The United States has a love affair with dogs. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 43 million, or 36 percent, of households in the U.S. own at least one dog. Since many families have more than one furry companion, this translates to approximately 78 million pet pups. By comparison, about 3.3 million dogs enter animal shelters each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA. With such a large number of dog-lovers and such a relatively small number of homeless canines, it seems like it should be relatively easy for shelter dogs to find permanent homes.
Unfortunately, issues like funding, overcrowding, and breed-bias lead to many homeless dogs being euthanized before they find forever homes. Another issue that is less talked about but still a large barrier to finding homes for rescued dogs is the restrictions that animal rescue groups place on people who are interested in adopting their pups.
It seems simple — if people started adopting dogs instead of buying puppies from pet stores and breeders, there would be less overpopulation and fewer unwanted pooches. However, the issue isn’t that simple.
If you want to adopt a dog, you first must decide if you want to adopt from a shelter or a private rescue group. According to the O.T.I.S. Foundation, a large animal rescue group located in Parke County, Indiana, animal rescue groups are different from municipal shelters in that they are not government-funded and tend to be more willing to spend money on medical procedures for the animals in their care, instead of euthanizing them. However, adopting from a rescue group can be more expensive and more complicated than going to the local county shelter.
Rescue groups are free to set their own restrictions on who is eligible to adopt one of their dogs, and as Anna Barney wrote in her March 2006 op-ed for the New York Times, “So you think you can just adopt a dog?” this can lead to long, sometimes frustrating application processes.
“Even as adopting a stray dog or cat — rather than buying one from a store or breeder —has become politically fashionable, a badge of pride for some because of the millions of animals that are euthanized each year, the hurdles that some humane societies and rescue groups make potential owners leap — including multipage applications, references, background checks, interviews and home visits — can make the process feel nearly as daunting as adopting a child,” Barney wrote.
As Emily Yoffee wrote in an op-ed for Slate in January 2012, “Besides being as much fun to fill out as a Form 1040, many group’s applications are full of tricks and traps. Some are obvious. Anyone who gets to this question on one group’s application— ‘Do you plan to tie or chain the dog out at anytime’—should know the answer is ‘never.’ But other questions are conundrums. If you think having a dog would be great for your kids, or that your personal reproductive plans are not the business of strangers, then consider how to answer this question from a Labrador rescue group: ‘Are you considering having children within 10 years?’And who knows what number is disqualifying when answering this one: ‘How many steps are there to reach your front door?’”
“We are NOT ashamed of being choosy!” the site reads. “It seems like a lot of steps and hard work [to adopt] – and it is – but we do this because we love these animals and it is our duty both to them and to their prospective homes to make sure that each and every placement that we make is a good one – and one that will last for the rest of their lifetimes.”
For example, the application seems to exclude anyone without a fenced yard, since it asks multiple questions about fence type and yard size, and provides no “I live in an apartment but have access to public parks” types of answers. For example, the application says “Please describe your yard: Grass, Pool, Landscaping, Mulch, Deck” and there is no “Does Not Apply” option. However, the American Kennel Clublists several types of dog breeds that are well-suited to apartment living and Vet Street, an online veterinary forum, maintains that many types of dogs, including some large breeds, can live happily and healthily in small apartments.
According to an article by freelance writer and former shelter employee Julie LeRoy, difficult application processes are meant to weed out potential adopters who aren’t willing to put in the time, effort or money necessary to responsibly care for a dog. By ensuring potential adopters are willing and able to overcome hurdles in adopting the dog, shelters and rescues can lower the risk that a pooch will be returned to them if the adopters encounter any difficulties.
However, LeRoy has discovered that there is such a thing as being too stringent. She writes about a time when she turned down a family’s application because their current dog had health problems that prevented him from being neutered, and the rescue had a strict rule that all animals in the home must be spayed or neutered. The family left in tears and showed up several days later with a puppy they had purchased from a pet store.
“It never occurred to me how many times I may have caused people to purchase an animal or denied an animal the chance to leave the shelter which didn’t make the space to save another one,” LeRoy wrote. “Having a little flexibility in no way means handing out animals to people who truly do not qualify for adoption. I started to focus on the interview portion of the application and looked at it as a conversation and not an inquisition.”
There are many who work in animal care who condemn any type of deliberate animal breeding, whether it be a for-profit breeder who mass-produces puppies for pet stores or a small hobby breeder. On the other hand, there are thousands of purebred breeders across the United States who enjoy raising dogs for dog shows and companionship. It is difficult to find exact numbers of how many hobby breeders there are, since many operate locally and on a very small scale.
Emily Coglio of Coal Hill Mastiffs in Pittsburgh, PA is one of those hobby breeders. Coglio was born into dog breeding and showing — her parents purchased a mastiff named Jake from a local Pittsburgh breeder before Coglio was born. Jake competed at dog shows and was a huge part of Coglio’s childhood. When Jake died when Coglio was 10 years old, the family returned to the same breeder who had sold them Jake all those years ago for a new puppy.
“We didn’t do our research,” Coglio said. “The breeder was terrible. He lied about the puppy’s age, the puppy had hip dysplasia, was covered with fleas — it was a very ugly situation.”
The sickly puppy died from cancer at age four, and Coglio’s parents tried again — this time with Sophie, from a reputable mastiff breeder in New York.
Sophie was a joy from the very beginning.
“She was a show dog, a therapy dog. We bred her twice, and she had a total of three puppies,” Coglio said. Mastiffs often have small litters, she explained, which makes responsible commercial breeding for profit an impossibility.
“Everybody thinks you [breed dogs] to make money, but most good breeders I know are so far in the hole that they’ll never be in the black,” Coglio said. “If you’re doing this, it’s because you’re passionate about it. You have another, full time job.”
In fact, due to the time and money involved, Coal Hill Mastiffs hasn’t bred a litter since 2014, but Coglio still has three mastiffs that are part of her family — two girls, Stella and Panda, and their mom Lucy. Coglio works full-time at a daycare, but is open to the possibility of breeding again in the future.
“When you see a $2,000 price on a puppy from a good breeder, that includes medical exams, eye tests, heart tests, OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) Certification, and for mastiffs, probably a c-section delivery,” Coglio said. “And that doesn’t count the blood and sweat and tears and sleepless nights that go into it. People don’t understand that. Most good breeders never make all that money back.”
So how does a potential puppy owner tell a good breeder from a bad one?
“Do your research,” Coglio said. “Make sure that whoever you’re buying the dog from, they let you into their house and you get to meet the puppy’s mom and dad. Don’t go to a pet store, and don’t shop by price. You get what you pay for, and if you get a sick puppy, you can end up spending a lot on vet bills.”
Another sign to look for is a well-written contract and a breeder who cares about getting to know you. Coglio said that her puppies’ new owners are carefully selected, and she’s turned down individuals and families who don’t seem prepared for the work that goes into raising and training a mastiff.
One of the biggest problems with irresponsible breeders or so-called “puppy mills” is the over-breeding of dogs, Coglio said, especially around holidays. This is certainly a point Coglio and those who work for animal rescues and shelters can agree on.
“Everybody’s going to get a puppy for Christmas, and by this time again next year, those puppies are going to be in shelters,” Coglio said. “That’s the sad truth of it.”
One huge difference between these for-profit breeders and hobby breeders like Coal Hill Mastiffs is what happens to the puppy if the adoptive family can no longer care for it.
“We have in our contracts that every puppy we sell, if you don’t want it or can’t take care of it, it comes back to us,” Coglio said. “You can’t give it to another family or put it in a shelter. Our dogs should never end up in shelters.”
Slightly less selective than hobby breeders and animal rescue groups are government-funded and operated animal shelters. Pittsburgh’s Animal Rescue League (ARL) serves Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and there adoption application is in-depth but less rigorous than Furkids’. According to their website, ARL requires that adopters be 21 or older, bring photo ID and every household member to meet the new dog, as well as any other dogs that will be in the house.
“If you rent your home, you must bring a copy of your lease stating that you are permitted to keep pets in your residence,” the website states. “If you own your house, our staff will check county real estate records. If a record cannot be found, we may ask for proof of ownership.”
Adoption fees at the ARL range from $100 to $250, compared to $200 to $400 at South Hills Pet Rescue, another Pittsburgh-area rescue group. Most hobby or show breeders charge between $800 and $1,5000 for a purebred puppy, while Petland, an Ohio-based pet store, charges up to $4,000 per pooch, according to employees at their Robinson Township location, who asked not to be named. The employees said that all puppies come from USDA-licensed commercial dog breeders, who differ from hobby breeders like Coglio in that they are breeding to make a profit and sell their dogs through third parties, not by meeting with the potential owners directly. Most often, it is these breeders who are called “puppy mill” breeders.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) defines a puppy mill as “a dog breeding operation, which offers dogs for monetary compensation or remuneration, in which the physical, psychological and/or behavioral needs of the dogs are not being fulfilled due to inadequate housing, shelter, staffing, nutrition, socialization, sanitation, exercise, veterinary care and/or inappropriate breeding.”
Kathleen Summers, Director of Outreach for HSUS’s Puppy Mill Campaign, estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 puppy mills operating in the United States, according to an interview she gave to The Dodo in 2015. That works out to about 200 irresponsible puppy breeders per state, who supply dogs to the more than 3,000 pet stores in the U.S. that still sell puppies. Puppy mills also sell dogs online, through their own sites or Craigslist, or at flea markets and county fairs.
It is this last group of people, irresponsible or “puppy mill” breeders, that take advantage of unwary puppy-seekers and contribute to overpopulation problems. According to a 2014 investigation by the United States Humane Society in Virginia, pet stores often lie about where they get their puppies from, claiming that they’re from local breeders when they really come from puppy mills several states away. The USHS’s Animal Rescue Team rescues more than 1,000 dogs each year from puppy mills and other hazardous situations, according to their website, yet puppy mills continue to thrive in states where there are few legal restrictions on mass animal breeding.
According to the USHS, not only are puppy mill animals kept in dirty outdoor facilities without access to clean water and adequate food, adult animals are often bred until they can’t breed anymore, then killed. Few states actually have laws against this kind of operation. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), “[At puppy mills], in order to maximize profits, female dogs are bred at every opportunity with little-to-no recovery time between litters.”
Additionally, the ASPCA cautions puppy-seekers to avoid convincing sales pitches from puppy stores.
“There is no legal definition of a ‘puppy mill,’ so don’t be fooled by pet store owners who show you ‘papers’ or licenses to prove that their dogs are from humane sources,” the ASPCA warns. “The fact is, responsible breeders would never sell a puppy through a pet store because they want to screen potential buyers to ensure their puppies are going to a good home.”
