Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of the other stories in the series here

More than 40 years ago, Tim Palmer set out to write a biography of the Youghiogheny River. Now he’sBook jacket updated it.

Known for white water rafting as well as industry, the Youghiogheny flows north from its source in West Virginia, through Ohiopyle State Park, and empties into the Monongahela River a little south of Pittsburgh. 

Palmer revisited its waters and banks in a newly released, revised edition of “Youghiogheny: Appalachian River” for the University of Pittsburgh Press. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with him about it.

The Youghiogheny is up for Pennsylvania’s 2024 River of the Year – along with the Allegheny and Laxawaxen. Votes can be cast at pawatersheds.org until Jan. 19 at 5 p.m.

LISTEN to their conversation


Kara Holsopple: The dedication for the book reads “In memory of my father, who first showed me this river.” What are your roots here, and why did you want to write about the Youghiogheny twice?

Tim Palmer in a kayak

Photo courtesy of Tim Palmer

Tim Palmer: My ancestors first moved to this area in 1787, and they actually settled in Jockey Hollow, which is now flooded by Youghiogheny Reservoir. A family contingent soon moved to Ohiopyle and spent the next five generations there. And so I went there as a kid on family trips. I got to run wild as this little kid in the Appalachian Mountains. So I developed this perspective on the place that goes back to my first memories, really, as a child. 

Kara Holsopple: How is this new edition different from the previous version, and what was the process for updating it?

Tim Palmer: The first edition of the book was in 1984. I can’t believe that’s 40 years ago. I had already written my first book, which is called “Rivers of Pennsylvania.” I had become a landscape architect and a county planner in north-central Pennsylvania.

I saw this as a great opportunity to draw on my family history, my personal background, and the passion I developed for river conservation and rivers everywhere. There’s a lot of history in the book, but it’s much more than that. I took principally a journalistic approach in interviewing people to get the modern-day story, and I went there and stayed for months and months at a time over a period of two years, and wrote about my personal experiences and my personal impressions of the place. 

Then two years ago, the new marketing director for the [University of Pittsburgh Press] called, and said, “Tim, would you be interested in doing a second edition of the book?” And I said, “Well, sure, that would be great.”

I don’t want to change what’s in the book because it’s pretty much a set piece as it is. I really don’t want to mess with that, but I’d be thrilled to write a new introduction principally about why the Youghiogheny is so important to us today and a substantial epilogue to bring people up to date on a lot of the really important issues that exist.

Kara Holsopple: What are some of the biggest ecological changes you noticed about the river and the landscape along it? 

Tim Palmer: The big one, that’s easy: It’s way cleaner than it was. Going back even before I wrote the first book, the Youghiogheny was essentially sterilized by acid mine drainage. There were hardly any fish in it at all. That gradually improved through the Sixties and Seventies. And then there were more marked improvements in the ’80s and ’90s as our state agency got a better grip on strip mining, and as we pursued mine reclamation. 

When I was a kid, Cucumber Run, which is kind of the premier small waterfall in Ohiopyle State Park, and actually in Pennsylvania — Cucumber Run was Day-Glo orange with acid mine drainage. Now it’s just a beautiful stream again — not that the stream is totally recovered biologically, that’s a much higher bar to clear, but at least the worst of the acid mine drainage has been cleaned up. Unfortunately, it has to be continuously cleaned with treatment facilities that have to be maintained. So the obligation continues.

That’s a change that’s really good, and in fact, given all of that experience and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in reclamation, we would have learned a few lessons. But then came the era of fracking, and that has led to many of the same type of problems we had from poorly regulated coal mining. So, you know, the challenges continue here, and the changes continue. 

Why the Lower Youghiogheny River Landed on Most Endangered Rivers List

Kara Holsopple: Some of the things that you mentioned, I hadn’t really thought about, like that the trees are bigger. 

