A river’s-eye view of The City of Bridges
Getting on the water easy in Pittsburgh
This is how you do urban kayaking.
You park in a downtown garage, walk two blocks, and duck under a bridge right next to a beautiful baseball stadium. There is a stream of people, but no line at a small desk. No maps, no instruction, just a waiver to sign, a credit card to leave lest you abscond with the boat, and a quick lesson on how to hold the paddle. Then you put on a life jacket and in five minutes you’re off. The cost? About $12 for two hours.
You don’t get to have this experience in Baltimore. I don’t know if you get to have it anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I was in Pittsburgh, paddling the three rivers where I grew up through Kayak Pittsburgh, which is a part of Venture Outdoors. In 30 years, the rivers have become unrecognizable. They were, if not exactly clean, in much better shape. I could tell that by the way they looked and smelled. But I could also tell by the number of people out enjoying them. On a beautiful July day, my friend Jen and I saw at least a dozen other kayakers, three old-fashioned paddle-wheel boats, several yachts, two fishermen and one happy splashing dog.
When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, people didn’t go on the water. Certainly I never saw anyone fish on it. In those days, steel mills still belched smoke along the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. The Hot Metal Bridge, today considered a refurbished treasure, was a gritty eyesore. The rivers were best viewed from a distance, preferably from the perch atop Mount Washington or the West End Overlook.
No more. People want to get close - whether on bike paths along the river or on kayaks on top of it. And Kayak Pittsburgh makes it easy. They require no membership, no previous expertise and no advance planning. They have a friendly, helpful staff. A person could wake up on a lovely Saturday morning and decide to go for a paddle, take the city’s well-run bus system (or subway) downtown, and be in a kayak within an hour of the idea forming in his or her head.
I had to do a little more planning. My friend Jen works for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She loves the outdoors. But with a full-time job and two kids, she hadn’t managed to kayak Pittsburgh yet. So we planned to go. We arrived at their desk at about 11 a.m. and decided to paddle upstream first.
My father was nervous. He still lives in the house where I grew up on a bluff overlooking a former slag dump that is now a river-view housing development. From his yard, you can hear the coal trains pass. To him, the rivers remain best viewed from afar. Pittsburgh recently had to cancel its regatta events because of too much debris on the water. Be careful, he warned me. Don’t go over the dams. He needn’t have worried. The water was fairly smooth and flat, and plenty of people were out paddling. The dams were well out of our paddling radius.
Jen knows her ecology, so she pointed out the invasive plants. I focused on the interesting graffiti on the many rusted bridges and one stormwater outfall. We both marveled at how beautiful Pittsburgh’s many yellow bridges looked from the water.
We saw large families of Canada geese with their goslings. Jen pointed out chimney swifts. We saw huge dragonflies with cerulean coloring and damselflies. Jen was most excited when, at the end of the paddle, we saw a snapping turtle and a red-eared slider sunning on a log.
On the way, we chatted about what helped Pittsburgh’s waterfront rebound when so many cities have struggled. Was it the Mellon and Carnegie money? The fact that so many corporate headquarters (Heinz, Alcoa) remain in the city? Or was it the slow decline of the steel industry, which gave companies time to regroup and invest in steel technology instead of all going out of business at once? It could also be that Pittsburgh never became mired in the drug trade the way Baltimore did, that perhaps its more isolated location and lack of a beltway system protected it from becoming a conduit for contraband.
All of those factors played a part. But it had to also have been city leadership. Somewhere along the line, someone (or many someones) decided that Pittsburgh’s waterfront would become a destination. It didn’t just happen. They planned it. They built it. And people came.
Pittsburgh reminds me of a high-school boyfriend who, every time you come home, just keeps looking better and better. But you can’t be too mad at him, because everyone benefits from him cleaning up his act. Besides, as my best friend from high school reminds me, I was the one who left. I couldn’t get away fast enough.
I love Baltimore, but when Pittsburgh looks this good, I find myself wondering why my new city can’t be more like my old one. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to decide I want to kayak at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, take the bus to the harbor, and be on a boat an hour later. Until then, I’m grateful to Pittsburgh for the memories. I’m glad I can always come back.