In summation, there are many options when for people who decide they want to get a dog — rescues, shelters, hobby and show breeders, pet stores — and it is the responsibility of the dog-seeker to evaluate their options and choose one that won’t contribute to continued animal suffering in the United States. Due to a lack of stringent legislation against mass-breeding, the only way to stop puppy mills right now is to stop giving them money.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to walk into a pet store or go to a flea market and just hand a sales person cash for a puppy than it is to go through the sometimes lengthy and complex application process to rescue a shelter dog. Working through a hobby breeder can be expensive and also time consuming, since many such breeders are selective about who gets their dogs and only raise small litters once every few years.
“If you want to rescue a dog in Los Angeles, you have to fill out more forms than I filled out to apply for college,” O’Brien wrote, in a funny (and sometimes crass) personal story. “You need to tell them what your job is like and how much money you make, and you need to provide a number of references who aren’t members of your family.”
O’Brien went through the entire application process, completed the mandatory home inspection, and fell in love with a dog at the shelter. The ordeal took several weeks. Unfortunately, due to an error on the part of the shelter’s volunteer staff, the dog he selected was given to another family, and O’Brien was left with more than $200 in dog products and no dog.
For those who have been stymied by the adoption process, like O’Brien, ASPCA Vice President Emily Weiss encourages you to be patient and try adopting from multiple rescues or shelters, since each one has slightly different policies and procedures. In the meantime, she is working to encourage more shelters and rescues to be openminded when it comes to interviewing potential pup owners, especially since she was once deemed an “unacceptable” pet adopter.
“We were them. I was them. The ‘them’ of the not-perfect adopters… the uneducated, the odd, the not us. They too love animals. They too want (and will get — if not from [a shelter], from somewhere else) a pet to care for,” Weiss writes. “Once we open our hearts to the human animal as much as we do the nonhuman animal, we will save more lives and help create a more humane community.”
I just want to give a little background before I launch right into this tale. My name is David Fudurich. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Kaye’s friend from high school. I recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. Before I spend the rest of my life working, I decided to go on a canoeing trip with my dad. He was a boy scout when he was younger, and he enjoys camping, hiking, and the outdoors in general. In contrast, I enjoy reading and playing videogames and spend my days lurking indoors. When my dad was around my age now (I’m 22, by the way), he and his friends canoed down the Allegheny River. I decided that it would be nice to have some father-son bonding time on a scenic canoeing trip similar to the one he did many years ago.
Our plan was to start just below the Kinzua Dam at the northern tip of Allegheny National Forest and work our way down to Oil City, camping as we went. To this end, we printed out a series of topographical maps like the one below showing the lay of the land. As far as I can tell, green land is ok to camp on and white land is private property. Each black line represents an average elevation: where they are close together, the land rises rapidly (i.e. a cliff). Basically, flat green land was the place to be.
We had 17 of these babies total. They were lifesavers.
The trip was about 70 miles total. We were thinking we were going to do it in 5 or 6 days, taking it in nice, easy steps. In the words of Mike Tyson, however: “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” You’ll see what I’m talking about. Without further ado, here is the story.
Day 1: Adventure, ho!
We got off to an early start one Sunday morning near the end of June. We had a 3 hour drive up to the Kinzua Dam, and we wanted to get some time in the water that day. We ate breakfast, finished up some of the last of our packing, and said goodbye to mom. We took two cars up north. We left one at the Oil City boat launch and took the other up through Allegheny National Forest, stopping along the way to eat lunch and visit a canoe rental.
We talked to the two men at the rental area for a bit. The owner was named Jim, and he was a Pennsylvanian, born and bred. The other, whose name I never learned, was woodsman from New Zealand. He was quiet, but friendly and knowledgeable. When he did speak, it was usually to talk about knots. He was pretty much some kind of rope whisperer; he showed us 4 or 5 knots, but I got the feeling he knew a lot more. “You want the lead rope to be on top.” he said, showing us one knot. He demonstrated the correct way to do it, then flipped it so the lead rope was on the bottom. “See that? Not good.” He flipped it back. My plebian mind couldn’t comprehend why that would make a difference, but I took his word for it. I would have liked to talk with him more to figure out how he ended up halfway around the world renting canoes, but I never got around to it. While we were there, Jim mentioned that business hadn’t been very good lately because the weather was scaring people off. Perhaps this should have sent up a red flag in my mind, but I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. Something that my dad and I first noticed here was that the people up north really like to talk. Once they start, it’s pretty hard to get them to stop. We paid them to get the canoe, paddles, and life jackets, and then they stuck around and talked to us while we loaded it onto the car. Even once we were finished they just kept talking. We finally managed to tell them during a lull in the conversation that we had a lot to do and had to hurry on. With that, we were off again.
We stopped at the Kinzua Dam boat launch area, unpacked all of our stuff, and ate the last of our sandwiches we had bought for lunch. Throughout the day the weather had been decent. It was sunny at times, overcast at others, but not too bad overall. However, within a minute of putting our canoe in the water, it started raining. As the rain began hitting my face, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to bring my rainproof jacket I had bought specifically for this trip. It wasn’t too bad, though. It was more of a drizzle than a full blown rain. We ignored it and began paddling down the river. 15 minutes later, the rain decided that it was done playing around and stepped it up a notch.
“Having fun yet?”
When the rain picked up and I really started to get wet, I noticed something that held true throughout the trip. Everything is colder up in the Allegheny National Forest: the river, the rain, the wind – everything. I later looked on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ website and found out the water coming out of the Kinzua Dam is about 56 degrees Farenheit in July. I was under the impression that things were going to go smoothly for us, but I think that a bit of a wakeup call, right there. So as I was getting soaked all the way down to my underwear, I turned back to my dad and said, “This f—ing sucks! Why did I want this?” to which he replied, “I don’t know!”
Luckily the rain only lasted for about half an hour, after which the sun came out. Once I started to dry off and warm up, I was able to look around and enjoy the scenery. And it was indeed scenic. The water was a deep bluish green, the area around the river was heavily forested, and there were large rocks along the shore that looked great for climbing on. It looked pretty nice, like something you’d see in a national geographic magazine. Sometimes there were houses along the river, but for the most part it was uninhabited. We saw a few other canoes and kayaks on the water that first day. In fact, one canoe would sometimes draw ahead of us and sometimes fall behind. Every time we drew alongside them we would exchange greetings. It became something of a running joke. We got on the water around 3:30 PM, and after a few hours on the river we began looking for a place to camp. I don’t have much experience with this, so I was pointing out all sorts of places. My dad, bless his heart, didn’t come right out and say my spots were absolute crap. But as the sun started setting he began to get anxious.
“Hey, we should camp there!” “That’s a cliff, son.”
Finally, out of desperation, he accepted one of the spots I pointed out. It was a low, grassy island with plenty of trees and bushes. I thought it would be good so we would have lots of firewood. What I didn’t realize is that the area where we pulled our canoe in was a slippery, muddy swamp, the ground was all uneven, and it was filled with thorn bushes. We pulled our canoe up onto land, and then we realized we had to pull it down into the swamp to get to the real land. My dad slipped and fell into the muddy water (which was of course freezing cold), so after that I made him let me get stuff out of the canoe. He’s pushing 65 and his knees are bad, so I didn’t want him to get hurt. Once we got past the swampy area, we realized what a truly bad campsite we were in. At this point, though, it was starting to get dark and we didn’t want to risk not finding a campsite until after sunset. We probably spent 45 minutes trying to set up our tent on the rugged, plant covered ground, but we finally managed to get it up. We collected firewood, got some food out of the canoe, and ate dinner. It was a pretty nice dinner, actually. We had a ham steak and canned corn. It was no 5-star restaurant meal, but it was warm and it filled us up. And besides, everything tastes better cooked over an open fire. Afterwards, we collected our trash, I took my first dump in the woods in many years, and we went to bed. Or rather, we figured out exactly how uneven the ground was as we tried to go to bed. I had a root digging into my ribs all night. My dad was on a high spot, so he ended up rolling into the middle of the tent. But eventually we got to bed.
Day 2: But wait, there’s more!
The next morning, I slowly drifted out of the half-sleep I was in. Finally I decided that laying on that root wasn’t really doing it for me and I might as well get up. My dad had gotten up before me and built a fire, so I at least didn’t have to go stomping around for firewood. It was a crisp, sunny morning. I didn’t know the temperature, but it certainly didn’t feel like summer. We decided to have eggs and some of the leftover ham steak from the night before. Unfortunately, dad’s fire was pretty small. Instead of sizzling when they hit the pan, they kind of just plopped in and all rolled to the lowest spot in the corner. For a little bit we sat there and hoped they would spontaneously start cooking faster, but there just wasn’t enough heat. In the end I did have to stomp around for some firewood. That morning I discovered that eggs, if cooked for a long time over low heat, become quite tough. I’ve never chewed on a rubber band, but I imagine that the eggs were a good approximation. Despite their leathery, elastic texture, they still tasted good. We wolfed them down, packed up our stuff, went to the bathroom, and got ready to get back on the water.
Thankfully the sun had warmed up the air, but stepping into the Allegheny River was like walking in on someone going to the bathroom: it was shocking and rather unpleasant. Once we had positioned the canoe, I got in and kicked off the shore. We were back in business. For a little bit we just let the current carry us. Suddenly I looked over to our left, on the island we had camped on. There was a perfect camping spot about 100 yards downriver of where we had camped. It was flat, there was no weird gross swamp, and there was even a fire pit! If it wasn’t for all the trees we probably could have seen it from our crappy spot! There was only one thing to say in such a situation: “DAMMIT!”
That little disappointment aside, we were off to a good start. We sailed into Warren not long afterwards, and encountered a small area of rapids. I was still pretty new to canoeing so I was freaking out a little, but dad sat serenely in the back of the boat and asked me what I wanted to do. There was a patch of swift moving water that would take us through a narrow channel to the right of an upcoming island, and most of the water in the river seemed to flow towards it. The left side was much larger and slower moving, and that appealed to me. I said that if we put in a little elbow grease, we could cut across the current and go to the left. Dad said ok, and off we went. Our boat got rocked around in some of the swells, but we made it through just fine. After that the river lazily wound its way through Warren, the largest town we went through on our stretch of the river.
“Oh, SHIT!” “Calm down, son.”
