It's Time to Explore the River of the Year and the Trail of the Year

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
4 February 2017
By John Hayes

Two of Western Pennsylvania’s outdoor treasures are getting additional recognition in 2017.

In January, the Allegheny River was selected as the state River of the Year, and the Montour Trail was designated Trail of the Year.

The annual distinctions are intended to elevate public awareness of the state’s natural resources. On Jan. 9, following a 2016 application process and public online voting, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced the winner of the public’s pick for top river. Seventeen days later on Jan. 26, the former railroad passage in Allegheny and Washington counties was given top trail honors.

“Is it coincidental? Well, in a way it is, and in a way it’s not,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “We didn’t line them up like that. But when you think about it, Western Pennsylvania has some of the state’s best natural assets. Its rivers and trails are always in competition for these distinctions.”

PG graphic: Trail and River of the Year

Many of those assets originated during the last North American Ice Age. Glaciers separated the St. Lawrence River from its ancient southern fork, reversing the flow southward to the Mississippi River. Millennia later, the powerful Six Nations tribes and Virginia militia Maj. George Washington considered that waterway to be the mainstem and headwater of the Ohio River. But the Lenape called it oo-lik-hannee, “the best river” (probably because it had no canoe-tipping waterfalls), and the phrase was translated by French explorers as “la belle riviere,” the beautiful river.

And that it is. From its origin as a Potter County creek, north into New York then south to its confluence with the Monongahela River, the Allegheny River flows some 325 miles past forests, farmlands and industrial centers, comprising 60 percent of the Ohio River’s source at Pittsburgh.

Historically relevant and at times controversial, the waterway continues to be vital. French colonization of the long Allegheny River Valley led to the first truly global conflict, known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War. An important navigation corridor, the river brought timber, coal and fuel oil to industrial factories in Allegheny County.
As documented in the Johnny Cash cover of “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” lands that were deeded in perpetuity to the Seneca Nation were flooded during construction of the Kinzua Dam in Warren County, but its long Allegheny Reservoir continues to protect countless downriver towns from flooding.

Despite its industrial use, the river is respected for its outstanding muskellunge, walleye and smallmouth bass fishing. In 1992 about 86 miles of the river, from Kinzua Dam to Emlenton in Venango County, were federally designated a National Wild and Scenic Recreation River. Seven of its islands fall under the National Wilderness Preservation System, and in recent years thousands of paddlers have learned what the Lenape knew — no waterfalls, easy paddling..

The River of the Year honor focuses on the Allegheny’s Middle and Upper sections. Penn Soil Resource Conservation and Development Council, the group that submitted the application, will get a $10,000 Leadership Grant from DCNR to help fund River of the Year activities throughout 2017.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” said Fred Banter of Monroeville, who with his wife, Julie Banter, paddled 20 miles of the Wild and Scenic stretch last summer. “What I remember most is the quiet and the slow pace of the river. We had a wonderful time.”

Ms. Dunn said, “People talk about how they go back in time on the river. The forests, the mountains — It’s a high-quality experience.”

About five miles west of the Allegheny River’s mouth, the Montour Trail picks up the action where two old railroad lines left off. Chosen Trail of the Year by DCNR’s Pennsylvania Trails Advisory Committee, the designation spotlights a 63-mile rising star in the state’s trail inventory.

“There’s a fantastic history along this stretch, and you can really learn a lot whether you’re traveling quite a distance or commuting to work,” said Ms. Dunn. “It’s a truly phenomenal trail on a national level.”

Some 400,000 bikers, hikers, walkers, runners and cross-country skiers take advantage of the trail each year. With a few remaining gaps, its crushed limestone surface stretches from Coraopolis on the Ohio River to Clairton on the Monongahela. It crosses the Panhandle Trail near McDonald, includes several branches and connectors including a bikeway to Pittsburgh International Airport. It has a major linkup with the Great Allegheny Passage, which stretches more than 330 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

But for a pair of 12-year-old Bethel Park twins, the Montour Trail offered a safe 1-mile off-road bicycle route to and from George Washington Elementary School.
“It wasn’t that hard because it wasn’t that hilly,” said Naomi Nass, who with her sister Charlotte now attends middle school.

“Sometimes we took umbrellas,” said Charlotte, “or we would walk on the trail when it rained. There were a whole bunch of animals — birds and bunnies and chipmunks and squirrels.”

Naomi’s greatest Montour Trail memory was walking backward and accidentally stepping on a snake.

“Really long! Almost as wide as the trail,” she said. “We jumped over it and ran really fast and screamed.”

Charlotte remembers selling marshmallowy Smokie cookies to trail commuters for the all-volunteer Montour Trail Council.

“We raised $30 to help the trail,” she said.

Ms. Dunn said, “That’s so sweet. That’s the kind of story we hear. People in the neighborhoods have really embraced this trail.”

John Hayes: 412-263-1991,