Friday, May 30, 2014

Hike, Bike and Paddle - Pittsburgh style

When you coin the phrase, "outdoor adventure," images of wilderness waterways, primeval forests and rare wildlife species often spring to mind.

However, you don't always have to go out of the city to enjoy outdoor activities. That's certainly true in Pittsburgh, where I spent an afternoon hiking, biking and paddling, all in an urban environment, a few days ago.

We began our "hike " - it was about a 1.5 km jaunt from the Wyndham Grand Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh to the Golden Triangle Bike Rental shop where our adventure would begin in earnest. Brenda Miller of Visit Pittsburgh led a group of 15 of us out-of-towners on our "warm-up walk," with Mike Carroll of Bike Pittsburgh accompanying us on his bike, as he would be the leader of the cycling portion of our pedal-paddle outing.
The bikes are all lined up and ready to ride.

Once there, we fitted ourselves out with helmets, saddled up and off we went...

To lunch.

A short pedal down to the Smithfield Street Bridge - the first of many bridges we could cross over (and under) that day - brought us across the Monongahela River to the Buca Di Beppo Italian Restaurant. A quick feed of pasta, salad, chicken and bread tucked into our bellies, we mounted up and headed out once more.

Pittsburgh is a pretty cycle-friendly city, although it has not always been that way. These days, though, cyclists have unlimited access to the T-trains and buses.

"We've been working on making that a reality for the past several years, and it's just the last two years the transit system has provided unlimited access," says Carroll, the events co-ordinator for the bicycle advocacy group.

Our trusty two-wheeled steeds got us to the base for Venture Outdoors, the outfit that would guide us along the kayaking portion of our journey.

Once we donned our life jackets and our safety talk and instruction were completed, we headed for our kayaks to test the waters of the Allegheny River.

The weather had turned quite nice for our paddle. Earlier this morning, thundershowers threatened, and it was overcast when we hopped on our bikes, but since then the sun had started to shine.

As we got into the rhythm of paddling upstream, I lost track of time, as I often do when canoeing or kayaking. It did have a unique feel for me, as I'd never paddled in an urban environment like a city in my 50 years of paddling. But as I'm fond of saying, "A bad day paddling beats a good day doing anything else." And it doesn't really matter whether it's in a city, on a rural pond, or a wilderness river.

We made several stops along the way for guide Nik Brown to provide some interpretive talks about the history and highlights of the area. At one point, we were sitting under the Roberto Clemente Bridge; we also paddled underneath the Andy Warhol Bridge.

Guide Stacia Fe Gillen keeps on eye on the paddlers.

Further along, I saw a fish jump. That's right - a fish. In an urban river. Now, I know you can fly-fish for trout in Calgary's Bow River, right in the city - but Pittsburgh is much more developed with a lot less green space than the southern Alberta city.

Brown told us there are several different species of fish you can find in the city's rivers.

"I've caught rock bass, striped bass and even smallmouth bass," he told us. "It used to be, all you'd catch was catfish, but that's changing as we've cleaned up the river."

The biggest continuing threat to the rivers is the city's storm sewer system. Because of the vast amount of pavement in the city, the water runs down, often unchecked, into the rivers.

That's still a far cry from what it used to be like before efforts were made to improve the city's quality of air and water.

You can even eat some of the fish caught in the river. But like a good boater, just don't go overboard.

"There is a guide you have to check in terms of how many of a particular species of fish you can eat, to be safe from toxicity," Brown says.

All too soon, it's time to turn around and paddle back to the take-out, where another bike ride back to Golden Triangle awaits us.

As we near the dock, the same geese who were there when we left are still swimming around. A pair of mallards have joined them in the water, and as they float by, they quack at me. They seem to say, "We think the river's okay, so don't worry about us."

Nature survives. Even in the city.

Interested in learning how to catch catfish in Pittsburgh's rivers?
This video should help.

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