Warren seemed like a nice place. They had some oil refineries outside the town that looked like they employed a decent number of people, and they had several bridges connecting the two sides of the town across the river. A lot of the buildings looked new, and they had several riverfront parks filled with benches, statues, and even a fountain. As we passed one of these parks, I got my last glimpse of the deep blue-green Allegheny. A stream was draining into the river, and the water became a muddy brown. “See that?” said my dad, “The water is all churned up because of all the rain we’ve been getting. The Allegheny will be muddy from this point on.” He was right. All the mountain streams draining into the river constantly dumped mud into it. It was always brown after that. Anyways, Warren was a lively looking town. As we neared the end of it, we stopped to put on some sunscreen. To my dismay I noticed a huge patch of knotweed where we stopped. That stuff is everywhere. As a consolation prize, though, I was able to pee on it. So there! Once my petty revenge was over, I squeezed out some sunscreen and lathered up. Unfortunately I had to take off the watch I was wearing, and I forgot to pick it back up and put it on. I only noticed once we were about 20 minutes downriver, at which point we really didn’t want to turn around and go get it. I am ashamed to admit that I littered along the Allegheny. It was a dark day for me.
We paddled onward, weaving our way around islands. Some were small, some were flat, some were wooded, some were inhabited. Some had names, like Green Island (I’m not kidding, there was an island named Green Island at one point), others had no names at all. Some were too small to even be on the map. Around noon we were paddling through a narrow channel near Mead Island and we decided to stop for lunch. We got out at a rocky bank with a large pine tree overhead. Dad started getting small sticks to start a fire, but there wasn’t much larger wood near the ground. Behind us, a steep slope formed much of the riverbank. I decided to get some larger branches while dad busied himself with the fire. One of my dad’s friends tried to tell me the secret to finding dry wood before we went on this trip. I take pride in saying that I knew how to find dry wood before he tried to explain it to me, and I can do it even on a 75-degree slope, thank you very much. I have yet to find a dirt slope I cannot climb, and this one was no exception. We made a decent fire and cooked hot dogs for lunch.
As we were nearing the end of the narrow channel, we passed through a forest of river grass. My dad and I noticed something was odd, although not the same thing. I saw muddy spots in the river (muddier than the surroundings, at any rate) even though nothing seemed to be moving. My dad saw ripples in the water despite the lack of strong current. We mentioned these things to each other, and both peered around curiously. My dad saw it first – a black fin disappearing into a muddy patch. He pointed it out to me, and we started noticing them all over. There were carp everywhere around us. It looked like they were churning up the river bottom in search of food. They were pretty large, too. I would estimate most of them were about 2 feet long, with some even larger than that. It almost made me wish we had packed a fishing rod so we could try to catch one and eat it. But we had brought enough food, even without trying to eat stuff out of the river.
“Hello there, friend.”
When I accidentally littered, I said it was a dark day for me. What I didn’t realize is that while it was a figuratively dark day for me, it was also going to become a dark day in a more literal sense. An hour or two later we turned a bend and saw the horizon. It was choked with angry, black clouds as far as I could see. Storm clouds. The river was taking us right into it, so there wasn’t much we could do about it. “We’re going to get wet,” said dad. I replied, “Maybe we can punch through it and avoid the worst of it.” As we approached the edge of the clouds, a premature dusk descended on us. Gone was the clear sunny day we had started out in. Everything took on a grayish cast, with the shadows beneath the trees deepening to black. A cold breeze began to blow from ahead of us on the river. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania long enough to recognize the signs of a big storm when I see them. We were about to get very wet.
“See that? That’s bad.”
The rain began suddenly. It went from a drizzle to a light rain to a heavy rain in about 30 seconds. It was similar in proportion to the storm we had the first day. Within a few minutes, my shirt, shorts, and hair were all wet. The only dry spot on me was my butt where I was sitting on the canoe seat, although the water was starting to leak even down there every time I shifted. For a few minutes we paddled mostly in silence as the rain came down. Even though I was already very cold, I found Zenlike peace in watching the rain on river. You could see all the droplets hitting the water, making the river appear to dance as we sailed down it. As if sensing the dirty littering boy was finding some inner peace, the sky decided to upgrade from “hard rain” to “torrential downpour”. It is a curious fact that the hardest rain falls in sheets. It’s almost as if waves of harder rain are traveling within the storm. Because I was watching the water, I saw this coming before it hit me. I could almost pick out a line along the river where it went from dancing to having a seizure. My eyes widened, but before I could say anything it was upon us. Where before there had been little wind, now there was a gale. The drops were massive, and with the force of the wind behind them came at us at a 45-degree angle, stinging as they hit. The wind stole what little warmth I had left. The world took on a misty, ghostly grey appearance as the rain obscured anything in the distance. It was coming down so hard I had to squint because I couldn’t shield my eyes and paddle at the same time. In spite of the cold, the damp, and the noise of the wind and rain, a spark of hope flared in the back of my mind. “At least,” said a small voice, “it can’t get any worse.”
Here I would like to take a moment to draw a distinction between me and my dad. My dad is aggressively optimistic, always saying things like, “Well at least the rubber-band-eggs still taste good,” or “At least the sun was shining earlier,” or “The Allegheny River is NOT the devil, David.” I, on the other hand, love to complain. It is my source of strength, enjoyment, and jaw exercise. I don’t know if I would say I am a full on pessimist, but hearing me talk you wouldn’t know it. And besides, can you definitively prove that the Allegheny River is not the Father of Darkness? That’s what I thought. So when the little voice in my head said “At least it can’t get any worse,” this was not optimism. It was simply a lack of imagination.
Nearly as soon as this thought flashed through my mind, the storm changed. I noticed that as cold as I was, all of a sudden I became colder. Other changes had occurred as well. The rain hurt more, for one. It also sounded different as it drove down on us and our canoe. I put my head down in distress, and that’s when I understood what was happening. There was a little white lump about the size of a thumbtack on my lap. There were more of them on my legs and in the bottom of the canoe. It was hailing. “Is it HAILING?” I shouted in disbelief. “WHAT?” my dad yelled back. “IT’S HAILING!” I roared in fury. “YEAH!” he replied. For some stupid reason he was laughing. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and this nightmare storm was pelting me with wind, rain, and hail all at once. This was no laughing matter. I looked left; the shore was a sheer cliff. I looked right; there was a sandy bank with a large tree overhanging it. “WE’RE GOING THERE!” “OK!” he called back.
I don’t know how long we waited for the storm to pass, because my watch was probably getting hailed on 10 miles upriver. Suffice to say it felt like an eternity because I was cold and wet. It felt like a slushy was getting shot out of a cannon at me. A pain flavored slushy. We huddled under a large tree that provided shelter from the worst of the hail, although there was no escaping the water. We talked every now and then, although my shivering and teeth chattering filled the silences. I’m about 6 feet tall and 130 pounds. To call me skinny is putting it mildly. It doesn’t take much to make me cold, and this storm was not playing around. Gradually the storm calmed down, and my shivering lapsed into a disgruntled silence. Once we decided to head back out, we realized our canoe had taken on a lot of water in the storm. So we cut up a plastic milk jug we had been using to store water and used it to bail out our canoe. There was at least 10 gallons of water in the bottom of that thing. After that, we set out again.
We canoed down the river for another few hours. We had been planning on staying at Thompson Island, but we didn’t see any good-looking spots on it. A little farther downriver we saw a decent looking spot on the riverbank. A little trail was beaten into a steep bank, but it looked fairly flat up on top. We pulled the canoe alongside this spot and discovered that it was very flat on top, with a nice fire pit to boot. There was also a sign saying that it was state game lands and that camping was illegal, but we were cold, wet, and tired. We didn’t want to try and find another spot.
“Maybe the hail messed up my eyesight. This is starting to look like it says, ‘Campers welcome’.”
So we ignored that sign, set up our tent, and went about getting firewood. That was a bit of a pain – the storm had completely drenched EVERYTHING. No twig was dry on the outside after that deluge. Luckily we did manage to find some larger dead wood and a fallen tree. I cut a few logs from it with our axe while dad started a fire with smaller branches we had gathered earlier. That was one of my first times using an axe, and if the New Zealander woodsman saw me he probably would have shaken his head. I knew I wasn’t doing it very well, but I just had to keep trying. I almost hit my own foot at one point, which was a nasty shock, but everything turned out all right. Even though my dad’s great with fire making, he had to resort to using our paper towels to start it. Everything else was just too waterlogged. Once we got it going, though, the smaller twigs began to catch fire and we were home free.
We ate some burritos cooked in tin foil and refried beans from a can that night. Again, not exactly the classiest meal, but it was tasty enough. I dried off my shirt and feet and felt a little better about the whole getting hailed on thing. After the fire had mostly died down, we got ready to go to bed. As I opened up my sleeping bag, I got another nasty shock: it was completely soaked. We had put our sleeping bags in big garbage bags to keep them dry, but apparently mine had a hole somewhere. Sure enough, there was a little hole in the bottom of my bag. While we had taken shelter under the tree it must have been soaking up water from the canoe. With a resigned sigh, I got into my sleeping bag. It was like sleeping in a puddle. A very cold one.
“I guess this is my life now.”
My dad correctly realized that this shit wouldn’t stand, and he told me to get up and go find more firewood. In such a wet forest that’s easier said than done, but I was laying in the alternative and it wasn’t very appealing. We went out, got enough wood, and built up the fire using the embers of our first one. Night was falling, but we held my sleeping bag up by the fire and toasted it until it was dry. Several times cinders flew up and burnt holes in it, but it was definitely worth it. Thanks, dad. When I went to sleep that night my sleeping bag smelled like a campfire.
Day 3: In it for the long haul
We woke up find the world pretty much the same as the night before: wet. Chilly, too. The fire had been rained on some time in the night, so that thing was well and truly dead. Not even wanting to deal with finding more firewood, we ate a cold breakfast of cereal and milk. The was mostly cloudy with a few clear patches. The clouds were a light grey – we weren’t going to get rained on, but we weren’t going to see much sun, either. We packed our supplies, went to the bathroom, and took down the tent. We decided to wait around a little to see if the sun would come out. No dice. Resigning ourselves to having some damp paddling, we loaded our canoe up. For some reason this particular spot on the river bank had hundreds of tadpoles swimming in it. Maybe because it was relatively sheltered by a bend in the river and some large rocks. At one point I scooped one up in my hands and watched it wriggle around a bit, but then I felt bad for making it so scared and put it back. I probably stepped on a few while we were there. There were simply too many to avoid. Anyways, we got in the canoe and started another day on the river.
