Thursday, 12 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Ohiopyle State Park

This is where my itinerary went a little off the rails. I hadn’t originally planned on coming anywhere near this far west, but then I heard about Meadow Run, the natural water slide at Ohiopyle State Park. And then I learned that Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, was also located at Ohiopyle State Park. It seemed to me that if we were doing a waterfall-themed holiday and were driving through Pennsylvania, we couldn’t not include these.

The minor problem here was that I had already mapped out our route and booked a night at the Red Caboose Motel, 209 miles to the east (which, honestly, also didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it looked really cool). I couldn’t shift the night at the hotel, so after some staring at the map, I resigned myself to some hefty zig-zagging on our way south. I will say, this stretch of Pennsylvania is really fun to drive. I’ve never been a long distance driver, I’ve never been a fast driver or a mountain driver, but I got completely hooked on cruising up and down the hills and valleys at 80 mph. (Full disclosure, the speed limit is actually 70mph, but nobody in Pennsylvania treats the limit as anything more than a guideline.)


Anyway, from our night at Connellsville, Ohiopyle was only half an hour away, so we got to Meadow Run right around 9:30am, and we only arrived there that late because it was a cooler day and I wanted the air temperatures to warm up before we splashed into a mountain river. I didn't tell the kids what we were doing in advance, but purely by coincidence, they had watched a video of the Top 10 Most Insane Natural Water Slides on YouTube days before we left for our trip. As we pulled into Meadow Run’s car park, I told them that this was number four. (I was wrong. It was number three.) They were thrilled.

Now I had done substantial research on this place before we left, and everything had pointed to this being safe (as in non-terminal) for children, although there seemed to be some conditions based on water levels. As I was going to be the only adult and unable to be in all places on the slide at once, I packed life jackets for my peace of mind, but it had been a dry few days, and I was feeling pretty confident as we headed down the steps from the car park. 

Then we saw it: viciously churning water overhung by pointed slabs of rock. There was no possible way I could let my children in that.


A group of young men had arrived just before us, and they seemed to be having a similar reassessment of affairs. They had brought a football (the American kind) with them, and they sent that down the slide as a test run. The ball survived, but they reported that it got stuck in one pool, just swirling around for a few minutes. They left the river without getting more than their feet and their hands wet.

I was a little perturbed by this as I had really wanted to watch some people go down the slide before making my own decision… but I knew I’d be mad at myself if we left without trying it. So I stalled for time, encouraging the kids to play up or downstream of the slide, while I studied the slide. The end stretch of the chute seemed designed to pin sliders underneath a rocky ledge where they would be first concussed and then drowned, and I gingerly knelt down and put my hand in the water, where it gushed back from the side. It certainly had a lot of force, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough to keep a person from getting stuck there. 

I talked to a handful of locals who were out walking their dogs. They cheerfully assured me that kids went down all the time without any trouble (“It’s deep there, so they go under and they pop right back up again!”). They also assured me that they’d seen the water flowing much higher and faster than today, and kids still went down without trouble. Finally, somebody told me that you could do the top part which actually did look like fun rather than a death trap, and then get out at the first pool, without going down the rest of it. I passed this information on to the kids; my son went to the top, inspected the course and decided that this was insufficient assurance. 

I was gradually coming to the terrifying conclusion that if somebody was going to go down first, it would have to be me. I certainly couldn’t let the kids be the guinea pigs, nobody else was showing up, and I was the only adult of the party. Unfortunately, I was also the only person without a lifejacket and by this point I was seriously regretting not packing the bicycle helmets. At least if something went horrifically wrong, there were non-swimming adults around to raise the alarm and take care of the kids.

The water was cold, but I assumed that I would stop noticing that once I started. With the cheerful encouragement of the kids, I sat down on a shelf of rock in the shallows near the start and stared at the slide, telling myself I just needed to get to the first pool and stand up. My son was videoing, so I now know that he came up to me, cheering me on and offering to give me a push—I had no idea he was there.

After a good sixty seconds of girding my loins, I pushed myself tentatively into the current and immediately found myself slithering rapidly down, white spray of water all around me, and hard stone thudding uncomfortably underneath my backside. It wasn’t long, but it was breathtaking, before I splashed into waist deep water, almost going under, and still getting pushed along towards the next part of the slide. I stumbled to find my balance and grabbed onto a rock, but it was on the opposite bank. Disoriented, I looked at my daughter on the other side, just a few feet away and tried to figure out if I could walk there against the current. Somewhere in my giddiness I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to complete the slide. After all, I was already wet, and from this angle, it didn’t look so bad. So I settled down and let the current wash me away.

