At one time the rivers that course through Pittsburgh were incredibly unclean, primarily due to toxins being dumped into the water from steel mills for years on end. But with the closing of the mills, the waters of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers have become cleaner and more appealing as a source of recreation.
It’s that appeal that sparked one of the most visible forms of recreation around the rivers of Pittsburgh: kayaking. Each summer bright yellow kayaks can be seen coursing across the surface of the waters. The kayaks are part of an initiative called Kayak Pittsburgh that’s run by the non-profit organization Venture Outdoors.
From May through October people can rent the kayaks from three locations around the area, including on the North Shore by PNC Park, as well as North Park Boathouse. The boats are available on a first-come-first-serve basis.
It’s a pretty simple process to rent the boats, according to Donna Bour, director of development and communications for Venture Outdoors. People first sign a release for the kayak and provide some collateral, such as a driver’s license. Then they receive a few quick lessons regarding balance and paddling, then are allowed to ply the waters of the city.
“It’s a great way for people to see Pittsburgh,” Bour says.
Founded in 2001, Venture Outdoors’ motto is “We make it easy to get outside.” The organization plans numerous types of outdoor excursions throughout the year. Venture Outdoors provides the gear, guidance and the inspiration, Bour says. The activities the group sponsors include kayaking, hiking, cycling, fishing, rock climbing and geocaching. Whatever the type of activity, Venture Outdoors wants people to enjoy getting outside.
“We focus on things that are human-powered so there is some activity to go along with enjoying the outdoors,” Bour says. “We try to appeal to a pretty broad segment of the population and offer programs for toddlers to the elderly.”
For Venture Outdoors, the rivers of Pittsburgh have proven a particular draw, particularly as water condition and air quality have improved over the years as the city has transformed from a mill economy to one more centered on technology. At one point in Pittsburgh’s history the conditions around the rivers were so poor people avoided the water entirely. It was polluted and filled with debris from the mills, and the air was heavy with pollution. The area around the river was referred to as “Hell with the lid off,” Bour says.
But that has changed. The water quality in the rivers improved, fish returned to the area and the air quality became far more tolerable to people. Venture Outdoors saw an opportunity to utilize the river to engage people with physical activity while showing off the city. The organization secured a grant for seed money and acquired the bright yellow kayaks that have become a hallmark of Kayak Pittsburgh. On average the kayaks draw about 50,000 users every single year.
“It’s proven to be incredibly popular,” Bour says. “Kayaking is back. People see the river more as an opportunity for recreation than an impediment. Kayak Pittsburgh now generates about 40 to 45 percent of our annual revenue.”
Get in the water
With three locations for kayak rental, people can choose what kind of water they want to paddle in: the lake, the calmer waters near North Park Boathouse or the two river locations where people need to be more aware of river currents and potential debris in the water.
While individuals can rent the kayaks, Venture Outdoors does run some group specials throughout the year. One of the most popular allows kayakers to come together and watch fireworks shot off at PNC Park following Pittsburgh Pirates’ home games. Bour says the fireworks displays are particularly pretty when viewed from the water.
Throughout the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Kayak Pittsburgh rents kayaks seven days per week. Following Labor Day the kayaks can be rented on weekends. Bour notes many people enjoy taking the boats out in the autumn to see the fall leaves from the water.
“It can be really pretty and peaceful on the water at that time of year,” Bour says.
This article was originally published in Community Health for Community College of Allegheny County.