As bad as the day before was, this one was not much better. There was no rain, but there was no sun and a constant, chilling wind swept up from ahead of us. Because I had forgotten my special waterproof jacket I was once again stuck in shorts and a t-shirt. Once again, I felt the cold claws of the Allegheny River sink into me and refuse to let go. To make matters worse, the wind was strong enough that it pushed our canoe around. We had to constantly battle to make headway, and the wind would push our boat around until we were heading almost straight into one shore or the other. However, we didn’t have too far to go until an important stop on our journey: Tidioute.
This is the kind of place we’re talking about.
Tidioute was a small town about halfway along our route. It is well known as a good rest stop if you’re on the Allegheny River because it’s easy to dock at the boat launch and walk into town. Originally we had been planning to buy some ice to restock our cooler and move on, but circumstances had changed. We both wanted a hot meal and, more importantly, a wall between us and the damned wind. We stopped an older man and his two granddaughters at the boat launch area and asked them where we could go to eat. The old man started to tell us about some sort of café, until one of the girls interjected that it was closed on Tuesdays. In light of this, he began to ponderously explain the directions to one of the more popular restaurants in town, Bucardy’s. It was an old gas station that had been converted into a diner. “So you go straight up this road until you hit the tan brick building – do you see it? Right there? So you go right up to it. But before you pass it you turn and walk down to the right until you see Bucardy’s on the left. But if you see the old courthouse, you’ve gone too far.” Here his granddaughter interjected, “Do you know Tiduoute Towers? It’s right by the Towers. Right across the street!” “No,” my dad replied, shaking his head. “Oh… well, it’s on this street right up here, once you turn to the right!” The old man gave us a few more landmarks to look out for, and we thanked him and started on our way. I had to admire their enthusiasm, if not their technique. We realized after walking about 30 seconds that Bucardy’s was almost visible from where we had talked with them. All he had to say was that it was one block forward, one to the right. Why didn’t he just say that…?
We got into the restaurant, and it was heavenly. The whole time we had been talking with the old man and walking towards Bucardy’s the wind hadn’t let up even a bit. We were finally in a warm dry place. A friendly waitress came and took our order. I got a Reuben and some water, and dad got a cheeseburger and hot tea. I don’t drink tea, but I probably should have made an exception. Ah, well. It was a small diner, seating only about 20 people at the very most. A few other people were in the room, including an old man with white hair and a little mustache. I got the impression that he was a regular there. He seemed to know the name of everyone in the restaurant, and something about his manner led me to believe he spent most of his days there chatting with the servers and nursing his coffee. He was certainly old enough to be retired, so he probably had little else to do. It struck me as something out of a movie, only this was real life, right in front of me. I also got the impression that he as dying to know who we were and what we were doing there. He kept looking over at us, almost leaning forward on his stool as if about to speak. I decided that while it was inevitable, there was no need to rush into it. I would let him come to me.
This is what it felt like.
A few minutes later, it began. “Cold day out, huh?” he said. “Yeah,” I replied, “the wind is pretty chilly.” “Have you been out on the river?” “Yes, we’ve been canoeing down the river on vacation and we just got off the boat.” Now he was hooked. Outsiders? He must know about them. “Where did you start on the river?” “The Kinzua Dam.” “Oh, that’s a long way! And where are you from?” “Monaca, down by Pittsburgh.” Dad had been going to the bathroom, but as he came back and sat down he joined the conversation. I was perfectly fine letting the conversation shift to dad and the old man. I just wanted my Reuben. Dad grew more animated as he told the diner about our trip, relishing the shocked response when he declared we had been hailed on. I nodded and occasionally added a little detail here and there. When our food arrived, I pretty much checked out of the conversation. The corned beef looked a little weird, but it tasted fine. And it was on buttered and toasted rye bread with dark swirls in it, and it had Thousand Island dressing… so good. I had no time for anything or anyone else. The old man talked about the weather, his career as a doctor, the town… I wasn’t really listening. I was nodding and making the occasional non-committal grunt, but I was focused on my food. When we finished up dad bought some ice and paid for our meal. “Did you enjoy your Reuben, honey?” the waitress asked as she helped us get the ice from outside. “Yeah, it tasted great. I wish I had two,” I enthused. “Oh, we can make you another one!” she said. I paused. For a moment I almost turned around and walked back into the restaurant. “No, that’s ok. But thank you.”
While we had been in the restaurant it rained briefly, but stopped. As we walked outside, we saw the sky was pattern of light and dark grey. It wasn’t over yet. We decided to eat a little snack to finish up our lunch and wait for the bad weather to blow over. We commandeered a little covered picnic table near the boat launch and ate some fruit and nuts. While we were snacking, more rain and some heavy winds blew through Tidioute, getting dad a little wet even under the roof. I sat and gave the frigid wind and rain an equally frigid look. Starting the day before when we got hailed on, my attitude became what I can only describe as grim determination. The relentless wind of the morning and now this storm only tempered my resolve. “Come at me, you piece of shit river,” I thought, “throw everything you’ve got at me. I can take it – wind, rain, hail, lightning, anything you want. Hit me with your best shot. I will not fall.” Perhaps it’s a good thing we were sitting in a town, otherwise I probably would have looked around for a wild animal to punch.
After a bit the rain stopped and the wind died down a little, so we began packing up. I refilled one of our water jugs from a water fountain, and when I got back dad was talking with the same old man from before, his granddaughters in tow. The kids had fishing poles with them, and were just having a dandy time fishing off the boat launch dock. The old man asked similar questions to those we received in the restaurant: where were we from, where did we start on the river, how far were we planning to go? We told him about our trip and our plans, and he launched into a story about how he used to go canoeing all the time when he was younger. He talked about good islands to camp on, and he pointed them out on our maps. Somehow he managed to tell us about all the injuries he had sustained in his life as well. I’m not really sure how that happened. He also took note of the monstrous weather they had been having recently (something I was all too familiar with at this point) and gave the forecast for the next few days. At this point dad and I were all packed and ready to go, we just needed to shove off. We had slowly been drifting towards our canoe, but the old man didn’t seem to get the hint. “Yeah, my friends and I used to camp on Hemlock Island, but that was… oh, forty years ago now. You should stop there, it’s a nice place.” “Yeah, maybe we’ll do that,” I said, picking up my paddle. Still her persisted. “You might have trouble finding a campsite on the riverbank around there too. They’re building all sorts of houses now. You’re seeing more and more private property.” Sitting in the back of the canoe, dad replied, “Yeah, that’s a real shame. But we-” “And there aren’t any other good islands until after Tionesta,” he continued, undeterred. “Ok, thanks!” I said, pushing off into the river. The old man was not quite done yet: “Yeah, I’ve been living on this river all my life. I know all these islands.” A thought flickered through my mind. “Christ, if he had a canoe he’d probably come after us.” “All right, thanks for all the help!” I called back to the shore. Finally accepting our escape, the old man went back to his granddaughters.
“And I was just about to tell them about the flood of ’67. Damn.”
Originally we had had been planning to take two days to get to Tidioute and then go on to Tionesta. After everything we had been through, we no longer felt like hanging around. We decided to do it in one day. After the storm blew itself out the sun started shining. The wind, on the other hand, only lessened somewhat. The main difference was that it was now less bone chilling in the afternoon sun. We still had to battle to point the canoe straight ahead, although the fight was less strenuous now. An hour later we saw a little squad of turtles sunning themselves on a steep dirt bank. Upon seeing us, the turtles all dove into the water, one after another. It was funny to see the sudden flurry of motion from something usually so relaxed. Just after that, we saw our second set of rapids. They spanned the whole river, although only a few spots looked dangerous enough to actually mess up our canoe. One spot had a huge frothing whitecap. Part of my mind had the crazy urge to go over it, just to see what would happen. That would have been something. We stayed away from it (which was good) and continued on our way. Before long we came to Hemlock Island, the old man’s much recommended camping spot. We passed by it and saw that there were some nice spots. We even saw some other canoers camped on the island. Unfortunately for the old man, we had no intention of stopping on this island, nice though it might be. We had a lot of ground… a lot of water to cover. We passed through East and West Hickory, two towns on either side of the river. We didn’t see much of the towns themselves, since they weren’t right on the water. Nonetheless, I noted their passing with glee. One step closer to home.
We went a few more miles after West Hickory. As we neared our goal, Baker Island, we saw something… rather odd. On the right side of the river there was a boat on a large field of grass. No – two boats. Moreover, one of them was one of those flat bottomed fan boats that you see in swamp chase scenes in movies. So they were real… but what was one doing here? In a field, no less? It didn’t matter, I suppose. Anyway, we had a choice for tackling Baker Island. If we went to the left there would be some private property on the riverbank, but probably more spots to camp on the island. If we went right, then the riverbank would be a steep uninhabited cliff. Dad wasted no time in making his choice. “I don’t want to see someone’s house as I’m taking a dump in the morning. Or worse, they could see me.” Made sense to me. We went to the right. We started looking for a spot to camp on the island. Nothing was really jumping out at us. Then we noticed a spot about halfway down the island. There was a little path up through some tall grass with a clearing behind it. “I think that’s it. That’s it!” dad cried. Immediately we began to paddle towards it, but the current was already sweeping us past it. We hit the shore about 100 feet downriver, but we had a good feeling about that spot. I got out of the canoe and walked us back upriver through the shallow water. We got out of the boat, tied it off, and walked up to the clearing. It was glorious. It was wide, flat, and grassy. There was a low muddy area, but we could avoid it easily. There was wood all around, and it looked great. We built a fire, I cut some wood (better, this time) and we drank a bottle of wine we had brought to celebrate. For the first time in a while I was pretty much dry, warm, and comfortable. It was really nice. We ate stuffed cabbage for dinner that night. We even got to eat until we were full and have some leftovers. Baker Island was great. It was the best night of the whole trip. I went to bed with a full stomach, warm, dry, and on flat ground. My sleeping bag still smelled like a campfire.
Interlude: Yinzers in the mist
That night I woke up to go to the bathroom, as I did pretty much every night. This is because I have an annoying tendency to pee a lot when I got cold, and the nights all got very chilly up there. I also had to pee pretty much every time we stopped each day, because my feet were eternally cold and damp, courtesy of the Allegheny River. If this is too personal for you, know that I have done worse. I’ve talked about vomit while people were eating, especially if I think they’ll lose their appetite and give me the food. Anyways, I got up to go to the bathroom and it felt like I had stepped into another world. A few stars twinkled overhead, and other than some soft moonlight there was no illumination. Trees stood out as darker shadows in the night, and there was just enough light to see where I was going. I followed the sound of gentle waves down to the river, only there was no river. Our canoe sat on the bank, but behind it was only a blanket of fog. It was kind of surreal because I knew the river was there, but it was totally obscured. It was like I was on an island in the clouds. I splashed in the water a bit, then decided to stop because it had gone from chilly to freezing. The whole experience only took a few minutes, but I thought it was interesting. After that, I snuggled back up in my sleeping bag.
