Kayaking the Yough, Ice Cream Cupcakes & the NEOWISE Comet

By Charleen - July 19, 2020

Getting out on a river -- the perfect activity for a hot summer day. It's a great way to get together with friends for a mini-"corona-cation" break. As the typical kayak paddle is 7-8 feet wide, you are naturally spaced out. The fresh air, blue sky, tree-lined slopes, waterfowl (and occasional adrenaline-rush as cooling waves come crashing into your lap) truly serve to lift the spirits. And in lieu of the more social post-river ice cream tradition, coming back to homemade ice cream cupcakes, followed by a nap and some comet gazing, is almost as good. 

Map showing named rapids in blue (maroon dots). Red dots show where we pulled off to watch for our group coming through the rapids.
Working and living with coronavirus-mandated social isolation has inspired many people to refine their cooking skills, leading to a delicious gain in confidence. I never would have thought it would be so easy making restaurant-worthy dishes such as Malaysian Turmeric Salmon, free-form vegetable tarts (crostada or galettes)General Tso's cauliflowerChinese barbecue porkHot & Sour soup, deep dish pizza or Dan-dan noodles. Gordon Ramsey's basic and elevated MasterClass lessons played through my mind while improvising, adapting and using every scrap of food to create beautiful and delicious dishes such as harissa-spiced cauliflower or clean-out-the-fridge veggie pasta basted in browned butter
Ice cream cupcake, iced with two frostings. Jump to Recipe.
Yet worrying about friends and family, and not being able to easily interact with parents and grandparents can really get you down, especially after canceling spring break and summer vacation plans. Fortunately, with the long summer days capped by pleasantly warm evenings, there are many outdoor opportunities for exercise, recreation and just enjoying the natural beauty of our world. Nothing beats getting outside, soaking in the sun and appreciating glimpses of wildlife, while enjoying the desultory breezes, green hills and flowing water. 
Stargazing on a warm summer night
The Youghiogheny River in southwestern Pennsylvania offers something for everyone, from placid float trips to advanced whitewater, and everything in between. The river extends 134 miles from West Virginia through Maryland to Pennsylvania, before joining the Monongahela River that runs south of Pittsburgh. 

The rapids are most difficult in the Maryland portions of the Yough. In Pennsylvania, the Lower Yough downstream of the famous Class IV Ohiopyle Falls, is the most popular stretch of whitewater east of the Mississippi. There have been a few deaths on this Class III section of river, most often at Dimple Rock, so selecting a responsible outfitter is important. Further downstream, near Connellsville, the river is placid, without rapids, and good for float trips. 

For our day trip, we selected the Middle Yough, a 9-10 mile stretch from Confluence to Ohiopyle. Water flow is controlled by dam release upstream from Confluence, PA, and conditions can vary depending on river height.  So do check the gauge before setting out.  The river was at 2.8 feet for our trip. It was a sunny, cloudless day, with a high temperature of 97°F.
Upstream of Ramcat
Just downstream of Confluence, PA, the Ramcat boat access point in Ohiopyle State Park features an ample parking area with men's and women's outhouse restrooms. After crossing the bike trail, we carried our kayaks down the ramp to a nice shady, beach-like launch site. We were among the last members of our group of 9 adults plus 2 dogs to push off. We paddled across to the right half of the river in preparation for our first challenge: the Ramcat rapids. 

Although it was already pretty hot at 10:40 am, when we took off, the river water still felt plenty cold for the two members of our group that flipped their kayaks. The river is flanked by the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail on the left, with Amtrak train tracks on the right. So if you do flip your canoe or kayak, it's best to head to the left bank to dump out the water and get regrouped. 
Canoeing past flipped kayak through Ramcat
So that's exactly what they did.  Meanwhile, the rest of the group waited beyond a bend on river right, in a calm pool sheltered behind a large rock outcropping just before the entry to more white water.  Unfortunately, we started to see items including kayak paddles floating past us, and realized they would not be able to join us without help. 

Lesson 1: tie down everything, and consider keeping a spare paddle in the hold or using a paddle leash. 
Dumping out the kayak on the left bank
So half the group set off to navigate the switchbacks between the rocks of the class II Drake Rapid in an attempt to retrieve these items. This included three of the four people with walkie talkies, the fourth being one of our paddleless kayakers. So they were able to communicate and come up with a plan. One of them scaled two steep drop-offs up to the bike trail, and jogged upstream to bring paddles to the stranded. 

Lesson 2: waterproof walkie talkies are great to have, especially with the spotty cell phone service in the area.  But, if you have a planned separation, be sure to leave a walkie talkie with each subgroup.

Realizing we had no way to communicate with either group, we headed down the zigzag rapids to find the advance group waiting at a lovely flat landing area with a calm pool just beyond (pictured on the map above).  A perfect place to let the pups out to stretch their legs, take a selfie and to watch people coming through Drake.
Just downstream of Drake
As the river got more crowded, it was unavoidable to run up on a few rocks, particularly when trying to navigate around a raft stuck on a rock. By spinning backwards, I was able to push off and keep going.

