Mead Island Caution Area on the Allegheny River
The upper middle Allegheny River is an excellent place for people of all ages and skill levels to learn to canoe and kayak, but like any river, it's not without a couple caution areas. The dredged area on the right-hand side of Mead Island is one of them.
What seems to make this spot so tricky is that it's not a Class II rapid, so it's not depicted on maps. Looking at it from shore, you may actually mistake it as a good swimming hole. It's not until you're right up on it that you realize how much activity is happening just under the waters surface. It's arguably the most dangerous spot on the first 60-mile stretch of the Allegheny, and possibly the least talked about.
My uncle has lived directly across from Mead most of my life. He's the real deal river rat, complete with fly hatch and migratory bird journals, having been up and down the river thousands of times over the past 60 years. We're extremely fortunate to have such a resource. Along with my personal experiences of adventuring around the island, I've heard many of his about living directly downriver from this area. In-between watching hundreds of canoes and kayaks pass by each summer, there have been scary times that found him racing up river in his jet boat to respond to cries of help.
Our goal is to help paddlers better understand what makes this a caution area, options to safely navigate around it, and what to do should you find yourself in it.
When was this area dredged?
Great question. I was surprised at how little information I could find. Word has it this section was first dredged in early 1900. My uncle remembers playing on another island right next to Mead when he was little, and then one year it was... gone. I'll be honest, this kind of blew me away. I'd never heard of another island on this stretch of river. So we dug into topo maps from 1906, and sure enough, there it is! (see image left).
Dredging caused the rivers depth to go from roughly 3' to over 50' deep in an instant, stretching from just after the riffles on the northern end (deepest section), to the major bend on Mead, removing an entire island in the process. No one can say for certain what happens underwater in this area, but the words "turbulence" and "cyclone effect" have been used.
Approaching the caution area.
There are two landmarks that mark your arrival to Mead Island (see image above). The first is the brick Penelec smokestack, located above the tree line, river right. When you have the smokestack in sight, start heading to the left riverbank. The second landmark is the power line that crosses the river. Being on the left riverbank when crossing under the power line will position you to maneuver easily around the dredged area.
As with any caution area, preparation is key. Do hundreds of paddlers make it safely through this spot every summer, some not even knowing it's there? Absolutely. But there's always that chance. Respect the river - please wear your life vest. Securing loose gear and being paddle-ready will be a big help should something happen. If you're in a kayak, make sure your foot pedals are adjusted properly (your knees should be slightly bent) to aid in stability. The slow moving water leading up to Mead Island (when the smokestack is in sight) gives you plenty of time to prepare.
Why not just go around the left-hand side of Mead Island?
Many paddlers try to head to the left side of Mead, but average summer water levels usually means they'll get hung up on a rock at the beginning of this section. Not knowing how shallow it may get around the bend, they decide to head to the right. Quick moving water can then potentially pull them into the dredged area.
When USACE outflow is above 2,000cfs, navigating the left-hand side of Mead usually doesn't require leaving your boat. Below 2,000cfs, you may have to get out and push your boat in a few shallow spots. No portaging, but if your plan is to squeeze in a quick trip on your lunch break, this may not be your best option. If your canoe is packed to the gunwales for an overnight adventure, you probably want to steer clear of this area, too.
Personally, I love paddling the left side of this island. Thick seaweed on the southern tip and shallow water on the northern makes it difficult for jet boats to get behind it, giving it that "having the place to yourself" feel. I've spent countless hours exploring with and teaching my kids how to read the river on this stretch, and recommend it to anyone up for an adventure.
Navigating around the caution area.
Navigating around the caution area is as simple as understanding what area was dredged and how to avoid it. When water levels are below 2,000cfs, a rock bar is exposed on the right-hand side of the river just before the island (see image above). Hugging the left riverbank prior to Mead Island (remember those landmarks!) puts you in position to easily navigate around the rock bar. A couple strong strokes will get you through the faster moving water headed toward Mead. Continue to the right-hand riverbank, missing the dredged area altogether.
How to best navigate the dredged area if you find yourself in it.
If the swift water pulls you in and you've no choice but to go with it, don't panic, you'll do fine. Keep a close eye out for rocks through the riffles, there's a few of 'em that can bite your boat in this section. The dredged area begins just after the riffles. The river depth drops from roughly 3' to more than 50' deep and extends to the outermost tip of the bend in the island. The deepest water is just after the riffles. You can expect your boat to get pulled left or right very suddenly, almost violently at times. Use your foot braces and paddle to help with stability. If you end up flipping your canoe or kayak - don't panic. You were prepared, you have your life vest on. Try to relax and go with the waters flow. Do not fight the water current. And - please - do not worry about your equipment. It's replaceable, you are not. Slow-moving water and untouched river awaits you just downriver.
Mead Island has always held a special place in my heart, from childhood right into my adult life. It's a layover to numerous migratory birds, home to countless critters and animals, and an excellent fish habitat. It's part of my favorite stretch of river to squeeze in an early morning paddle, and where many of the "Wake up with the Allegheny..." photos are taken. We hope everyone gets a chance to safely soak up the beauty this stretch of river has to offer.