Originally published in The New York Times.

Kayakers Win Battle to Open Falls for a Plunge

September 5, 2010

OHIOPYLE, Pa. — For decades, kayakers and other whitewater boaters were prohibited by park safety rules from paddling over the crest of an 18-foot waterfall in this scenic corner of southwestern Pennsylvania.

But it was just too tempting, so daredevil paddlers simply slipped over Ohiopyle Falls at night to avoid being seen. “We haven’t been able to catch them,” said Stacie Faust, the assistant manager at Ohiopyle State Park, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Now, however, after pressing for access for more than 20 years, paddlers are running the falls in plain sight in a three-week trial that ends next Sunday. If boaters follow safety guidelines, the park plans to let them plunge over the falls along the Youghiogheny River again at certain times each day next summer.

Seasoned paddlers like Jared Callahan, a kayaking instructor on the river, said the change had brought an influx of new boaters. “It’s been great,” he said, shoving his sleek white boat into the water just below the falls. “It’s been a long time coming.”

The paddlers’ battle for the falls began when a North Carolina advocacy group, American Whitewater, started lobbying the park in the 1980s, eventually obtaining one-day permits in 1999 for “Over the Falls” festivals each summer.

“We were able to demonstrate that quite a few people can paddle the falls in a manner that’s responsible, that provides a level of safety that ultimately the park was able to get some level of comfort around,” said Mark Singleton, the group’s executive director.

The policy barring boaters from the falls had been in place since the late 1960s, when the area was developed as a state park and whitewater kayaking was a relatively obscure sport. But as the sport has grown, so has the appetite of paddlers eager to run waterfalls like the one in Ohiopyle.

“The skill level of whitewater boaters has gotten so good in the last two decades,” Mr. Singleton said. While boaters had been running the falls illegally at night, the park’s new plan, he said, “puts it into the daylight, makes it manageable.”

In the past, the relationship between boaters and park officials was “openly hostile,” he said, but management changes in recent years have altered that.

“A lot has changed in 40 years,” said Jim Juran, the park’s manager. Still, Mr. Juran said, “people need to respect the river.” He added, “People don’t understand that a couple feet of water can knock you down and drag you under.”

Since the early 1970s, more than 20 people have died in whitewater boating accidents on the river, which is popular for rafting trips, but none have died on the falls, Mr. Juran said.

Under the new rules, rafts will still not be allowed to go over the falls, Ms. Faust said.

Since the start of the one-day festivals, paddlers have hurtled over the falls about 15,000 times, said Barry Adams, an American Whitewater volunteer who helps organize the annual event.

The park’s new policy has attracted hundreds more in recent weeks. More than 300 boaters ran the falls in the week after the park opened access on Aug. 22.

On Saturday, kayakers in brightly colored vessels started early, aiming their bows over the falls and soaring through the air momentarily before bouncing and bobbing in a frothy pool below. Some performed tricks along the way.

“I don’t think I’d be doing this if it weren’t for the adrenaline rush,” said Kenny Erskine, a carpenter from Fulton, Md., as he prepared to carry his boat to a launch point above the falls.

As waterfalls go, Ohiopyle’s is relatively safe and easy for experienced paddlers, said Mr. Erskine, who is also a kayaking instructor. “This is a friendly fall,” he said.

But for Pam Robson, 47, a college counselor from Clinton Township, Mich., who stood with other spectators on an observation deck above the falls, the journey through jutting rocks and churning water looked anything but easy.

“I think it’s crazy,” she said after five kayakers went over the falls, one by one. “I’m amazed they all just did that. It takes amazing courage.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 6, 2010, on page A12 of the New York edition.