Day 4: The promised land awaits
Baker Island also proved to be the best morning of the whole trip. We woke up with the sun shining, birds chirping, and everything seeming a lot better. We gathered up a bit more wood for a fire (which was super easy to do) and got breakfast going. We made eggs again, and this time we aced it. Our fire was hot enough that they sizzled on hitting the pan, and they had the texture you’d expect of an egg this time. We also wrapped some precooked bacon in aluminum foil and laid that near the fire. The eggs were tasty and not rubbery this time and the bacon was crispy and had a little bit of black on it. I ate breakfast with relish that morning. After that we did our usual routine: going to the bathroom, packing up, and getting back on the river.
About time we were rewarded for all our suffering.
Not long after setting out we passed through Tionesta. As we passed under the Tionesta bridge, the wind began a fierce push to send us into the right shore. It felt like no matter how hard we rowed, we could barely keep the canoe steady. To make matters worse, the right side of the river was full of slow moving water, so we didn’t even have the current to help us. It took us at least half an hour to battle our way out of the stagnant river edge and back into the main channel. Even then, the wind pushed us towards the bank constantly. Eventually dad and I decided to lay down our paddles for a bit and see what would happen. Our curiosity was rewarded, because it turned out the current was moving fast enough to keep us away from the shore. Sure, our canoe was pointed the wrong way, but we were still moving and we could give our aching muscles a break. “Blow all you want wind,” I thought, “we don’t even have to fight you. The river will take care of it for us.” It was nice to take a break and enjoy the sun for a bit.
A few miles downriver of Tionesta, we came upon a bridge under construction. Or, more precisely, a bridge in the process of getting replaced by a new one. We had passed over it on the way up to Kinzua, and I had been on it even before that. It was good that they were working on it. It was all rusty and full of potholes. I had to admit though, I had been rather confused. For reasons so brilliant they are understood only by PennDOT, they had closed off one of the lanes on the existing bridge while they built a new one next to it. As far as I could tell, there was nothing going on in the closed lane and it was not in any greater disrepair than the open lane. Moreover, they had blockaded the vast majority of the river under the new bridge. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they were obstructing traffic rather than enabling it, but it seemed so… unnecessary. Takes me back to the days of construction on route 65. Although on further thought, those days never ended; they simply moved to different parts of 65.
“Hey Bob, I’ve got an idea for a game. Let’s see who can eat their lunch the slowest!”
Anyways, dad and I stopped to eat lunch and eye PennDOT’s extravagant river blockade. We made some sandwiches and had some pretzel snacks on the side, all the while trying to figure out how we were expected to get through. For a little bit we thought we’d have to pull the canoe out of the water and carry it around the blockade (here I cursed vilely) until we realized there was a tiny little safe channel through. Just before we got back underway, dad saw a gigantic jack in the pulpit. It’s a Pennsylvania plant that has a little pitcher of liquid about halfway up the stem and a few large leaves on top. Dad got really excited and called me over to see it. I asked if I could eat it. Dad said no. I was not as excited.
We pushed back off into the river and paddled through PennDOT’s strange river fortress. Workers were walking here and there, and some cranes swung overhead, but nothing in particular seemed to be happening. I waved to one of the workers, and he gave me a little nod. As we passed through the open channel, the water sped up and we zipped past the bridge. After that, it was another lazy day of canoeing. The wind had mostly died down, and the sun was out in full force by this time. In fact, for the first time on the trip we were experiencing a new problem: it was a little too hot. We put on some sunscreen and kept paddling. As time went on, the sun became REALLY hot, though. We started seeking out shade before long. In fact, one island had a narrow, shallow channel on the left side. It was also very shady, so we decided to steer into it. We had to dodge around a few rocks and we scraped the bottom of the canoe on a particularly shallow spot, but we got in all right. We ended up in a slow moving but shaded area with a few pieces of private property on the left. While we did have to work a bit harder to get through to the end, the shade was a nice bonus.
From there, it was a series of long curves of the river. There were few islands and not many areas of rapid current. We stuck to the lengthening tree shadows on the banks and took advantage of any patch of faster moving water we could find. Towards the end of the day we passed through a little town called Henry’s Bend. It wasn’t much to look at, just a series of houses and docks on the side of the river. They did seem to take enormous pride in their town though, because on a wooden wall facing the river they had painted “Henry’s Bend” in large letters on an American flag background. I saw this, failed to be impressed, and kept paddling. Before long we got to the one spot that we had planned to stay at from the very start of the trip: Pithole Creek.
This is the mouth of Pithole Creek looking out into the Allegheny. Unfortunately, this view doesn’t really do it justice.
When dad took this trip before, he and his friend camped at Pithole Creek. According to him, the creek was a remote and beautiful spot to camp and enjoy the wilderness. He basically raved about it at least once every day of our trip, usually when we were in a less desirable camping spot. When the chips were down and all seemed lost (like when we were getting hailed on), Pithole Creek was the light at the end of the tunnel. When we got there, however, not all was as dad had remembered it. For one, Henry’s bend was right across the river where before there had been no nearby towns. There also appeared to be some sort of trailer park on the same side of the river. In addition, there were private property signs EVERYWHERE. There were no less than 3 signs visible from our campsite, and some trees even had more than one sign on them. Finally, there were dirtbike tracks all over the place, which had the unfortunate side effect of leaving giant ruts filled with stagnant, muddy water. This transformation hit dad hard, although if I had asked him he probably would have said, “At least we aren’t being mauled by bears,” or something along those lines. As we walked around in the area near the creek, the extent of the change became apparent. The tracks went all along the river, and there were pools of fetid mud and even some felled trees. At one point dad stopped and finally gave voice to his anger. “They turned Pithole Creek into a shithole. Shithole Creek!” Although I never saw it as it was, even I had to admit what was being done to the place was a shame. I do have to say, though, that the creek itself was probably as beautiful as it was 40 years ago. The water was clear and cold and it bubbled pleasantly over rocks of all shape, size, and color. Ancient pines towered over it, so massive that soft carpets of needles had formed underneath. It was fed by little mountain streams, so it was even colder than the Allegheny. I decided that if I was on a wilderness adventure, I might as well drink out of one of them. We found a small pool in one of the streams where I cupped my hands and took a drink. It was everything I expected; cool, refreshing, and delicious. It was a little bit like bottled mineral water except way better in every way.
After we got back from our walk, we got a fire started and cooked some chili we had brought. It was really easy to find dry wood at Pithole, which was a nice consolation prize for the other problems it now had. Some locals came and drained one of the dirtbike ruts by digging a trench to the creek, but nobody ran up and demanded we get off their property. So that was good. We finished our dinner up and chatted a little bit as the fire burned down and it got dark. Some teenage girls drove up (in a dirtbike, of course) to a nearby railroad bridge and did whatever it is that teenage girls do. Meanwhile, we got ready for bed. In spite of the mess people were making in Pithole Creek, I still found it to be an ok camp site. Plenty of wood, and still somewhat scenic in defiance of the world’s best efforts to ruin it. I wish I could have seen it as my dad did, though. That would have been something.
Day 5: Gettin’ the hell outta Dodge
The night before we had agreed to get up early so we could get home at a decent time that day. Dad, using his old person powers, got up at the crack of dawn. The sun was barely even out when he came into the tent and woke me up. Here’s how it went down:
Dad: “David, get up.”
Me: *snort* “Wha?”
Dad: “Get up.”
Me: “…give me a minute.”
I was forced to resort to my most drastic tactic for waking myself up: I had to count backwards from 10. Now maybe you’re thinking, “David, that sounds about as extreme as a napping kitten,” but hear me out. This is a big deal for me. Once I reach 0, I get up no matter what. Even if I feel like dying, even if I’m going out into the cold, I do it. And so when I finished counting, I got out of my sleeping bag. I took an unsteady step towards the door and swerved to the right. I took a moment and reoriented myself, then stepped up to the door and tried to put on my shoes. I fell over. I righted myself and tried again, succeeding this time. I walked outside and I couldn’t see straight. I lurched over to dad despite this and sat down heavily. I don’t remember if I said anything or not, but slowly my vision cleared and the cool morning air woke me up. We had milk and cereal that morning. We didn’t want to spend time making a fire. For the final time on the trip, we performed our morning ritual of packing up. We launched our canoe back into the icy waters of Pithole Creek, scraped up against a few rocks, and then made it back onto the Allegheny.
We didn’t see many islands on this late stage of the trip. It was mostly gently curving sections of river. The river was much the same as the day before: wide, slow, and meandering. Thinking back on that morning I am sure it was a beautiful stretch of the river, but it was lost on me at the time. For several days I had been battered by the elements; I was tired, cold, sore, and wet. Some ducks lounged in the shallows by the riverbank. I glared at them. Realistically the weather wasn’t their fault, of course, but somehow I held them responsible. At one point dad jokingly commented on how easy the morning had been, saying, “Yes, it’s pretty nice out today. Almost makes you want to stay another night.” My face darkened into a stormy scowl. “Paddle while you think about it.”
We did notice one island that had a house built on it, much to our surprise. It even appeared to have a power line coming in, so someone probably paid quite a bit of money to have it built. It was early in the morning, so even as we neared Oil City and began seeing more houses, no other people appeared on the river. We did see plenty of wildlife, though. Turtles, ducks, and the occasional deer. Dad even pointed out a little furry creature that was probably a muskrat. I was surprised at just how many houses and club buildings there were along the river, although I suppose it makes sense that people want a scenic view like that, especially if it’s near a convenient place like Oil City. Finally, we passed Arcorn Island (not Acorn, Arcorn) and began our final hurdle: the Oil City Rapids. By this time I was much more accustomed to the river, and I was looking forward to this. It was split into parts of varying difficulty, but here’s what one of the easier spots looks like.
“WOO! RAPIDS! YEAAAAAAH!” “Calm down, son.”
