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My tween daughter Diz loves outdoor action: skiing, theme parks, water parks - anything that’s fast and furious. I figured that a rapid-battling river adventure would also give her a thrill, so I aimed to track down a company that offered high quality whitewater excursions in the nearby Pocono mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.
There were lots of choices, but Pocono Whitewater in Jim Thorpe, PA - a 38 year-old, family-owned rafting outfitter - stood out for a number of reasons:
They’re a short, easy, and direct drive from NYC, NJ (where we live), and Philadelphia.
They’re the only outfitter on the Lehigh River that offers a free, all-you-can-eat, hot BBQ lunch midway on their family-style whitewater trip.
The bus ride to and from the river is the shortest of all outfitters in the area.
They have a full service kitchen and bar
They have a full time staff of photographers and videographers who are available to capture the highlights of their guests’ whitewater journeys.
After their trips, they offer a “roaring bonfire and s’mores” for their guests.
Along with its impressive perks, the prime customer reviews (4.4 stars on Google, 4 on Yelp, and 4 on TripAdvisor) were also convincing, so I booked a Sunday morning Dam Release trip for two in mid-August.
Diz and I arrived at the Pocono Whitewater HQ at 7:40am for an 8:00am departure. The sun was still getting warm, and I was surprised to see that there were throngs of other folks also there for the early morning journey. We got fitted for life jackets, bought lunches (sub sandwiches, water, cookies, chips), and gathered - along with around 50 other rafters of all ages - for an orientation led by Yo, one of Pocono Whitewater’s experienced and very entertaining guides.
Yo demonstrated how to…
properly hold and use a paddle (one hand over the t-grip at the top, the other close - but not too close - to the oar at the other end)
help someone back into the raft if he/she falls out (pull them from under their arms)
steer the raft (a passenger with rafting experience, aka a “captain”, would sit in the back and handle this important task)
dislodge the raft if we got hung up on a rock (gather on the side of the raft that’s not stuck and bounce)
… and other useful tips.
I didn’t tell Diz, but as I was listening to Yo’s instructions, I began to get nervous that I wouldn’t be able to remember everything that he was saying or properly execute his lessons. I was also concerned that I wasn’t in adequate physical shape for the trip, and that I might not have the stamina to navigate (or survive in one piece) the active water that we’d soon be facing. Thankfully, I later discovered that my pre-rafting jitters weren’t necessary, and that Yo and his fellow guides would make sure we were safe, happy, and relaxed.
After the orientation, we boarded buses for a 15-minute bus ride to the river. The trip included recommendations and reminders from Yo as well as history and trivia about the Jim Thorpe area from Yo’s fellow guide Scotty D., which included such info as:
the stone walls along the Lehigh River were built by Italian and Irish immigrants in the 1800s, who migrated to the region for the job opportunities in the mines and with the railroads
the river was a major transportation route to Philadelphia, Trenton, New York City, and the entire east coast for coal that was excavated by miners
the town has been called the "Switzerland of America" thanks to the picturesque scenery and mountainous location
After the bus let us off in a wooded area, everyone carried their paddles and lunch buckets (one sealed bucket held all of the rafters’ lunches on each raft) down a one mile dirt path to the start of our journey. At the end of the path, we waded through a patch of insanely cold water that led to the river. Once we hit the sunny river bank and got into our rafts, the water temperature shot up by at least 15 degrees - so the prospect of getting doused or dunked wasn’t quite as petrifying (literally and figuratively) as we thought it might be.
When we got moving, I focused on executing Yo’s directives correctly, but after a few minutes, it all came naturally and I got lost in the beauty of the Lehigh Gorge State Park’s surroundings and the rhythmic zen of the paddling. The “Switzerland of America” moniker exploded in glorious 360-degree IMAX mode, and it was gorgeous.
Four guides, including Yo and Scotty D., paddled in front of, behind, and around our group of nine rafts, and kept their eyes open for anyone having difficulties (including rafts getting stuck on rocks, which occasionally required a guide-assisted push to break free). Temperament-wise, the rafters were a pretty chill bunch. Sure, there were some raucous frat bros who were squirting each other and other rafts with super soakers, but they didn’t get out of hand - and if they did, the guides would calmly tell ‘em to dial it back.
As mentioned above, we were on the Dam Release trip, which has rougher rapids - and more frequent rapids - than Pocono Whitewater’s Family Style Whitewater adventure. While most of the rapids were navigable, a few hit us harder than we expected, and each of the four passengers in our raft got thrown overboard during our trip (we used Yo’s armpit trick to pull everybody back in).
A little more than halfway through the 12-mile trip, the guides directed us to pull over at a river bank for lunch. The group spread out beneath a cool canopy of trees, found spaces on some downed logs, cracked open our rafts’ respective buckets, and devoured the contents (you’d be surprised by how famished you get after six-plus miles of paddling).
When we got back in the water, things were pretty smooth sailing until we hit a final patch of treacherous rapids, appropriately named Snaggletooth:
Imagine an out-of-control log flume that’s violent, unpredictable, and sends you airborne - and that about captures it. The kids have a meme for such a rush:
On the bus ride back, Scotty and Yo hit us with more trivia and interesting info, like:
in the 1880s, the town of Jim Thorpe - back when it was named Mauch Chunk - had the most millionaires (coal, iron and railroad investors, brokers and lawyers) per capita of any city in the United States
many of the churches that were founded by the town’s Irish and Italian immigrants are still standing
the coal mines were extremely dangerous places to work, both for adults and children (child labor was the norm)
the controversy, and legal battle, over where Olympian Jim Thorpe’s remains should be buried (in Jim Thorpe, PA or his ancestral burial grounds in Oklahoma) is a hot topic in town
Annie’s on North Street makes and serves the world’s best ice cream
Back at the Pocono Whitewater HQ, Diz and I realized that we were both tired, sweaty, and hungry for lunch (again), so we returned our paddles and life jackets and headed back to our hotel for a scrubbing and midday chow part two.
LE BIG TAKEAWAY
If a whitewater rafting excursion in the Poconos is on your to-do list (and it absolutely should be), Pocono Whitewater should your first and only choice for an outfitter, for a number of reasons:
The guides are experts focused on keeping you safe and ensuring that you have a great time.
The equipment (rafts, paddles, life jackets) is in excellent shape.
The route (down the Lehigh River through Lehigh Gorge State Park) is stunning.
The workout is intense, but satisfying.
The lush, five-hour connection with nature is a wonderful escape from our frantic, hyperconnected lifestyle.
The experience is exciting, memorable, and really big fun.