This was a decision that made absolutely no sense. Now I was sliding down a rocky shelf, doing my best to keep facing forwards until I splashed into that deep part I’d been told about and went under, before, as predicted, popping back up again. I flailed to keep my feet in front of me—here came the white churning madness of that scary part… Avoid the rocks—no, crap, that wasn’t the scary part, this is the scary part. Rocks and spray everywhere. Somehow I avoid concussion and I’m slithering down one final zigzag before splashing into deeper water. The slide is done and I’m swimming dizzily with and against the current, managing to fetch up against a rock before I wash further downstream.

The start of the course - I have just passed the first pool.
The absolutely insane part as modeled by a random guy.

Washing out of the slide into open river while my anxious daughter watches.
The water came up over a shallow ledge here, and I managed to climb up onto it. It took a few more seconds before I realised I could stand and walk across it to dry land, where my son came barreling to meet me, still videoing and screaming with excitement. “Did you mean to go all the way down??” At least a minute had passed since my ordeal, enough time for me to feel the adrenalin high instead of concentrating on survival. I assured him it was great, that he should do it and that I was going to do it again. I added that I didn’t feel cold at all. Damn straight, I didn’t.

My daughter did not share our excitement. After watching me disappear down the flume, she trailed after my son in tears and told me she didn’t want me to do it again, she just wanted to go. I comforted her, assuring her with little success that it was fine, I’d had fun.

I did do the slide again, this time positioning my son in a better place to video it. (Not that that made a lot of difference. My son is still early in his videography career and has yet to understand the pitfalls of shaky-cam.) 

Then he did it, after I told him how to get out at the end. I tried to simultaneously video and run along the rocks alongside, frantically envisioning him getting stuck somewhere... The only place he did get stuck was on the rock ledge at the end; I found him clinging onto it as the current tried to drag him downriver, yelling for help. He, too, needed a moment to realise all he needed to do was stand up.

And neither of us did it again after that, because honestly, it’s quite painful. You don’t really notice it at the time, but you feel it and see it afterwards. I had a scrape on my wrist and red marks all down one thigh. A family came down just as my son finished up, with their kids itching to try it out. Their daughter was wearing a bikini, and I cautioned her to cover up, showing her my thigh. She went back to the car and returned wearing jeans and a T-shirt which was probably the smartest thing to wear. However, a trio of cliff-jumpers showed up next, and they went down wearing swimming trunks and nothing else with no apparent ill effects.

War wounds.
Personally, the palms of my hands were stinging for the rest of the day, even though they had no apparent injury. It was an hour before I realized I must have bruised my tailbone, but I was in for a shock when I inspected my rear end that night and discovered it was covered in bruises. I’m not talking under-the-skin discolouration; I’m talking solid, plum-coloured blotches. Never have I been so close to posting a picture of my backside online. 

However, my son had no bruises at all. It’s very possible that I tensed up and rode the slide down in the least forgiving way. The cliff-jumpers were talking to each other about how you could steer yourself on the water plane, which was a world away from my out of control experience.

But it was absolutely worth it. You don’t feel the force of the water because you’re going at the same speed, so while the rock may be hard, you’re also riding on pure foam. In the pools, the rock disappears and the water embraces you, soft and cool, before you’re on your way again. For me, it was hands down the best experience of the trip.

Afterwards, we had to navigate to Fallingwater without the aid of a GPS as I couldn't get a phone signal. Luckily, it was just up the road and we had passed it on the way there. Unluckily, the cover for my spare tyre spontaneously fell off the back of my car as I was pulling out of the car park. Luckily, I heard the clatter, saw what had happened and was able to U-turn to retrieve it. Even luckier, there was a guy passing who knew how to latch it back on. (Yes, I shamelessly asked a man to aid me with car problems. I'm the worst.)

I had expected Fallingwater to be more of a me-thing and for the kids not to be too interested, but when I explained the concept of keeping the architecture organic and working with the natural surroundings to my son, he got totally into it, and was crushed to hear that we wouldn't be going inside the house. (You can only go inside on a guided tour which is fearfully expensive, has to be reserved ahead of time and not recommended for children.) 

The house is built atop a waterfall.
 We got tickets to wander around the grounds instead, which does let you get right up to the house and the kids liked inspecting it, but ultimately they lost interest before I was done taking pictures and refused to walk to the different birds-eye viewing points. They did join me going around the gift shop which was full of genuinely beautiful art deco ornaments—also fearfully expensive. I deeply regretted the emergency expenditures we've had to make this year. Another year, I would have loved to splurge on something. (Though perhaps not on the $1,600 lamp...)




Afterwards, we returned to the little village by the park's visitor's center for lunch and ice cream while I used Google map's cache to find a way back to the interstate. (Successfully!). The drive back was fraught with traffic, which made it considerably less stimulating. For the first time since the drive to Philadelphia, I found myself struggling to stay awake and had to pull off at a rest area for a quick nap. Ten minutes was all I needed, the kids had their iPads so they weren't complaining, and then we drove straight through to the Red Caboose Motel, which deserves its own entry.

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