The roar of the rapids is somehow just as loud underneath the water.
As I pop to the surface I see flashes of red helmet and lifejacket all around me and feel a shocking bump and scrape of rock as the current pushes me back toward the now-empty raft.
I aim for the raft as safety guides in kayaks skim across the tumbling waves and eddies toward our group.
I scan the water for my paddle. I realize it is still in my hand.
“This is your paddle. There are many like it but this one is yours,” Coal Tubin’ owner Chad Gontkovic said an hour earlier on the way to the Stonycreek River.
There were 13 of us in a short bus loaded with rafts and kayaks headed to run the river on Friday the 13th following the dedication of the whitewater release valve at the Quemahoning Reservoir.
Gontkovic is an affable Air Force reservist who owns the first rafting outfitter based on this section of the river in decades (perhaps historically) with his fiancee Jill Skowron.
The Richland Township couple is banking on the valve’s periodic high-volume releases to turn the Stonycreek River into a premier whitewater destination on the east coast.
The Stonycreek River canyon is stubbornly inaccessible by foot or car meaning that for decades only a handful of area residents have really had the opportunity to see vast sections of this area.
Beautiful it is. The late growing season means that trees are covered in the soft green while the steep forest floor is blooming with new ferns.
Waterfalls periodically cascade into the river from unnamed tributaries and Canadian Geese honk mournfully and a trifle protectively as they take flight while rafts pass their nests.
We see a great blue heron wing away down the river shortly after we take to the water in Benson for the 11-mile run to Greenhouse Park in Conemaugh Township.
The trip will take more than four hours as the river curls back upon itself time and time again.
We see or cross the 101-year-old Quemahoning pipeline a half-dozen times as it runs toward the industrial centers of Johnstown.
During peak production years in the 1950s the 66-inch pipeline provided more than 100 million gallons of water per day to the Bethlehem Steel Corp. for steel-making operations.
Remains of this region’s now-abandoned coal, mining and logging industries surround us as we glide silently past.
They are softened with time. Trees, saplings and bushes sprout from abandoned stone bridge abutments.
What’s remarkable is that the run isn’t filled with sights of bland uniform beauty.
The river will bend around and bring you face-to-face with a sheer cliff still dark with seeping groundwater and dotted with moss and lichen.
Minutes later you come to the Border Dam where an old brick complex marks an abandoned sulfur mine.
Eventually you pass hundreds of feet below the McNally Bridge as Route 219 rolls above with only the muffled sound of traffic hinting at the nuisances, demands and now of modern life.
“You want to go surfing,” guide Tyler Maluchnik of Richland Township asks us shortly before we all end up in the drink. Everybody says yes.
After all the whitewater is the juice, the fun, the lifeblood of the Stonycreek.
Guides like Doug Gebhart, of Camp Harmony, say the river offers the longest continuos whitewater run on the east coast.
Take that as you will as the guides and kayakers are also all busy naming rapids in hopes their nick-name sticks as the visitors and common use of the river increases.
Three Sisters, Roostertail, Showers (a Class IV on the difficulty rating where Class V is for the experienced only) and the Beast are just a few.
Some like Locomotive – which ends in the freshly Gebhart-minted Freight Train – let you hit the walls of waves with a minimum of technical skill.
Others take some serious listening as the guide calls out which side of the boat should paddle forward or backward as the river demands.
I prefer hearing “all-forward” which is what we do as we try to surf a standing wave in the rapids. Essentially the raft will sit on top of the most violent and quickest part of the churning rapid as it drops into a hole underneath.
Seconds later the raft is pitched nearly upright and five of us hit the water (with me on top of nearly all of them) as Gontkovic likely made a silent promise to prohibit surfing on future runs filled with working press.
The beauty is that less than two hours later we are game to try it again when we reach Greenhouse Park.
The park is home to 300 yards of man-made rapids and is being positioned as the new centerpiece to the burgeoning recreation-based industry.
Stones line the banks in sort of a natural amphitheater as the Paint Creek Pickers play live in the nearby pavilion.
Kayakers dart in and out of the surf hole as friends and family on dry land enjoy the show, some food and the occasional adult beverage from just feet away.
They scatter like brightly-colored dragonflies as our raft – guided now by Maluchnik – comes in above the hole backward.
“All-forward” he yells as the surge pulls us in. For long seconds the raft dances on the crest of the wave as everybody strains on their paddles.
Suddenly the wave catches the tip of the raft and the back end pops into the air. I watch the water pouring in and brace for another cold and refreshing swim.
Without warning we pop free of the wave in a breathless moment and spin slowly down the river upright with everyone still on board.
Cheers and clapping erupt from the crowd.
We have surfed the Stonycreek.