Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on August 28, 2015.

This story is part of a series called Our Three Rivers, which explores residents’ unique relationships to the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. In this installment, we caught up with a unique group of kids and adults who make a weekly trip to the Allegheny to go dragon boating. Never heard of it? Well, it’s actually an ancient Chinese sport that is the fastest growing aquatic sport in the world. And the kids get a lot more from it than just competition.

LISTEN: “Through the Back Channel”

The Back Channel has the feel of a place people would call “Pittsburgh’s best kept secret.” In truth, it is a unique place: A narrow strip of the Allegheny River pinched between the river’s northern shore and Washington’s Landing—a floating upscale island community which locals like to brag was once home to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

A few have clearly discovered the channel’s charms. Here, working-class kids fish with their working-class dads off floating public access boat docks, while toned-armed rowers glide silently by in sleek, 30-foot rowing sculls. And then, there are the dragon boaters: An unlikely league forged from both worlds—kids with lives that afford few luxuries like water sports; and middle-aged-bordering-on-senior-citizen-aged adults intent on giving them that experience. Together they paddle a clumsy, brightly colored 20-seat canoe to the synchronizing sound of a drummer’s beat coming from one end of the boat. If they work together, the dragon boat glides through the water—though not as quickly—as elegantly as one of the expensive, carbon-fiber rowing sculls. Judging by the boat’s steadiness, the warm but fierce retired school teacher drumming at the head of the boat has not lost her skill to focus a group of teenagers.

A decorative dragon’s head, an icon of the sport’s ancient Chinese origins, is attached to the front of the boat. But this happens only during competition, which is not the object of today’s trip into the Back Channel. For this group, the dragon boat is mostly a prop. The real mission is to impart values that the older generation would like to see not die with the younger generation: cooperation, non-violence, care for nature, respect for oneself and others—a recycled, but timeless manifesto from the hippie movement. It’s the kind of the thing you think wouldn’t cut through to the average, cell-phone-addicted 13 year old. Except that sometimes it does.

A few years ago, for the club’s traditional, end-of-summer run down the Allegheny, the coaches gave into the kids’ pleas to paddle all the way down to the Point—a Pittsburgh landmark that marks the end of the Allegheny River as it is absorbed into the Ohio. It’s about a five-mile paddle, round trip, and on the way, two speed boats zoomed past the dragon boat—one on either side—creating a cycle of peaks and troughs that easily flipped the long, shallow-sided canoe. No one was hurt. Everyone did what they were supposed to do in a situation like this, including the police’s River Rescue unit which quickly responded and ferried the drenched kids back toward the Back Channel.

During the ensuing debrief, the kids shared more excitement than anxiety over the whole thing. But then, two girls—who had shown little interest and even less respect for the zen of the dragon boating scene all summer long—chimed in with an unexpected moment of truth. In front of everybody, they told the group how cool they thought it was that everyone had come together as a team to get out of a sticky situation. It was a simple moment. One no doubt quickly forgotten by the kids who would remember that night as the time the boat flipped. But for many of the gray-haired coaches, it was the night they knew the message was getting through via some ephemeral back channel.

Tonight, the boat glides safely back to the river’s edge, the only obstacle being the maze of duck and geese poop littering the dock. Back on land, the kids and coaches circle up to discuss what they’ve learned, which the kids decide is that they don’t like getting river water in their mouths. With a little prodding, the kids manage to come up with more profound anecdotes that require using words like “cooperation” and “respect.” Then, the floor yields to a boy who’s celebrating a birthday. He goes back to his parents’ car, returning with plastic bags stuffed with plastic cartons of supermarket sugar cookies with fluorescent pink icing. It’s not surprising he has remembered to bring enough for everyone.


Padders for Peace is a youth dragon boating league based in Pittsburgh. It’s mission is to use the sport of dragon boating to promote peace, nonviolence, cooperation and respect for nature. Read more about the group here. This story is part of a series called Our Three Rivers, which explores residents’ unique relationships to the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.