Tim Palmer: For me, it’s spectacular. I mean, a tree that when I was a kid was maybe three or four inches in diameter is now 30 inches in diameter or three feet. It’s just fabulous to go back and see what now looks like an old-growth forest of these wonderful, mature trees. 

Unfortunately, we also have a plague of exotic species now that have invaded from all kinds of sources: from bilge water [from] boats on Atlantic seaports, from firewood that’s imported with fungal pathogens in it, and from insects like the hemlock woolly adelgid. It would be killing all of our hemlock trees, which are one of the big highlights of our Youghiogheny forest, if the state park were not treating those trees for now, with insecticide. We can’t do that forever. Hopefully, that is just a stopgap measure until we have biological predators that are effective. 

Miles of the river in the ’90s became infested by Japanese knotweed, especially on the Middle Yough between Confluence and Ohiopyle, where the banks were just covered with the exotic shrub that gets to be six feet high.

The state park has done a great job of physically eradicating much of that. It’s something that we always have to keep up with. More of these vectors keep coming, too. There’s beech bark disease, which kills almost all of the beech trees. It’s not here yet, but it is in northern Pennsylvania, and it is on the way.

Kara Holsopple: You write about how recreation has changed along and on the river, including a decrease in white water rafting. Tell me more about that. 

Tim Plamer:  In the ’70s, the popularity of whitewater boating skyrocketed. Whitewater rafting, kayaking, and canoeing went from almost nothing to just great amounts of use and crowds on the river.

The state actually had to implement policies for dealing with those crowds. The use continued to go up and up and up through the ’70s and the early ’80s when I was writing the book. And then something happened that absolutely nobody saw coming, and that was that whitewater paddling flattened out. And then it began to decline and it continued to decline and still is. Today, there’s only about half the amount of whitewater use that there was in 1988. 

I talked to a lot of people about this. There are a lot of reasons, actually, like many big phenomena, it’s not one single thing. The simplest issue is pure demographics. Back in the ’70s, hardly anybody had gone whitewater rafting. A lot of media said go rafting on the Yough. People did. They did it once, twice, three times. Then for I think many, there was this feeling of kind of been there, done that and they quit coming.

So at that point, the growth segment of the economy became young people or people who would move into the area. And of course, that’s much more limited than the enormous number of people that are here overall. So that’s one reason, but there are many others.

The technological age and the cell phone culture is much less oriented toward the outdoors and to real physical adventure than we used to be. And kind of related to that, there are quite a few people who think that it’s just a little too hard. They don’t want to do something that has a long learning curve. One of the outfitters said people have a shorter attention span today.

Now, instead of a day-long river trip of the lower Yough, they want a half-day trip or they want a one-hour trip. And then he just kind of shook his head a little and said they want a ten-minute trip. 

Kara Holsopple: The book is not just about the natural elements of the river. It’s about the people that you spoke with, the people that you knew. Unfortunately, when you went back, a lot of the people had moved on or had passed away. What was it like to revisit some of those stories?

Tim Palmer: It was a bittersweet experience for me to come back after 40 years, and I felt this right away. At the upper end of the river, at a place called Sang Run, these very challenging raft trips began in Maryland.

Back then, it was kind of a battleground between local mountain residents who didn’t want to see other people coming in and whitewater boaters who just loved the place. There was a massive conflict there, which I wrote about in the first book. The principal person involved there has passed away since. It was a very interesting story because he ended up, in a sense, supporting rafting and cooperating with one of the rafting operators in a way that I thought was a really good sign of the times, because that was the cultural conflict of that time. Of course, Rusty died. He’s gone.

My uncle was Bill Holt, who owned Holt’s Department Store, which became Falls Market, which is the principal commercial establishment today — he’s died. His wife, my Aunt Eileen, has died. So it was a little bittersweet. But there are new people who have come in, who are fabulous people, doing amazing work and making terrific contributions to what this place is. So there’s that bright side of all this as well.