It had been dark a while by the time I joined the others at camp, pulling the borrowed Jetta in beside the iconic yellow van and trailer full of boats of every shape and size and color. I was greeted by familiar faces and warm hugs of people I hadn’t seen in a year, since the last time we were all together for this event that has become an annual tradition for so many of us, the Juniata River Sojourn.
Tony tests the fit of the Current Designs Squamish, one of the new shop boats that we both got to try that weekend.
The first Sojourn took place in 2001, when the Juniata was named River of the Year, and the event has continued annually ever since. It is one of many River Sojourns, and in its lifespan has drawn quite a following, a dedicated and enthusiastic group of paddlers for whom this is one of the highlights of their year. My first Juniata Sojourn was in 2002, when I was just a teenager tagging along with my parents. It’s where I fell in love with kayaking. It’s where I met people who would later show me the challenge of whitewater paddling. It’s where I first got to know the crew from Rothrock Outfitters who would later offer me a job and then become close friends. In the years since my first Sojourn experience, I’ve gone from novice paddler to leader and guide, but it’s always remained a fixture in my life.
Until this year, the Sojourn was organized and presented by Juniata Clean Water Partnership, a non-profit watershed stewardship organization based out of Huntingdon, PA. However, significant reductions in funding made the event nearly impossible to put on, so Rothrock Outfitters stepped up as organizers in addition to the usual role as on-water guides, in the hopes that this yearly tradition would continue.
The Sojourn venue rotates between 3 different sections of the Juniata River Watershed—the Frankstown Branch/Little Juniata, the Mainstem, and the Raystown Branch, which was the planned locale for this year. We were to begin at Everett, and end up at the upper reaches of Lake Raystown, at Heritage Cove Resort near Saxton.
But Mother Nature had another plan in store. In the days prior to the event weekend, especially the night before, inches of rain dumped on the area, by Friday morning rendering the river much too high on which to safely and responsibly lead a group of 60 canoes and kayaks. Then we heard that the places we were supposed to camp were underwater. Clearly, the plan as it sat wasn’t going to happen.
But a new plan was quickly formed—paddle the length of Raystown Lake instead. It would be a sojourn unlike the others, but also fill a missing link that connects the Raystown Branch with the Juniata River.
After a chaotic Friday afternoon and evening, everyone got settled in at Heritage Cove, our new camping spot for that night, and seemed to be adjusting well to the new plan. Morning brought sunshine and a respite from the relentless storms of the previous days, just in time for the colorful flotilla of canoes and kayaks to launch.
The first part of the paddle was relatively relaxing and quiet. Fewer motorboats venture into the upper reaches of the lake, and most of those that do are more interested in fishing than going fast. Evan and I tried out tandem kayaking together for the first time, in the Current Designs Double Vision, a new boat in stock at the shop. We saw multiple great-blue herons along shore, and later in the day, spied a bald eagle flying along Terrace Mountain on the eastern side of the lake.
By the time afternoon rolled around, motorboat traffic had picked up, and the last half mile of paddling was the most brutal of the day, battling wakes and a headwind as we beached our boats at the Lake Raystown Resort, our camp for the evening.
The Sojourn isn’t only about paddling—it’s also about comeraderie. The evenings prove that, as friends and strangers gather around campfires and share stories and laughs into the wee hours of the morning before retiring to their individual camps to do it again the next day.
Sunday’s paddle was the longest, and was grueling for many. We were in the busiest part of the lake, where motorboat wakes would toss our little canoes and kayaks every which way, making it hard to stay afloat at times, much less paddle at a steady pace. But we took plenty of breaks to let people catch up, during which water battles would ensue in an attempt to quench the relentless sun and heat.
We made it to our destination late in the afternoon, most everyone exhausted and ready for a dinner of wood-fired pizza. People slept well that night, the campfires and late-night giggles dying down earlier than usual.
Monday’s paddle was short and considerably quieter. Boat traffic was nearly none, the lake almost smooth as glass. The line of boats pulled into Snyders Run, the end of our Sojourn road, where goodbyes and til-next-years were exchanged.
Leading the pack to the finish.
Despite the weather and lat-minute plan changes, it had been a success.
Check out the Rothrock Outfitters website for more info.