4,000 cfs Whitewater Release on the Lehigh

Trip Start Jun 06, 2009
Trip End Oct 10, 2009

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What I did
whitewater kayaking

Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Monday, October 5, 2009

The Lehigh River is a pretty popular run of class II-III whitewater in Eastern PA that draws crowds from PA, NY, NJ, MD and even MA and CT. The Lehigh is a dam fed river which means that even in the dry summer months we have a scheduled whitewater release, provided by the Army Corp of Engineers from the Francis E. Walter Dam, that allows us to boat even when the rain isn't heavy.

The Army Corps of Engineers is the governing body which sets the dam release schedule and also makes adjustments to the level of water that is released. For as long as the recreational dam release schedule has existed there has been a 4,000 cfs release* to occur in October if sufficient water storage remains. Almost every year we have more than sufficient water storage to have the "Big Release" but every year comes and goes without the 4,000 cfs release happening. This year was different!

First you have to understand that the typical Lehigh Release is about 800-1,200 cfs so to have 4,000 cfs plus natural inflow is amazing! Its rare that we get to see that amount of water on the Lehigh. This season we were spoiled with an abundance of rain and far too much water storage at the dam prompted the Corps to have the "Big Release".

This was my second season of whitewater kayaking and I just got my combat roll in June so to be able to paddle 4,000 cubes of water was spectacular. I met up with some members of the Lehigh Valley Whitewater club and we put in at White Haven. The plan was to paddle all 22 miles of the Lehigh Gorge down to Glen Onoko. Very few people except the more advanced members of the club have paddled this level of whitewater and even fewer have seen this level on the Lehigh so it was anyone's guess what it was going to look like! I swear half the Lehigh Valley must have called in sick from work this Monday because the river was packed with boaters, it was so great to see so many people out to enjoy the historic release!

I took my creek boat and wore my dry suit because I knew a swim this late in the season with this swift water would take awhile to get out of. When we got to the put in the river was cranking! I've never seen it move so swiftly! The waves were anywhere from 3-10 feet high, there were holes were there are normally no holes, wave trains where gravel bars normally existed, barely any eddies to catch and rocks the size of small cars were covered up. It is so amazing the way a river can completely change character with the addition of more water, it really didn't even look like the Lehigh!

I'm not going to recount every rapid, it was all so overwhelming and so over-stimulating on the senses that all I really remember is frothy whitewater everywhere, holes I've never seen the likes of and a ton of fun. It took only 5 hours to run 22 miles of class II-III whitewater, which is both sections of the Lehigh Gorge. Normally it takes that long or longer to run only the Lower Gorge. I didn't swim at all and I was put-in charge of getting our group through the Lower Gorge since I knew it the best. It was such a great day and awesome to know that you were there on the historic and hopefully not last 4,000 cfs release on the Lehigh!

Things Learned on the Mega-Lehigh Release:

1. Upper Lehigh Gorge - http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/3138/

2. Lower Lehigh Gorge - http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/3137/

3. Army Corp of Engineers Philly: http://www.nap.usace.army.mil/watercontrol/resreg.htm#releases
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