Kayaking the Lehigh River: Weissport Canal Loop
Well, it may have ruined me for the Schuylkill, but the Lehigh River is an amazing place to kayak. Kim and I paddled the short Weissport canal loop on Saturday, and it was one of the most fun things we’ve ever done.
For this loop, you start at the Canal Street parking lot, where you get into the canal and head north. This canal is much cleaner and less stagnant than the one on the Lock 60 loop on the Schuylkill River. It’s got nice stretches full of huge lily pads, and much of the bottom is covered with these long, soft, pine-needley plants whose arms reach up and wave as you pass by. It’s also cool: on this 90-degree day, the river was about 73F, and the canal wasn’t much warmer than that.
The one downside to the canal is the portages: in the less than 2 miles that we were on it, there were 3 spots where we had to get out and drag the kayaks over land. The first one is barely 5 minutes into the trip, and the portage distance is maybe 10 feet. The second one is about 15 minutes later, and it’s a few dozen yards. The third portage is referred to on the map as the "last canal portage", and indeed, it appeared that the canal ended at this point: it got really shallow and then turned into a very small stream. There is a walking trail (the D & L Trail) all along the route between the canal and the river, and we had to get out and drag the kayaks on this trail about 500 feet upstream until we found a spot where we could access the river.
My one major gripe about this loop is that, based on the official-seeming map on the Wildlands Conservancy website, I expected the transition location from canal to river to be at least easy to spot, perhaps even marked in some way. But that wasn’t the case at all. For one thing, the canal kind of just ends, and although the trail is still there along the left bank, there’s no easy spot to take out at. In fact the one spot that looked like it might be a good take-out location was covered in hay with new grass growing up through it, as if they decidedly did not want you to use it as a take-out. But most of the rest of this northern stretch is full of trees and overgrowth that would be tough to get through. And then, when you finally do manage to get up onto the trail, you find a fence along the lefthand side, between the trail and the river -- again, as if they really don’t want people to do this loop. The reason we walked 500 feet upstream to get into the river is that, in addition to the map and my GPS seeming to indicate that that was the spot, we also had to walk about that far just to get beyond the fence.
But griping aside, when we finally did get into the river, holy cow was it fun! There were class-I rapids right at the put-in, and there were ye-haws all around. This was our first time on whitewater (other than a bit of rapids on the Yampa River in Colorado, but that was in a raft) and it was really exciting. I chose this loop because it only has class-I rapids, and only 4 of them, but they were still really awesome. Besides the whitewater, the other thing that makes the Lehigh more exciting than the Schuylkill is that the water is moving much faster, especially during dam releases from the F.E. Walter Dam, which on this day raised the water level from about 550 to 990 cfs at the Lehighton gage. And the Lehigh water is also nice and cool, being 13 degrees cooler than the Schuylkill on this particular day.
Actually, I do have one other complaint about this trip: I wish the river section were longer! It was over in a flash. We spent about an hour padding up the canal, and about 40 minutes coming back down the river, which included a 10-minute stop along the bank to swim. At the end, we took out at a big rock hill along a curve in the river, which was a bit of a challenge given the speed of the water, and then the need to carry the kayak up the ~20-foot hill of boulders, but nothing too problematic.
After getting home and reviewing the map and GPS log, I decided that I think we got into the river a bit earlier than the map intended. I now think that if we’d walked another hundred yards upriver, we would have found the intended put-in spot, which perhaps would have been marked with a sign or something. The spot where we did put in was kind of a side-channel beside some small islands, and it was pretty shallow and rocky; if it hadn’t been a dam release day, I don’t think this section would have been navigable at all. If we’d have gone a bit farther north, we would have been putting into the main river channel -- still within a section of rapids according to the map, but not such a shallow rocky section.
Recreational Kayaks on Whitewater?
Before this trip, I wasn’t exactly sure how we’d do on the rapids with our recreational kayaks (an Emotion Glide, and a Perception Sport Sound 9.5). I’d done some research, and spoken to a few people with whitewater experience, and the consensus seemed to be that class-I rapids might be doable, class-IIIs would not be, and class-IIs were iffy. But there were also some people who scoffed at the very idea of taking recreational kayaks on rapids, no matter how gentle or rough.
Our previous experience included about 10 kayaking trips for me, and 5 for Kim, on rivers, lakes, and the ocean with small waves. So while we’d never done whitewater before, we had some kayaking experience under our belts. We also had life jackets, emergency whistles, cups for bailing water, and a flotation bag in my kayak, with flotation pillars in Kim’s (now upgraded to a flotation bag as well). We also had my iPhone (in an Aquapac which is quite awesome BTW), which I use for photos and navigation, and of course could be used to call for help. We didn’t end up needing any of those things, but the point is that we were reasonably prepared.
Based on all of that, I felt confident that we wouldn’t have any major trouble doing class-I rapids, particularly a small number of them on a relatively short stretch of a wide river, which is partly why I chose the Weissport canal loop for our first whitewater run. And it turned out to be just fine, quite easy, and super fun. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to roll either of our kayaks, so unfortunately we won’t be heading up into the Lehigh Gorge and hitting the class-III rapids until we’re able to get some whitewater kayaks, but I definitely plan to do more of the many class-Is and perhaps some of the class-IIs in the sections south of the gorge.
As usual you can check out the photos (including the GPS map) from the trip.
Update: we went back a few weeks later and did a longer version of this run, kayaking from Jim Thorpe to Lehighton.Previous kayak trip: Kayaking the Lock 60 Loop on the Schuylkill River.
Next kayak trip: Kayaking the Hiwassee River in Tennessee.