The Oil City Rapids were the only decent rapids we saw on that trip. They flow through a rocky section of the river beneath the Oil City Bridge. They’re still baby rapids in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a big deal for a river like the Allegheny. Multiple sources we looked at made mention of them as the greatest challenge on this segment of the river. As we approached them, I decided to put on my life jacket. As I did, I caught my dad’s eye. “Just in case.” He decided to follow suit. If he claims he told me to put on my jacket, don’t listen to him. I did it first. Anyways, dad said he remembered the right side of the river being easier than the left. As we drew up to the rapids, it seemed to be the exact opposite to me. The left side looked almost clear, with the middle being the worst and the right having a moderate number of whitecaps. Dad staunchly continued to say that the left side was the hardest. “Yeah right,” I thought, “he did this trip like 50 years ago. He’s remembering wrong.” We compromised by going down the middle with the intention of going either left or right once we got close enough to see the rapids better. Dad probably did that knowing that the river would teach his hot-headed son a lesson. As we drew closer, I realized that I was wrong. The left side dipped a little in elevation so it was hard to see from far away, but it was the roughest water I had seen on the entire trip, a near constant series of troughs and whitecaps. The right side looked like a kiddie pool by comparison. I fumed silently for several seconds, then turned back to dad and said, “You were right, we should head right.” And so began the most exciting part of the trip.
We turned the boat and began paddling for all we were worth. On a calm river, we would have shot over to the other side, no problem. We were not on a calm river. All the water in the river seemed to be flowing forward and to the left, almost perpendicular to our canoe. Our goal was to go to the right of one of the massive stone pillars supporting the bridge. Unfortunately, we were not going as far to the right as we wanted to because we were fighting the current, which was getting stronger by the second. As we drew abreast of the stone pillar, I saw something that made my heart leap in my chest. All of the water around us was flowing straight into the pillar, frothing and swirling before shooting past into a deep trough followed by a towering whitecap. The water was pulling us inexorably into that pillar. Despair gripped me; how could we fight against the might of an entire river? I turned back towards dad. “Can we make it?”
Luckily, dad was not wasting time on philosophical bullshit.
His brow furrowed. “YEAH!” His tone conveyed what he did not have the time to put into words: “If you paddle, MAYBE!” I was galvanized back into action. What the hell was I doing? I put my paddle back in the water and resumed rowing like Ben Hur. Even so, we were being carried right into the stone. At one point I probably could have reached out with my paddle and touched the thing. At the last moment, just as our tail end was about to crash into the pillar, dad stuck his paddle in the water and did a swift turn. In the blink of an eye, we went from facing 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock. Our tail swung wide of the pillar and we shot past through the choppy water behind it. We rode through troughs and over swells, our canoe rocking back and forth. Nevertheless, we remained upright and safely made it through the rapids. It was the most enjoyable bit of excitement I got in the entire canoeing trip, and it was just in time for the end.
And here’s where our journey came to an end: the Oil City boat launch.
Afterwards, we pulled up at the Oil City boat launch. Two men were fishing, and I gave one of them an apologetic smile as we paddled past his line. We got our canoe out of the river and brought the car we had left there. We began loading it up just as a jovial old man drove his boat down to the launch ramp. I walked over to him and said, “Oh, do you need some room? Let me get out of your way.” “It’s no trouble,” he replied, “I need to get ready anyway.” In my mind I imagined that would be the end of it. However, like all northerners, this man was delighted by the prospect of a conversation. “So, you’ve been on the river? Where did you start from?” I had been in the process of turning back to the car, but I stopped. With a slight inward sigh, I resumed the conversation. It’s not that I didn’t like talking to him, exactly, but I was looking forward to getting home. Still, I told him about our trip, and before long dad was drawn into the conversation as well. Somehow the old man even roped the two guys fishing into talking with us. Eventually, I got around to moving the car and the old man put his boat in the water, a constant stream of chatter directed at us. “Yeah, it’s gonna be windy today. See those whitecaps out there?” Sure enough, the wind had picked up and the previously calm river was now a bit choppy. Thank goodness we had started early and avoided the infernal wind. He continued talking as he got in his car, then finally shut the door and began pulling his boat holder out of the water. It got caught on the way though, and it damaged one of the pads the boat rested on. Untroubled, the old man got back out and untangled it, talking all the while. “It’s about time I replaced this thing anyway. It’s about 15 years old.” Even when he got in the boat and it became clear the engine had somehow been damaged, he remained as carefree as the moment he drove up. I liked him. City dwellers only seem to be that easygoing when they’re drunk.
We got everything in the car and drove back up to the canoe rental place. Jim and the mysterious New Zealander were both there as we returned the canoe. Like everyone up north, they were eager to talk. They talked about how the weather had been rather unpleasant lately, how business had been, and all sorts of things. I was rather gratified when we told them we had traveled almost 70 miles on the river, the New Zealander’s eyes pretty much popped out of his skull in shock. He looked at the two of us, and a glint of admiration entered his eyes. He was clearly impressed by our grit. They both were, but it meant a lot coming from the New Zealander. We returned the gear we had rented, and then went on to the Kinzua Dam. We had lunch at a picnic table, eating sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, and the last of our bacon. We stopped at a nearby ice cream shop afterwards. I got blackberry cheesecake and dad got some kind of salted caramel flavor. Once we finished our ice cream, we drove home and unloaded our stuff. It was good to be back.
I don’t regret going on the trip, but after 5 days of getting smacked around by the Allegheny River I certainly wasn’t sad to see it end. I was wearing wet sandals the entire trip, and by the time the final day came around I had blisters forming on my feet. It was bad enough that I drove home barefoot. I suppose any campers out there could have told me this, but we had to deal with cold, heat, being wet pretty much all the time, and sore mornings after sleeping on rugged ground. For 5 days we had to go without the comforts of home. I knew that going in, I guess, but it wasn’t as rough in my mind’s eye. It was an interested experience, especially since I’m not really an outdoors kind of guy. If I was given the choice to do it again I probably would, but I would definitely want that waterproof jacket the second time around. Yeah, overall I’d say it was a good experience. I’m glad I got to do it with my dad. Yeah.
That’s all for now. This is David Fudurich, signing off.
For my historical feature, I’ll be focusing on the life and career of William Grant Still, an African-American composer, whose 1930 symphony “Afro-American” became the first symphony written by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra for an American audience. I’ll center my feature around the opening performance of “Afro-American” by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931 in New York City, a groundbreaking achievement for a black musician. I’ll try to use newspaper reviews from the time from both the black press and the mainstream press to gauge reactions from audiences to this work.
I had heard of William Grant Still in a music history class before, and I was familiar with “Afro-American,” but I did not know that Still was breaking new ground for black composers with this work. I am a huge George Gershwin fan, and Gershwin was a contemporary of Still who might have been influenced by Still’s music. Both Still and Gershwin incorporated more “modern” jazz sounds in their symphonic compositions, which you can definitely here in the 3rd movement of “Afro-American.”
I still need to learn more about how African American musicians, both composers and more “mainstream” musicians, were treated in American culture in 1930, to put Still’s accomplishment in context. In my piece, I will juxtapose the lynchings and open discrimination that was going on in many American communities at the time with the fact that white audiences were celebrating a black musician’s work. It seems that throughout history, white Americans could appreciate black music before they learned to accept as equals the composers, singers and musicians who actually created it. We see this in the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and Louis Armstrong, among so many others.
Finally, I will try to find more modern black composers who were influenced by Still and his success. Any time someone breaks a barrier like that, it eases the path for those who follow. In that way, Still probably influenced a generation of young black musicians to pursue their careers with renewed vigor.
People tend to define themselves in relation to others — “I’m not a Republican, I’m a Democrat; I’m not old, I’m young; I’m not gay, I’m straight; I’m not a country music fan, I’m a pop music fan.” For every trait that you possess, there is some set of traits that you do not possess. This set of negative traits is “otherness” – the things that you are not.
It is completely normal to see the world this way, because drawing boundaries about who we are and are not helps us to understand our place in the world. Sharing traits with other people can unify us and help us form friendships and bonds over similar interests. For example, my closest group of friends all come from working at The Duquesne Duke together.
However, when we begin to focus on the differences that divide us from others instead of the similarities we share, “otherness” can become toxic. The New York Times collects writings every week from the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum, and it always amazes me how two writers can see the same event in such different ways.
The ultimate example of “otherness-gone-toxic” is any time one group of people distances themselves so far from another group that the other group becomes “less than human.” We saw this in the enslavement of Africans. We saw this in the Rwandan genocide. We saw this in the holocaust of Jews in Nazi Germany. If we allow the differences between ourselves and other humans to overwhelm our views of those people, then we risk de-humanizing them, with disastrous consequences.
And this is why it is so very important that the media tell stories of the “other.” If newspapers, bloggers, and broadcasters can tell stories of a wide range of people and problems with empathy, fairness and understanding, then things that might seem foreign and strange suddenly become more relatable. Just today (09/05/2017), when I visited the homepage of the New York Times, I saw the following stories of “other” that I thought did a great job of opening my eyes to perspectives I wasn’t familiar with:
Right now, I’m not sure that most people who are calling for the end of DACA or for more deportations of illegal immigrants have met many of the people whose lives they seek to ruin. When I lived in Los Angeles, I knew many people who were not legal citizens. They were still wonderful, smart, funny, contributing people. Even at the restaurant I used to work at here in Pittsburgh, there were kitchen workers who were not legal. They were some of the hardest working and most reliable staff members we had, and they had kids who were citizens doing well in high school and college. Yet so much of the news coverage of hispanic people I saw in LA was drug and gang related. In reality, this represents a small portion of the illegal immigrant population in the US.
If the media did a better job of covering this group of “other” people, maybe American citizens would not be so quick to demonize them. I’ve met otherwise wonderful people who support deporting every illegal immigrant in the United States. Setting aside how absurdly expensive and logistically impossible this would be, it would also be cruel and inhumane.
When it comes to events like President Trump’s overturn of DACA, it is crucial that the media tell the personal, detailed stories of the people this effects. If reporters do this effectively, maybe more Americans can see that these “others” are not so other after all.
Allow me to begin by addressing my limitations. As a young white woman who grew up in a predominantly white, upper-middle class neighborhood and now attends a predominantly white, expensive private college, I am privileged. My ancestors, coming as poor immigrants from Scotland and Czechoslovakia, had more privilege when they arrived in the United States than resident African Americans had.
Because of this privilege, I have very little authority to speak about the role of the black press in the United States, in the past, present or future.
I cannot adequately or accurately assess the value of the black press, because I’m not a part of the demographic that the black press was or is meant to serve. All I can do is express an outsider’s view. I can gather thoughts from modern black writers and from past readers of the black press. I can try to draw comparisons between the black press and today’s feminist literature, since that is a demographic to which I belong. But my perspective on the black press will always be limited, because my understanding and experience of black culture in the United States is limited.