After a beautiful stretch of paddling, we beached our kayaks around a small rocky promontory, and ate an appropriately socially distant lunch. There was a small creek emptying just upstream of the promontary. Following this stream up towards the train tracks revealed a nice little trail off to the left that offered some privacy.

After lunch, we headed downstream towards a green ridge bearing the Laurel Highlands Hiking trail. There was a train of about 5 duck-like waterfowl swimming across the river, but before I got there, something spooked them and they took flight.
The drops and waves of Victoria Falls (class II), followed almost immediately by Haystacks (class I-II) was the most thrilling part of the day. The water was choppy enough to be hard to read, and rocks would come up unexpectedly. There were some larger waves, giving rise to refreshing lapfuls of water.  A great treat on a hot day!
Just downstream of Haystacks
Again there was a nice pull out just beyond Haystacks, a great spot to wait for our entire group to emerge from the rapids grinning and exhilarated. After passing below a cable car suspended above the river, we knew it was time to look for Elephant Rock. 
Cable Car - no riffles in sight
Upstream of Elephant Rock
After traversing the class II-III rapids to the right of the rock, we headed back to the left. The sign for the takeout at Mile 63 comes up really fast and we wanted to be sure we did not miss it!  We were neither equipped with the proper type of white water kayak nor did we have the experience to tackle going over Ohiopyle Falls!

It was hot and long waiting for the car shuttle that we had set up to bring drivers back to the launch site so they could bring the vehicles for loading up. That is one advantage of renting -- you can simply leave the rented inflatable kayaks and rafts and take off. We later found out that a woman decided she wanted to bicycle in the middle of the road, instead of using the very nice bike trail that runs the entire length of the river. This caused a large traffic jam.

So we were very pleased to return to Seven Springs knowing that we had these delicious ice cream cupcakes that my daughter had made the night before. 
Delicious frozen ice cream cupcake: chocolate cake base, fudge sauce, vanilla bean ice cream, butter cream frosting
After a nice afternoon nap, I pulled together some frozen Chinese barbecue char siu pork and miscellaneous vegetables for an impromptu lo mein dinner.  
Then we walked to the highest point on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail - near Lake Tahoe at Seven Springs. There we waited for the Big Dipper or Ursa Major to appear in the north after enjoying our view of Venus to the south. Down by the fore paws of the bear, we saw the NEOWISE comet.  A fantastic end to a great day spent with friends in the Laurel Highlands.
NEOWISE comet near Talitha and Kappa

Love2Chow Homemade Ice Cream Cupcakes
1 9-inch cake layer, any flavor
Muffin tin with cupcake liners (standard 3.5 fl. oz size wells)
Hot fudge or caramel sauce, about 6 fl. oz
Ice cream, any flavor
Butter cream icing
Piping bag

Although we made a two layer chocolate cake from an online recipe, or this one, one of the layers by itself was more than enough to form the bottoms of 12 cupcakes.  After inserting cupcake liners, crumble the cake with your fingers, and press into the bottom of each well. 

Spoon on a heaping tablespoon of chocolate ice cream topping or caramel sauce. Chill if necessary, and then top with a round scoop of ice cream. Chill in the freezer for 20 min while preparing the icing.
Fill a small piping back with the icing, and pipe using a medium star-tip to cover the ice cream. If the ice cream starts to soften, place back in the freezer for 10 min before continuing. We used leftover, frozen chocolate hazelnut butter cream icing (from Ferrero Rocher cupcakes) combined with some freshly made chocolate butter cream icing. This resulted in an interesting duo-colored effect when piped, and tasted delicious!

🐾 Seven Springs Mountain Resorts offers year-round lodging in its hotel, cabins or vacation rental townhomes that is convenient to all activities in the Laurel Highlands. With free access to pedestrian only trails such as the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, miles of mountain bike/hiking trails, and nearby state parks, or paid passes for paddleboating, lifts for skiing or downhill mountain biking and fishing. Festivals, music and comedy entertainment are often available, and there are several onsite restaurants including Helen's.
🐾 Take a trip to visit Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, which is near this segment of river. Note that advance reservations are required for guided exterior tours. At this time, the interior of the house is closed.
🐾 Enjoy delicious meals from Out of the Fire.  Currently serving curbside pickup, this is easily our favorite restaurant in the area. The house hickory-smoked salmon, hummus platter, and grilled steaks are always fantastic. 

Ohiopyle State Park Ramcat Access Point

39.826395, -79.378132  Lat N39 49 35; Lon W79 22 24; RJGC+FC Confluence, Pennsylvania

From PA-281 S from Confluence, turn right onto Ramcat Rd. After 1.8 miles, turn right for Ramcat Access. There is a parking area off the left fork, and a drop off loop on the right.

Middle Yough Take-Out near Elephant Rock

39.868889, -79.486944  Lat N39 52 08; Lon W79 29 12; VG97+H6 Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania

From PA-381/Main St in Ohiopyle, turn onto Sheridan St. After one block, turn left into the train station Visitor's Center parking lot. The take-out is beyond the traffic turnaround at the end of the bike trail parking area.

Link to the PA Yough River Map

Wilderness Voyageurs (800-272-4141) typically has rental gear at Ramcat by 930 am on Saturdays, and there are other rental options in Ohiopyle.


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