15 Daring Adventures for Thrill-Seekers
Push yourself to the limit with 15 adventurous experiences close to home. We take you into the air, through the waves and across rugged ground for feats you’ll never forget.
photo courtesy of surf pittsburgh
Surf the Mon
Steve Ford spent two years living the surfer life in Santa Monica, but he says there are advantages to catching a swell on the Monongahela River behind his specialized Centurion Enzo boat. For one thing, he says, it’s a lot less of a hassle. Instead of paddling out and waiting, he pulls you by towrope very slowly — about 9 mph — until you stand up and get your balance. Meanwhile, just behind you, the wake builds into a steady 3-foot curler. “Ninety-nine percent of people we have standing in 20 minutes,” Ford says. Then you toss the rope back and just ride that sucker. While ocean surfing is solitary, here you’re close enough to talk to your buds in the boat about how totally tubular you are or groove to a playlist pumping through their stereo speakers. And don’t worry about your proximity to the back of the boat: You couldn’t wipe out on the propeller even if you tried; it’s recessed under the hull.
$ Cost: $125 per hour for up to 2 people; $25 per additional person
photo courtesy of pittsburgh flyboards
Be the Iron Man of Iron City as you shoot up and out of the river with jets of water gushing from your feet. After debuting last summer, Pittsburgh Flyboards returns to the South Side Marina, where riders can perform their best imitation of the Point fountain. Thrillseekers don footwear akin to ski boots bolted to a board equipped with two downward-facing jet nozzles; all of that is attached to a long hose, the other end of which is snapped over a jet ski exhaust.
Instead of propelling the watercraft forward, the surge blasts riders skyward. Owner Joe Kunzmann says it takes most people 15-30 minutes to get the hang of it (he controls the throttle to keep the altitude reasonable). When Kunzmann wears the boots, though, he can fly up to 40 feet high. He wowed crowds last year at the Beaver Regatta in his TRON-style LED suit, and he’s elicited shrieks from a group of teenagers by surprising them while they were strolling across the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.
$ Cost: $65 per half-hour
pHOTO courtesy of SurfSUP Adventures
If standup paddleboarding is too zen for your inner wild child, try staying on your feet as you carom down some Class II to Class III rapids. As an adrenaline-soaked alternative to his more placid paddle tours, Ian Smith at SurfSUP Adventures offers guided outings on the rapids of Connoquenessing Creek in Ellwood City. He also plans to run a free whitewater paddleboard clinic and race May 21 at the annual Stonycreek Rendezvous at Greenhouse Park in Johnstown, Cambria County.
Smith estimates he has fallen into and swum most of the rapids in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia while trying to figure out how to ride them on two feet — and he hasn’t broken any bones yet. Paddlers wear helmets, knee and elbow pads, and shin guards, in addition to life vests. “It feels death-defying when you’re on a paddleboard,” Smith says, “but it’s not like going over a waterfall.”
$ Cost: $79 per person
photo via flickr creative commons
Brave the Waterfall
Once a year at the Over the Falls Festival, kayakers race to determine who can be the fastest to descend Ohiopyle Falls. Brynn Benson, who finished in second place in the women’s division last year, is a sophomore at West Virginia University and a longtime whitewater enthusiast. While she’s generally afraid of heights, she says going over the 20-foot cataract doesn’t spook her: “If I have to jump off with my feet, that’s what gets me,” she says. “But in kayaking, the water is helping you.” Outfitter Jeff Prycl, 69, won the senior category; he and Benson both insist this activity is strictly for experienced kayakers — those who can right themselves with a “combat roll” in strong whitewater. State park rules permit sufficiently skilled kayakers to shoot the falls throughout the season, provided the water’s not too high, if they register for a free permit first and are accompanied by at least two others kayakers to spot them from the water below. Prycl trains kayakers for the challenge at Valley Falls near Fairmont, W.Va., but he requires prospective students to demonstrate proficiency before he’ll teach them to shoot the falls.
$ Cost: Free
PHOTO COURTESY surfsup adventures
Surf Lake Erie
It can be done, but only under the right conditions. “Erie is one of the most fickle waves in the world,” says Ian Smith of SurfSUP Adventures. You need a surfboard and a wetsuit, because this works best in the fall and you’ll be out there for a while. With the arrival of autumn, prevailing easterlies over the shallowest of the Great Lakes grow stronger, and on very blustery days they can generate relentless swells.
“The wave face is [about] head-high,” says Smith, who relies on a local weather forecaster in Erie to tip him off when to jump on Interstate 79 and head north. “It’s a battle. You’re out in this huge water, trying to find a nugget of a wave in a storm — the wind is 30 knots when you’re getting really good waves. By the end of the day, your body [is] devastated.” Lake Erie Outfitters at Presque Isle doesn’t rent surfboards, but owner Paul Lukjanczuk says a skilled paddler could take one of its 14-foot sea kayaks out into the waves on a windy day for a taste of the action.