A man could never fully capture the importance and significance of the feminist movement in the United States, because it does not have the same repercussions for him as it would for a woman. Just so, I do not think a white person can completely comprehend the role of the black press in America. All I can do is try to listen and learn.
According to the documentary, the black press arose to fill the void left by “white” newspapers, which failed to cover African American issues or even report the births, deaths, and marriages of black Americans. As a journalism student with a modern journalism education, the idea that the mainstream media could so completely ignore an entire subset of the population is mind-blowing.
The black press, which included hundreds of weekly and daily newspapers during its peak, gradually evolved from a “filling the void” role to becoming an outspoken advocate for civil rights. To paraphrase someone from the PBS documentary, the black press adopted a “pro-black” bias to counter the “pro-white” bias of the mainstream press.
In some ways, this reminds me of how diverse today’s news media field is. Today, you have “legacy” news outlets with huge audiences that cover a broad range of topics (CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, etc.) But you also have a growing contingent of online-only publications that cater to smaller, specific audiences. Some examples:
Afro.com: African American news in the Baltimore/ D.C. Area
In the digital age, there are fewer barriers to entry when it comes to publishing, because anyone with access to the Internet can create a free blog and spread their thoughts. According to “Soldiers without Swords” the black press relied on church’s printing presses and complex delivery systems to get their newspapers into readers’ hands. Today, someone who wants to blog about black issues in the U.S. can publish their writing and disseminate it through social media for free.
There are pros and cons to today’s diverse media landscape. On one hand, having websites like Breibart and whatever the heck Milo Yiannopoulos is doing these days out and available on the Internet has created the “fake news” phenomenon that is plaguing actual, objective news outlets. On the other hand, today’s main stream media has sometimes failed to give adequate in-depth coverage to minority issues, and this is where a modern black press could be successful and relevant. Hearing writing from black voices on black issues is likely just as important to African American’s today as it was in 1950, and now it is much easier for those writers to be published. So in close, here is a list from NYLON of 20 black bloggers who are worth following.
Warning: Contains unladylike language. You’ve been warned.
I’ve had my 1990 Kawasaki Ninja 250r for less than a week, and people are already trying to take it away from me. And give it to my boyfriend.
Some background: I’m a 20-something female college student. I’ve had my motorcycle license since I was 16, but just doodled around on my dad’s ’74 Honda, which he was kind enough to lend me upon request. The electric start only functioned about half the time, and the bike didn’t really believe in the concept of idling, but I made it work. I finally squirreled away enough cash to buy my own bike, and went for a sportier (and slightly more reliable) Kawasaki. My boyfriend, who does not have his motorcycle license and has no desire to get one, nonetheless fully supports my reckless love for all things two-wheeled and motorized.
Now to the issue at hand: Somehow, by being a woman and buying a sportbike, I appear to have violated a fundamental law of the universe. This has been made clear to me several times, but most blatantly right after I finished my second ride on the new crotch rocket and dismounted next to my apartment.
As I removed my helmet and guided the bike onto my driveway, a neighbor walked past. A friendly guy my age with whom I’d chit-chatted a few times before. He paused, took in the helmet in my hand and the bike next to me, and asked, “Whoa! Cool bike. Is that your boyfriend’s ride?”
Now, I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but if I saw someone holding a motorcycle helmet, wearing a motorcycle jacket, and holding a still-hot motorcycle, with no one else around, I would probably assume that the person in question owned the motorcycle. Again, and I emphasize, there was no one else around. Yet somehow, this neighbor needed to create a fictional motorcycle-riding boyfriend to explain my relationship to this sportbike.
I wanted to scream “IT’S MY MOTORCYCLE! MINE! I DON’T NEED A MAN TO RIDE MY MOTORCYCLE FOR ME! FUCK OFF!” Instead, I opted for the more reasoned reply of, “Oh, haha *insert vapid giggle*, it’s actually my bike!” to which he responded with a appraising up-and-down look at me.
“Wow, then, you really are the full package.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between, leads us to the crux of the issue: Society gives us two ways to view women and their relationship with motorcycles. Either you “ride bitch” behind a man or you’re sexualized beyond reason. And when I say “beyond reason,” I mean it. Just google “women” and “sportbikes” and see what images show up. Or rather, don’t, because I gathered them for you here:
The Department of Transportation recommends that riders wear DOT-certified helmets at all times, UNLESS “it is likely to mess up your hair, in which case, fuck it and take your chances with the road.”
My neighbor was trying to give me a compliment (I think) and I’m not here to dive into the huuuuuuuge cultural issue of men making unwanted quasi-sexual comments about women in public. More eloquent voices than mine have written prolifically on that subject.
I also don’t want to single out my neighbor as the only offender here. In the last seven days, I’ve had no less than 13 friends ask me, incredulously, if I had a motorcycle license upon learning that I bought a bike. To which I responded: No. I just bought a bike I can’t ride, in the hopes that maybe some nice man with a motorcycle license will come along and let me sit on the backseat.
The nice lady at AAA who helped me transfer the bike title into my name kept asking me what type of car I was buying, even after I mentioned that it was a motorcycle several times, then finally exclaimed, “Oh, that’s right, you said it was a motorcycle! Now what in the world is a nice girl like you going to do with a big, scary motorcycle?”
When I asked my dad to teach me how to ride a motorcycle, it was because he’d picked me up from school and softball practice on his old bike for years, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I still remember riding around my neighborhood on the backseat, holding on to him for dear life at 15 miles per hour and wearing my purple bicycle helmet, because we didn’t have a brainbucket small enough for my six-year-old noggin.
I have three little brothers, two of whom are old enough to drive. Of the three of us, I’m the only one with a class “M” license. My dad never made bikes about “boys” vs. “girls.” I wanted to ride, so he patiently stepped me through easing out the clutch, kicking it into gear, and cornering safely. He signed both of us up for a safety course, and took me to test for my permit and license.
I’m proud of the work I did to earn my motorcycle license. I worked my ass off to afford my new bike. Every time someone questions my ability to ride or my ownership of my bike, it feels like a slap in the face.
So please, I ask everyone, of all genders, to be mindful of how we still feel the need to unnecessarily assign gender roles to everything, whether its a sportbike, a Barbie doll, or even a school subject. Awareness leads to understanding, and understanding leads to more respect for everyone.
Or, you know, just stopping fucking assuming I can’t ride my own goddam bike. Geezus.
That’s the automatic response Dakota Eckenrode gives when people ask what his college major is.
At which point, the usual response is, “Oh, so you’re doing philosophy because you don’t want to get a job when you graduate?”
He always assures them that he’s had a “game plan” from the start of his collegiate career.
“If you don’t say what your plans are, people think that your major is a joke,” he said.
Eckenrode will graduate from Duquesne University in December 2016 with a dual major in philosophy and ancient civilizations. But that is not the end of his plans. Eckenrode has always wanted to go into law school, even before he got to college. And as it turns out, pre-law is not always the best choice for future lawyers.
Law school applicants who graduated with a classics degree scored highest on law school admissions tests, or LSATs, according to a 2014 report from the Law School Admissions Council, which claims to help prospective law students ease into the law school admission process.
In the same report, philosophy majors scored sixth best.
Eckenrode believes that, contrary to common belief, many businesses are seeking out philosophy majors because of the more flexible skill set they are taught.
“Critical thinking, close reading of material, the ability to have an intelligent conversation and debate and to come up with new ideas” are all sought-after skills, he said.
He admits that much of philosophy is analyzing and reiterating arguments that other people have made, but that creating one’s own arguments is just as important to the field, and an enticing skill to law schools.
“You have to be capable of coming up with your own arguments and your own responses and your own critiques so those types of skills are so valuable for other fields,” said Eckenrode.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is a nonprofit from Bethlehem, PA that works with college career placement offices to determine what majors employers sought out most for 2015.
The top three hired bachelor degree topics were Finance, Accounting and Computer Science, all of which had at least 120 of the sampled respondents saying they would hire from those fields.
Graduates with liberal arts majors, however, don’t make the list.
Only 40 percent of students graduating with a liberal arts or humanities degree in 2014 had at least one job offer by the time they graduated, according to data gathered by the National Association for Colleges and Employers. Graduates with computer science, economics and accounting degrees had at least one offer 60 percent of the time.
But at least one member of Duquesne’s Liberal Arts faculty believes that a humanities degree doesn’t have to spell unemployment.
Dr. Dillon, dean of the Journalism and Multimedia Arts (JMA) Department at Duquesne said he “wholeheartedly disagrees” with the myth that liberal arts majors don’t get hired.
He said that these stereotypes stem from anxieties over how expensive college tuition is and a desire for “certainty.” Dillon said vocational fields such as nursing and pharmacy are appealing because “there is a direct correlation between the education and the job you end up with.”
“In the Liberal Arts, you’re learning in a way that asks you to make connections between things and basically qualifies you to work in all kinds of fields,” he said.
And what is the JMA department at Duquesne doing to help make sure their graduates succeed?
“We are giving people theory, we are connecting their education in JMA to the larger liberal arts context and we are asking people or helping people or expecting people when they leave here to be like Swiss army knives who can do all sorts of things,” said Dillon.
This means ensuring JMA students are able to adapt to an ever changing industry.
“Media is a very wide, diverse pool of possibilities and you may specialize in one thing but you’re never going to do just one thing in media anymore,” he said. “The days of the reporter with his notebook and the photographer with his camera and the layout editor waiting patiently by the city desk, that’s gone.”
Currently, the JMA department is tracking the success of its graduates anecdotally, due to lack of expertise, money and resources necessary to track job placement and entry-level salaries properly. Part of the difficulty, according to Dillon, comes from the fact that journalism students often build careers that fall outside a narrow definition of journalism, but still rely on the skills they learned in JMA. Dillon said graduates were happy in careers as diverse as communications director, media analyst, business owner and entrepreneur.
There are two kinds of college graduates, according to Dillon: those who choose a job because it makes a lot of money and those who can only work at jobs that they truly enjoy. The majority at Duquesne’s JMA department fall into the later category, he said.
“I think that’s why they find their way into liberal arts, because there has to be some sort of outlet for their passion in the work they’re going to do and they have to feel like it’s going to matter to other people and to them,” said Dillon.
“People in the liberal arts know how to learn and know how to ask. And they know which questions are important to ask… and to me that’s the value of having a journalism and a media department in a college of liberal arts.”
