Action/Adventure, Extreme Sports, Whitewater Rafting
Whitewater Rafting the Lehigh River with Whitewater Challengers (White Haven, Pennsylvania)
By Caitlin Doherty — February 11, 2011
Some people raft down rivers to enjoy the scenery. Others feel relaxed when they see moving water. For whitewater rafters, however, it’s both a team sport—you get to meet and work cooperatively with people—and a natural thrill ride. After all, you could be thrown from the raft into frantically turbulent waters. Even the sound of roaring rapids can give you the tingles, especially if you’re being swept toward them by the swift current of a river and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Caitlin doherty, our action-adventure, extreme sports reporter (not to mention pizza authority and restaurant critic) was introduced to whitewater rafting in 2008 on the lehigh river in pennsylvania, under the auspices of whitewater challengers. (Photo © richard grigonis)
I was introduced to whitewater rafting on July 5, 2008 by one of the great names in the business, perhaps the best whitewater rafting outfitter in eastern Pennsylvania and Upstate New York—White Water Challengers. Founded back in 1975, over 1.6 million satisfied, thrilled customers have under Challengers’ supervision hurtled a total of 15 million miles along the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania and the Hudson, Black, Moose and Salmon Rivers in New York.
Caitlin Doherty's raft proceeds down the lehigh river. some of the lehigh river and several of its tributaries have been designated a Pennsylvania Scenic River by Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. (Photo © richard grigonis)
For those puzzled over which trip to take, keep in mind that rivers and rapids are graded in levels or classes or “forces” ranging from one through five. Class five rapids are the highest manageable by rafting experts, so as a first-timer I right away decided to avoid those. Families and first-time whitewater rafters are encouraged to begin with a trip of low to moderate intensity, then work their way up to the “high-adventure excursions.” Fortunately, White Water Challengers has a chart that lists the severity of white water you’ll encounter on each river:
whitewater challengers has this table detailing the severity or class, of each river.
In my particular case, the trip took place in the Lehigh River at White Haven, Pennsylvania. This is Whitewater Challengers’ most popular and fun-filled rafting trip through the Lehigh River Gorge of the Poconos in eastern Pennsylvania. Even here, however, you get the choice of “exhilarating whitewater” or “easier whitewater,” depending on whether your trip is occurring on weekends when the dam at the Francis E. Walter Reservoir is scheduled to release water downriver, thus making things interesting.
The sun breaks through the clouds over a more peaceful stretch of the 103-mile long lehigh river. by this time, our own caitlin doherty was beginning to get hungry. (Photo © richard grigonis)
The Lehigh River is a 103-mile (166-kilometer) long tributary of the Delaware River. It starts in some ponds in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, about 15 miles southeast of Scranton. A section of the Lehigh, along with some of its tributaries, is designated a Pennsylvania Scenic River by the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The river winds quite bit through the valleys found between ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. There are many whitewater rapids in the upper part of the river, and you’ll see a lot of whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking there. The lower part of the river goes through the Lehigh Valley, where coal is mined and steel used to be produced quite a bit.
The rafters (including our caitlin Doherty) watch a fellow in a kayak on the other side of the river dive over a small waterfall and into the lehigh river. (Photo © richard grigonis)
The river starts by flowing southwest, through southern Lackawanna County, through the 80-acre Francis E. Walter Reservoir, where the dam is located. Near White Haven, Middleburg (where I got on), it goes south and zigzags through a whitewater course through Lehigh Gorge State Park to Jim Thorpe, then southeast, past Lehighton. Southeast of Lehighton, it passes through Blue Mountain in a narrow opening called the Lehigh Gap. From there it flows southeast to Allentown, where it is meets up with the Little Lehigh Creek, then heads northeast past Bethlehem, where it joins the Delaware River at Easton, just across the river from New Jersey.
Caitlin Doherty, at left, along with her friends and a few new acquaintances having fun on the lehigh river in pennsylvania, courtesy of whitewater challengers. (Photo © richard grigonis)
White Water Challengers maintains a big 25-acre rafting center on the Lehigh River that offers a lot more than rafting: overnight camping, rustic bunkhouses, buffet-style breakfast, river lunches and buffet dinner service, our outfitter shop, snack bar, recreation fields, a ZipLine Adventure, paintball, sand volleyball courts, basketball, games and competitions, and evening programs.
Still, rafting is their big thing. Although they offer a two-day 26 mile trip, I opted for a four to five hour-long family-type excursion, with rapids ranging up to Class 3. Families can handle from force 1 up to about Class 3 rapids. Only adults can handle Class 4 or 5 and only professionals or people who love risk dare brave the most intense rapids.
The flotilla of rafts makes its way down the lehigh river where some exiciting rapids await. (Photo © richard grigonis)
There are quite a few rafts in our party, a whole sort of caravan of them going down the river. Rafts on family excursions can hold more people (there were eight people in my raft), as opposed to more violent whitewater trips, in which case only about three people are allocated to each raft, including the guide.
Whitewater Challengers has many friendly, enthusiastic tour guides. Our trip had two guides in kayaks, and they were paddling parallel to us, one in the front where my raft was and one in the back of our raft caravan. They can help if a raft gets wedged in rocks, or retrieve somebody if they fall out of a raft into the river. As I mentioned before, for trips in more violent whitewater, there are also guides stationed in every single raft. (As you can imagine, safety is a big thing with these guys.) My raft was a family raft on lesser rapids, so we didn’t need one right on each raft.
if you fall overboard, you're supposed to face down river and keep your feet in front of you, so they'll keep you from hitting your head on the rocks. fortunately, this fellow didn't land in a swift current. (Photo © richard grigonis)
If you do fall overboard, you’ve got to face down river and keep your feet in front of you, so they’ll hit the rocks and not the back of your head. You paddle with your hands to steer as best you can, and the life jacket they assign you will keep you afloat until a guide can get to you.
We stopped at midway in the trip, which happened to be lunch time.(Many of the trips offer lunches s part of the package. They even have vegan food options.) There was a big rocky area, and then we pulled the boats in onto the beach.
most whitewater challenger trips have a lunch break as part of the package. (Photo © richard grigonis)
Our trip was on the friendlier part of the river so although we got to experience some excitement from sections of whitewater rapids, we didn’t come across any legendary monster whirlpools that can gulp your raft and spit you out. Whitewater rafting on really violent rivers in other parts of the country can involve encountering 10 or 15-foot high “stopper waves” and running into crazy “wave trains” caused by currents coming together and hitting your raft from all angles, causing a kind of washboard or roller-coaster effect.
Whitewater rafting is obviously Whitewater Challengers’ forte, though they do offer kayaking, canoeing, biking, training, and other activities.
caitlin says, "it's a great way to get wet!" (Photo © richard grigonis)
All in all, it was a great trip. You can actually believe Whitewater Challengers’ promotional literature when they say: “You’ll laugh, you’ll scream and you’ll soak yourself silly!”
Caitlin Doherty, when not functioning as Interesting America's pizza-ologist and fun eatery afficionado, is our action-adventure/extreme sports reporter. She also likes fun places to visit when she can find the time. A New Jersey native, she is a pharmacy technician for a hospital.