for its Strengths
Make no mistake. Venango is a small town without any defined business district. There’s a public library and now the Sweet Treats Candy House, operated by the Oleniks’ daughter Brittany. There’s a family-run farm stand and also a couple of golf courses and Sprague Farm & Brew Works on the outskirts of town. That’s it. And yet the Oleniks saw all that was wonderful about Venango. They saw the golf courses, the brew works, and canoers and kayakers floating French Creek, and to them, that added up to opportunity. They’re not only seizing opportunity; they are creating it, which leads us to Lesson #2.
Lesson #2: Embrace and Create Community
A quick perusal of the Venango General Store Facebook page reveals that the Olenik family is committed to the community. They occasionally offer a “shout out to locals,” like this one: “Doug Sanner will be in town doing some rototilling. If you’d like your garden tilled let him know – $25.” Or the one about a spaghetti dinner raising funds for a youth program. It’s these kind of things that back up the Venango General Store’s stated mission. Of this, Mark said, “We view this as much more than a general store. We put our business case together to revive the town. By restoring an anchor building, our hope is that others will want to invest.” And it seems that they have. Mark shared stories about property improvements being made around town.
While it’s clear that the family has embraced (and been embraced by) the local community, they have also taken steps to create a sense of community. In May, they started the Venango Saturday Market. Located next to the general store, the market gives artisans, crafters, and growers who may not otherwise have an outlet the opportunity to set up in a high-traffic area. (Although the community is small in size and population, the busy two-lane state route 6/19 passes through town.)
Lesson #3: Seize Business Opportunity Where it Exists
You may have noticed that the Oleniks have gone from running an artisan pickle company to also opening a bakery and (soon) a general store. The bakery is a no-brainer. Brittany Olenik’s banana doughnut with a chocolate ganache was about the best doughnut we’ve ever had. One must go with their strengths. About the general store, Mark and Tracey saw the need for more than barrel-aged pickles when visiting Venango. There was (and remains) a need for groceries, and their business plan morphed as a result. Sweet Treats will eventually be moved into the general store, reducing the family’s overhead costs and also making another property available for business. This is a family with a business plan.
About the Area
We were curious about how Mark viewed the area in general, so we asked him where he would take any visiting friends and relatives. Without hesitation, he said that he’d take them on a canoe or kayak trip on French Creek. “The scenery is absolutely beautiful, it’s an easy float, and you don’t have to be an expert to do it. And there are a lot of migratory birds in the area that can be spotted from the creek.” He went on to talk about the area’s rich history and other nearby towns (Cambridge Springs among them).
We all travel differently. The hook that brought us to visit Venango last month was the nearby Erie National Wildlife Refuge and the prospect of a beer on the porch of Sprague Farm & Brew Works. Too cold for a paddle, that day’s trip consisted of the wildlife refuge (hook), a beer (reward), and a doughnut (reward). Mon River Town friends – what are your area’s “hooks” and rewards?
On May 3 -5, 2016, representatives of the River Town Program joined with the chairwoman of the Canal Town Partnership to participate as a team at The Conservation Fund’s leadership program: “Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes.” Held at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the conference consisted of lectures by nationally recognized economic development experts followed by workshops conducted by the Conservation Fund’s facilitators.
Three teams, in addition to the River Town/Canal Town team, were selected to attend this program and benefit from the knowledge of a wide range of experts in numerous fields related to economic development in rural communities and small towns. Other teams were from Tucker County, WV, the Northern Neck of Virginia, and the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area in Illinois.
The River Town/Canal Town team consisted of Cathy McCollom, River Town Program director; Donna Holdorf, Executive Director of the National Road Heritage Corridor; Kent Edwards, an architect and principal of McCollom Development Strategies; Dennis Martinak, a 21 year employee of Mackin Engineering and a resident and councilman of Allenport, Pennsylvania, a town which recently joined the River Town Program;. Marla Meyer Papernik with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council; Lois Turco, chair of the Canal Town Partnership; and Wendy Duchene, an attorney and writer rounded out the team.
Over an intensive three days of lectures and workshops, the River Town /Canal Town team applied what was gleaned from the speakers to the particular needs of the towns in the Monongahela River Valley region. In workshops held over the duration of the program, including an intensive four-hour session on the final day, the team developed an action strategy and timeline for a trail project to connect and benefit a number of towns bordering the Monongahela River. Community meetings will be held in the near future to get public input on the proposed project.
Martinak, who has an extensive background in community planning, explained the lessons he took away from the conference: “There are opportunities for our communities to experience revitalization but it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to work together, promote our assets, have a plan and support it, and use the resources that are available to us.” Martinak also noted that the towns in the River Town Coalition need to strive for responsible development and “look outside of the region for assistance when there are gaps in our expertise in order to move our plans forward. Image and quality of life are important to the future success of our towns. The way residents and business owners see their own community is key.”
Papernik agreed, stating: “Economic development, particularly as it relates to tourism, must embrace what is organically part of the community. There is nothing that can replace authenticity to engage the local population as well as provide for a rewarding visitor experience.”
A recurring theme of the conference was the need to focus on improving the lives of residents of small towns in a rapidly changing world. All team members noted this theme reinforced the goal of the River Town Program to work to enhance both the natural and community assets which already exist in the Monongahela River Valley towns and to rekindle regional pride in those towns. The River Town Program’s focus on outdoor recreation exists to enhance the lives of the town residents first, while also using those outdoor recreational opportunities to drive economic development.