$ Cost: $55 for a full day of sea kayak rental
photo by chuck beard
Cruising the Confluence
Rivers give Pittsburgh its identity. Without the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio, there can be no Golden Triangle. Yet for many years, people with no boat of their own had basically one option for viewing the Point from out on the water: booking a ticket on the Gateway Clipper fleet. (Added more recently, on a Just Ducky tour.) But new ventures now offer alternatives for taking a personal cruise on the confluence and gaining a fascinating vantage point from which to see the city.
Judging by how much business Boat Pittsburgh did last year, people are increasingly attracted to this idea.
Owner Nicole Moga, who grew up waterskiing on a lake in eastern Ohio but now lives in Troy Hill, has two 22-foot pontoon boats moored at the Sharpsburg public docks that are available to rent. Thing 1 and Thing 2 went on 156 cruises last summer, which Moga says is a 52-percent increase over the year before.
Rates are $360 for eight hours, $260 for four, with fuel extra; trips typically average a gallon an hour. The 60-horsepower outboard motor limits top speed to just under 20 mph. Figuring in currents, wind and the ballast of extra passengers, anything less than three hours is barely enough time to get to the Point and back.
“Young people like to come with eight people, spend the day and split the bill,” says Moga. “Then we also get families who want to do four hours, as long as the kids aren’t bored.”
The boats include a table and plenty of room to stow towels, picnic baskets and coolers. Passengers of legal age can drink alcohol, but drivers should beware: state laws for BUI — boating under the influence — adhere to the same standard for intoxication as DUI (0.08 percent blood-alcohol concentration), and an arrest carries the same penalties. A one-day boater safety course is mandatory for anyone born after 1982 and is recommended for others. Free classes are offered periodically; the course and exam also can be completed online for about $40.
Beyond the Downtown skyline, a good itinerary might include snaking up the Mon, observing how urban development gives way to green hillsides around the Glenwood Bridge. The curving waterslides of Sandcastle announce the downstream edge of what once was the titanic Homestead Works of U.S. Steel; it stretched upriver all the way to the Carrie Furnaces, and experiencing it from the perspective of a barge gives a new appreciation of the site’s scale.
Moga prefers a quiet spot on the Ohio, in the back channel at Brunot Island, for swimming. “I like the freedom of it, to take a boat out and be the captain,” she says. “To go wherever I want and take my time to enjoy the scenery and be with friends.”
Matt Rumbaugh says he likes to go even mellower. The owner of SUP3Rivers and his partner, Connie Bradley, rent standup paddleboards at the South Side Marina and Allegheny Landing. They offer a reduced rental rate of $25 for first-timers that includes instruction plus a lifejacket and paddle. (Subsequent rates are $50 for 90 minutes and $60 for 4 hours.)
It’s quite a departure from what Rumbaugh calls his “big boy” job as Director of National Relations for Telehealth for the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “This is a way to [unplug] and get some balance back,” he says. “Turn off the cell phone, get off the grid and get out there on the river.”
Rumbaugh grew up in Baldwin Borough and initially tried surfing after a trip to Hawaii years ago. His father is a retired bus driver who built Rumbaugh’s first paddleboard, a handsome wooden 14-footer, about five years ago. He says he still uses it, as does his labradoodle, Cash, who can’t swim but loves to ride up front wearing a lifejacket.
Those preferring to sit down while paddling have a few options. Venture Outdoors rents kayaks on the North Shore under the Clemente Bridge for $16 an hour. The Three Rivers Rowing Association offers private sculling lessons with a coach for about $70 an hour for something with a little more panache. The association also has scheduled a free introductory clinic for dragon boating on May 30 and rowing on June 4.
“People are starting to realize,” Moga says, “that the rivers are clean, beautiful and an asset to our city.” — by Mark Houser
PHOTO COURTESY SKYDIVE PENNSYLVANIA
Might as Well Jump
For a speed freak who wishes to spend quality time at terminal velocity, throwing yourself out of an airplane remains the best method. Tandem skydiving allows beginners to feel the same adrenaline wallop as veterans; as Galileo demonstrated at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, two skydivers strapped to each other fall just as fast as one. Over the course of a typical sunny day, Skydive Pennsylvania at the Grove City Airport in Mercer County flies something like 70 tandems up above 13,000 feet — and opens the door.
For about 60 seconds, there is only the roar of 120 mph wind in your face. Then pop — tranquility, and for seven minutes you float gently back down, gazing out over the rolling hills, fields and factory outlet stores. Instructor John Ellison, who figures he has done this 8,000 times, says it never gets old. Sometimes, he claims, you can see the U.S. Steel Tower from up there.