“You must do the thing that you think you cannot do.”
Jamie McConaha reads these words, borrowed from Eleanor Roosevelt, outloud to an eclectic group of five people gathered together in a hidden corner in a Shop N’ Save in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.
McConaha, 32, is a pharmacy professor at Duquesne University who uses her free time to teach weekly smoking cessation classes in the Pittsburgh area. She recently received a grant to expand her classes, which she has taught and developed over the last three years. The five people sitting together at Shop N’ Save are her current pupils, coming to McConaha to receive the guidance and assistance they need to kick their tobacco addictions.
Many of McConaha’s smoking cessation students think they “cannot do” what it takes to stop their smoking or chewing habits, according to Brandon Herk, an academic and research fellow at Duquesne who assists McConaha with the classes.
“It’s very hard to work with the negativity sometimes,” Herk said.
McConaha said that while some students are motivated and enthusiastic about quitting, there are those who are only at her free classes because their friends or family made them come. Those students can affect the rest of the class with their bad moods, McConaha said.
“It seems like in every class, there’s that one person who’s negative,” she said.
During the April 27 class in Shop N’ Save, one man tells the group that McConaha’s class is useless.
“I don’t really need all this,” the man said. “When I want to quit, I’ll just make up my mind and do it.”
McConaha listens to the man politely, but doesn’t argue with him.
“I just try not to play into it,” McConaha said about the negative comments she encounters during classes. “I listen to them, and then I move on.”
During her classes, McConaha plays several roles. One minute she’s a pharmacy professor, explaining clearly and with accompanying hand gestures exactly how tobacco use harms the human body. The next minute, she’s a cheerleader, applauding the progress her students have made and encouraging them to do more.
It could be that cheering on others comes naturally to McConaha, who made extra cash during her time at Duquesne by working on the Pens Patrol, the squad of young men and women who walk out onto the ice at Pittsburgh Penguins hockey games to give away merchandise and enliven the crowd.
For at least one student, McConaha’s approach to teaching smokers how to quit is appreciated.
Kathy McCarty, 60, of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania called McConaha “very positive” and “non-judgemental and informative.
“She understands people and reads people very well,” McCarty said. “She doesn’t use a lot of force to make her point.”
All of the material and processes used for the classes is McConaha’s original work.
“I’m in the middle of obtaining the copyright for the classes,” McConaha said. According to her, the program has been constantly expanding and improving since she began teaching them in 2013.
In April, Tobacco Free Allegheny acknowledged McConaha’s work to stop smoking in the county with nearly $4,000 in grant money. McConaha said she plans to combine this funding with a previously obtained grant from Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to increase the number of class locations. Now students can take McConaha’s free class in Bethel Park, Wilkinsburg, and the Hill District.
Called “The Courage to Quit,” McConaha’s four-week smoking cessation program combines talk therapy, information distribution and nicotine replacement therapies to encourage smokers and tobacco chewers to drop their unhealthy habits. According to McConaha, she developed the curriculum herself based on her own knowledge and training.
“I’m constantly changing the classes as I discover what works and what doesn’t,” the Monongahela, Pennsylvania native said. “Sometimes you have to adapt the classes to a specific area or group of people.”
Herk had McConaha as a professor during his time as a student at Duquesne. According to him, McConaha uses the same techniques that make her a great pharmacy professor to also be an effective smoking cessation teacher.
“We use a form of talk therapy in the classes that relies on responding just the right way to what people say,” Herk said. “As a professor, Dr. McConaha was always very good at providing the right feedback and responses.”
According to McConaha, the smoking cessation classes grew out of her pharmacy work at Duquesne. After graduating with her Doctor of Pharmacy from Duquesne in 2007, McConaha remained at the school as a fellow for two years, then eventually became a professor. As a full-time faculty member, McConaha teaches university classes, works in Duquesne’s Center for Pharmacy Care and serves as a pharmacist for the Preferred Primary Care Physicians in Greentree, Pennsylvania.
While working at a Giant Eagle pharmacy through Duquesne, McConaha realized how largely tobacco use impacted the lives of many Pittsburgh residents. She wanted to help the people she encountered who struggled with tobacco addiction, she said, so she registered for a three and a half day course at the University of Florida to become a Tobacco Treatment Specialist.
What began as a one-woman project quickly gathered steam within Duquesne’s Mylan School of Pharmacy. Now McConaha teaches the classes with an alternating crew of four Duquesne pharmacy residents and fellows.
In addition to these responsibilities, McConaha is also a new mother. When McConaha received the April Tobacco Free Allegheny grant, she had just returned from maternity leave. McConaha and her husband are now the proud parents of a five-month-old girl named Adalyn, their first child.
When asked how McConaha balances caring for a newborn with her work at Duquesne and her smoking cessation classes, McConaha chuckled.
“I have a very understanding husband,” she said. McConaha’s husband works at PNC bank, where his schedule is flexible enough to be able to care for Adalyn when McConaha is not available.
“We also have four grandparents in the area who are pretty excited to watch her,” McConaha said.
McConaha and her family have stayed local over the years. She grew up with two younger brothers in Monongahela, where her mother worked as a nurse at the Monongahela Valley Hospital. According to McConaha, her mother had an impact on her interest in medicine, as did a natural knack for science.
McConaha volunteered at the Monongahela Valley Hospital during her high school years. For a while, McConaha wanted to be a doctor. Then she visited Duquesne and fell in love with the university and its pharmacy program.
In addition to her smoking cessation classes, McConaha has used the last three years to develop Duquesne’s own Tobacco Treatment Specialist certification program. So far, approximately 90 people have been certified to treat tobacco addiction through Duquesne. Organizations such as Tobacco Free Allegheny now send staff members to be trained through McConaha’s accredited three-day program.
My editor, who assigned the story, and I wanted to find out what the status of Greek life was on campus. Think of it as a check-up at the doctors’— we didn’t think anything was wrong, we just wanted to find out what was going on with Duquesne’s sororities and fraternities. I did not approach this story with a goal in mind.
Instead, as many can attest, I sent an email to the head of every single Greek life organization at Duquesne, or at least all those with up-to-date information on Campus Link. I wanted to talk to as many sources as possible. I also reached out to anyone I knew in Greek life, and I used social media to talk to the friends and roommates of Greek life participants. As with all my stories, I wanted this one to be balanced and objective.
Objectivity and impartiality are the cornerstones of today’s journalism, and the staff of the Duke works hard to uphold them. As such, it hurts me every time I hear someone say “The Duke hates Greek life,” or “I wish The Duke wouldn’t target Greeks.” The Duke consists of dozens of dedicated students who write for a variety of sections for very little reward. They work hard to create a reliable, entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking newspaper for the Duquesne student body to enjoy. In return, they get nasty tweets and unkind words at Greek life meetings.
I have a thick skin. Journalists have to. I can take criticism. But please, before you criticize, read my article. All the way through. If you can show me that something is factually incorrect, I will correct it. If you object to the way I worded something, tell me. If you think I misquoted someone, I BEG you to tell me, so I can correct it. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and I check it approximately every five minutes, because that’s why my job requires.
And don’t think that I’m oblivious to the harsh words that float around. Just tonight, as I left The Duke newsroom in the basement of college hall after five hours of non-stop editing and writing for the paper, a sorority meeting next door let out. I heard several women mention my article, which was discussed at the meeting. None of the mentions sounded kind, and when I asked the women what they were talking about, they looked at me suspiciously. When I asked again and mentioned I worked for the Duke, they walked away.
I’m a journalism student. Reporting facts is what I do. I can’t change the facts just because people don’t like them. I’m also a really bad but enthusiastic basketball player, an amateur knitter, a girlfriend, an older sister, an avid tea-drinker, and a lover of puppies. Journalists are people too.
In closing, I’d like to highlight some of the parts of my article that seem to have been overlooked:
Katie O’Toole, Duquesne junior and president of Duquesne’s Delta Zeta chapter, said these incidents distract people from all of the good things fraternities and sororities do.
“It’s frustrating that one person or group of people who drink too much or haze could ruin it for everybody, across the country,” O’Toole said.
Or maybe some critics missed this line:
O’Toole pointed toward philanthropy and networking as two positive outcomes of Greek organizations. According to O’Toole, DZ raises between $3,000 and $4,000 annually for its three philanthropies: the Painted Turtle Camp for terminally ill and disabled children, the Starkey Hearing Foundation and speech and hearing pathology.
In the end, Greek life had a positive voice in my article:
“Through Greek life, you really get to experience college life to the fullest,” Frost said.
Photo taken by Kaye Burnet. Meaghan Dugan (left), 19, of Wilmington, Delaware and Kara Synder (right), 19, of Claysburg, Pennsylvania wait to catch the crowd after classes end in Duquesne University‘s McAnulty College of Liberal Arts on March 17. Dugan and Snyder are raising money for the Duquesne University Student Education Association, which hosts food drives and service projects for local school kids.
Photo taken by Kaye Burnet. Megan Wasson, 19, of Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania leaves Assumption Hall to go to class on March 19. Wasson is a chemistry major in the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. Duquesne’s mission statement encourages its professors and students to have a “commitment to excellence in liberal and professional education.”
Photo taken by Kaye Burnet. Lisa Hawkins, 58, of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania relaxes after work March 17 by Duquesne University’s Rooney Field. Hawkins works as a neurosurgery and urology clinician at UPMC Mercy hospital in Uptown, Pittsburgh, a job she calls “stressful.” Hawkins says she comes to Duquesne often “because they keep the campus really beautiful, and it’s a great place to detox after work.” Duquesne serves its community, Uptown Pittsburgh, by creating a beautiful space for the public to enjoy.
Photo taken by Kaye Burnet. Colorful cans for pop tab collection line the entrance desk to Assumption Hall at Duquesne on March 19. Donated tabs will be given to a charity in Uganda run by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe. Sister Nyirumbe and her staff recycles the tabs into purses that are sold to benefit the victims of Ugandan civil war. The Duquesne mission statement calls for faculty and students to have an “attentiveness to global concerns.”
Photo taken by Kaye Burnet. From left to right: Sean King, 20, of State College, Pennsylvania; Rob Norman, 19, of Moon Township, Pennsylvania; Ian Welch, 22, of Homewood, Pennsylvania; Destiny King, 18, of Cleveland; and Mohamed Cisse, 20, of Washington, D.C. share a meal on March 18 in Duquesne’s Father Hogan Dining Center. Duquesne welcomes a diverse group of men and women with different backgrounds to its campus.