With more and more work going into the care of the Monongahela River and the creeks and waterways throughout western Pennsylvania, more and more wildlife is making its way into our area. You’re sure to spot a multitude of birds and fish during your Mon River journeys – and if you’re really lucky, you may just spot a bald eagle!
Once an endangered species, this beautiful national symbol has bounced back since 1963, when only 417 mating pairs of bald eagles remained. As recently as the 1980s, only three bald eagle nests existed in Pennsylvania.
Today this fish-eating raptor is no longer considered endangered, and it’s estimated that 7,066 nesting pairs live in the U.S., primarily in sections of Alaska, Canada, and the northern U.S. As for Pennsylvania? The eagle population has bounced back tremendously, to the point that tracking the eagles can be quite difficult.
About The Bald Eagle
Bald eagles are well recognized for their brown body and white head and tail. If you spot an eagle with this plumage, that means that eagle is over 5 years old. Prior to reaching full adulthood, bald eagles are speckled brown-and-white. As with all raptors, female eagles are larger than their male counterparts.
Bald eagles love fish, which is why they are most commonly spotted near bodies of water. These eagles are opportunistic hunters, however, and will also catch birds, rabbits, and squirrels if they aren’t having any luck fishing.
Bald eagles mate for life and pairs are very territorial during their breeding season. Incredibly, the breeding season of eagles can occur any time between October and May, depending on the exact location of the eagles and the climate in that area; the local Hays neighborhood bald eagles were seen laying eggs in the month of February last year.
During the month (or even three months) before their mating season, bald eagles build a nest in a tall tree or on a cliff that’s near a body of water. The eagles use the same nest year after year, adding twigs and grasses to the nest to strengthen it each season. As a result of this repeated use, nests may become very large, up to 13 feet tall and ten feet across.
Once the nest is ready, bald eagles will then lay two or three eggs. After an incubation period that is just over a month long, the eaglets hatch, and spend the next ten to 12 weeks growing in their nest. After 6 weeks the eaglets are old enough to fly, although they do not reach full adulthood for several years. Incredibly, these eagles can live up to 50 years, assuming they avoid severe sickness or injury.
While some bald eagles migrate great distances seasonally, local Western Pennsylvania pairs are not very migratory, as they can find plenty of food throughout the year. Nearby eagle pairs likely will not migrate unless food becomes scarce, and even then, it would just be for a short time and distance. They may only go as far as Maryland, where there is a small winter colony of birds.
Sights Near Us!
It’s one thing to read about bald eagles and another to see them during local nature hikes. Fortunately, as bald eagles continue to recover, visitors to our Mon River communities have reported more and more eagle sightings. For example:
Visitors and staff have reported seeing up to four bald eagles at a time soaring above the Youghiogheny River, particularly between the Yough bike and pedestrian bridge and the point where the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers and Laurel Hill Creek merge. Locals report that visitors are likely to spot ospreys, red-tailed hawk and turkey buzzards during visits as well.
The owners of the Yough Tree House were lucky enough to snap a photo of two bald eagles – one perched about eight feet above the other one – in a tree near the Yough Tree House.
Locals report that bald eagle sightings are a common occurrence in Confluence because there is a variety of food sources, especially since the fish commission stocks the Yough, Casselman and Laurel Hill Creek.
More Sightings Coming Soon?
The National Aviary in Pittsburgh was recently consulted about the possibility of eagles in the Mon River Valley. According to experts, the Mid Mon Valley could definitely be the next location for an eagle couple to select for a territory and nest.
An eagle matures around the 4th or 5th year. The Hays pair (which nests near the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail around Pittsburgh) has been mating in the area for five years. There is also a pair of eagles in Harmar and by Canonsburg Lake. With new birds growing in the surrounding areas, it is the Aviary staff’s opinion that in the next few years, there will likely be at least one pair in the mid Mon.
Interestingly, eagles tend to select areas that do not have hiking trails. They avoid human interaction and do not like ATVs. However, things like trains and other industrial equipment do not bother them. They seem to be able to distinguish from a non-threat and a potential human threat.
Sighting Eagles Safely
If you plan on looking for eagles during your next trip along the Mon, we ask that you consider the land and animals you will be interacting with and plan accordingly. Since eagles do not tend to nest near trails that are used by humans, you will need to prepare to view any nests from a distance. Attempting to leave an approved trail for a closer look could put yourself in danger and drive away these beautiful birds. And it’s especially important to not try to climb into an eagle’s nest, both for your own safety and to avoid disrupting the eagle’s habitat and family. Having binoculars on hand is the best way to see these beautiful birds without getting too close (i.e. within 1,000 feet). Respecting the land they live in and not straying far from local trails is also very important, as is respecting all local property laws.
A Special Announcement
Have you come across any of these majestic animals on your hikes? Snap a picture and enter our Instagram Photo Contest! Post your Bald Eagle photos using the hashtag #RTPEagleSearch2017 for a chance to win a weekly $25 gift card. More information on the contest and rules can be found here. If you unable to get a photo, we would still love to hear where you are seeing the eagles. Please direct message the Mon River Towns Facebook page, @RiverTownProgram, with the location, date, and time of day with your sightings.
The following article was published by Dr. Steve Selin, Professor of Recreation, Parks and Tourism, School of Natural Resources at West Virginia University and an active member of the Mon River Town Program.