$ Cost: $239 for a tandem jump
PHOTO COURTESY explorers club of pittsburgh
Reach the Summit
For skilled rock climbers, the highest technical summit — meaning one unclimbable without equipment — in the eastern United States can be conquered at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia. At more than 2,200 feet, the fin-like ridge of narrow cliffs offers a dramatic vantage point for miles in all directions; it’s the ideal spot to gaze at the mountains and valleys of the Monongahela National Forest. When you’re looking down and you see the tops of birds instead of their underbellies, it’s a fantastic experience,” says Ginette Walker Vinski of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh.
Beginning this month, the club’s rock-climbing school will train and equip novices in the necessary skills, rigging and gear (there’s a $50 deposit if you need to borrow a helmet or harness, or both) for “top-roping” up a rock face using a fixed line. A combination of four indoor lessons and five weekend outings to excellent local climbing sites such as McConnell’s Mill and Coopers Rock, W.Va., wraps in June with an excursion to Seneca Rocks, where each graduate will team with two expert volunteers to reach the summit.
$ Cost: $180 for Explorers Club rock climbing school (plus $25 membership)
photo via flickr creative commons
Ride the Wind
The best place to soar within reasonable driving distance of Pittsburgh is Bill’s Hill, on a ridge just outside Breezewood. That’s the opinion of many experienced local gliders, including Matt Philips of the local Daedalus Hang Gliding Club. “It’s beautiful,” Philips says. “In front of the launch is a big, flat, open area, so the wind coming in is smooth and straight. You look out and see the whole horizon in front of you.” Rigid hang gliders are heavier than paragliders, but they are much faster, so they can fly farther and longer. Unfortunately, recent changes in liability insurance available to instructors through the national association have prompted many of them, including Philips, to stop giving lessons. John Middleton of Silver Wings, based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., still is hanging on for now; he offers classes as close as east of Breezewood, off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
$ Cost: $150 per class
BASE jumping — its name is derived from an acronym for building, antenna, span and Earth — involves parachuting from mountains, skyscrapers and anything stationary. Generally, it is illegal almost everywhere in the country. But once a year at the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia — which, at 876 feet above the water, is the third-highest bridge in America — it’s legal. The professional BASE jumping outfit that offers tandem rides already has booked all 16 slots for this year’s Bridge Day on Oct. 15, despite a price tag of $1,000 each.
Novices still can safely step off into the void that day via an 800-foot “high line.” It’s similar to a zipline, but with a separate rope attached to let you down at a more reasonable speed than the steep 45-degree pitch would otherwise demand. “It’s a little eerie, if you will, stepping backwards off the catwalk and letting the rope have you,” says Benjy Simpson, who coordinates the Bridge Day Rappel event. He also leads guided daily Bridge Walk tours, in which visitors walk the length of the 3,030-foot bridge along a narrow catwalk under its deck, year-round, weather-permitting.
$ Cost: $135 for Bridge Day high line, $69 for catwalk tour
☛ bridgedayrappel.com or bridgewalk.com
photo courtesy pittsburgh paragliding
Jon Potter has made some hair-raising jumps — including one that was not technically legal, off Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. He has towed parasailers behind his boat near Point State Park until park rules grounded that practice. But the owner of Pittsburgh Paragliding won’t back down — he can get you up, up and away on a legal yet nevertheless goosebump-inducing hill in Cranberry Township.
You’ll wear a specialized parachute and trot downhill, tugged along by a line hooked to your harness that Potter winds up by pedalling a modified exercise bike. Soon you’ll be making like Orville and Wilbur, catching air up to 30 feet on short flights that can go on for 20 seconds. With a half-dozen more involved lessons, you can be certified to fly anywhere a hang glider would fly — but with the ultra-lightest of ultralights, small enough to carry in a backpack.
$ Cost: $199 for a two-hour introductory session
photo courtesy of american adventures sports
Run for Adventure
This ain’t no mud run. Adventure races are akin to wilderness triathlons, combining trail running, canoeing or kayaking and mountain biking with orienteering and strategy. Solo athletes or teams of up to four start with a map and a sheet of clues; the objective is to reach all of the marked waypoints in the fastest possible time. Fast is a relative term; the Yellow Creek Xtreme, set for April 30 at Yellow Creek State Park near Indiana, Pa., and the Yough Xtreme on Aug. 27 in Ohiopyle are 30-mile, five-hour endurance tests aimed at noobs. Organizers Doug and Julia Crytzer of Regent Square met while competing in an adventure race — he’s a former paratrooper, she’s a former competitive swimmer. The two organized the Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge in Belize in February. (For a bit of perspective, that was 320 miles over four days)
$ Cost: $75 per person for the Yellow Creek Xtreme or Yough Xtreme
photo courtesy Xtreme Xperience
Drive a Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini the way it was meant to be driven: at 130 mph on the straightaway. Xtreme Xperience brings its fleet of high-performance sportscars to the Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Big Beaver three times a year. Learn the basics of handling and taking the turns in a 30-minute classroom session, then get fitted for a helmet and get behind the wheel. An instructor coaches you from the passenger seat for three laps around the track, like driver’s ed but a lot faster. And no stick-shifting needed — all cars are dual-clutch automatics. If you can’t make it for Xtreme Xperience weekends, you can race your own hot rod on the 2.8-mile circuit. Or try extreme kart racing — these are not your standard kiddie bumper cars. Helmet, jacket and neck brace are mandatory for these souped-up mini racers, which top out at more than 40 mph on the resurfaced 0.8-mile track. Lap times flash on a new trackside scoreboard, so you and your friends can settle who truly is the fastest of them all.
$ Cost: $219-329 for three laps, based on sportscar model; mandatory insurance $39-$129 (April 8-9, June 10-12, Oct. 7-9 only); $21 per 10-minute karting session
☛ pittrace.com or thextremexperience.com
PHOTO COURTESY pittsburgh paintball park
Tim Montressor of the National XBall League’s Tampa Bay Damage figures he clocked 140,000 air miles last year while traveling to tournaments in the United States, Europe, Australia and elsewhere while he played for the U.S. team that won its second Paintball World Cup in three years. “It’s an adrenaline rush like no other,” Montressor says.
“When you have someone shooting a paintball at you at 300 feet per second, there’s no way to replicate that.” When he’s back home in Latrobe, he and his friends train at Pittsburgh Paintball Park, a complex in East Carnegie designed by Chris Brophy, a former pro paintballer and military vet. Besides catering to the office team-building and birthday-party set, Pittsburgh Paintball maintains a regulation NXL turf field with inflatable obstacles. You can play on it as the pros do in one of the “Streetball” 5-on-5 pickup tournaments organized during the summer, or get four friends together and enter your team in a Minor League Paintball tournament — there are beginner and novice divisions.
$ Cost: $25 for Streetball includes all gear except ammo; $20 for 500 or $55 for 2,000 paintballs
photo via flickr creative commons
Get Your Bike Dirty
Celebrate Pittsburgh’s new ordinance that officially permits bicycles off of the pavement and onto city parkland by taking your two-wheeler to Frick Park, the city’s best public space for pedalers who prefer their rides extra-bumpy. The downhill Iron Gate and Bradema trails are “must-rides” that mix the fast and fun with tough technical challenges, says Dirt Rag magazine’s Justin Steiner. For exhilarating mountain biking without the long drive, the Dr. J Freeride Trail in North Park is a well-maintained, quarter-mile downhill with BMX-style jumps on the hill behind the pool. If you demand an actual mountain for your mountain biking, the rocky ridges of Laurel Mountain State Park are the consensus choice for the most extreme path in the area and will keep you focused mainly on keeping yourself upright. Always be a good biking citizen and don’t ride on wet, muddy trails; they easily are damaged.
$ Cost: Free park admissions; Golden Triangle Bike Rentals offers mountain bikes for $40 per day
☛ mtbproject.com (interactive trail map app with reviews and difficulty ratings)
PHOTO COURTESY mines & meadows
Besides visiting tourist sites such as Laurel Caverns, there are a couple of ways to put a little more spunk in your spelunk. For classic caving, you can join a group of seasoned explorers. Simply attend a meeting of the Pittsburgh Grotto of the National Speleological Society — the next two are set for 6:30 p.m. on April 21 and June 9 at the Carnegie Library in Brookline — and ask politely. President Carl Pierce says members happily will take you on an expedition, show you the ropes and loan you the necessary equipment, all for no charge. It’s a mix of their love of the sport, their instinct to protect caves and maintain good relations with landowners and their desire not to have to go out and rescue you later. You could also take your ATV, or rent one, on a guided tour deep into the 14-acre limestone mine at Mines and Meadows in Wampum, Lawrence County. The best part? Deep, deep down in the farthest tunnel, everyone switches off their engines and headlights. Total darkness, total silence.
$ Cost: $5 for the ATV cave tour; $145 for a two-hour ATV rental
☛ minesandmeadows.com; karst.org/pgrotto
Mark Houser, the university editor and an adjunct professor at Robert Morris University, is a former longtime reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His free audio walking tour of Downtown Pittsburgh history and architecture is available in 11 languages at rmu.edu/tourpittsburgh.