By Jill Thurston
Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday. - A.A. Milne
Last summer, my husband surprised me with a date night.
A couple’s kayak “float” on the Allegheny River near Franklin. It was, by far, the best night of the summer.
With the pandemic heavy on our minds each day, we were able to break away from the stress and let our cares drift away on the river. OARS Allegheny – Outdoor Allegheny River Services – facilitated the float that included dinner afterward (socially distanced).
This spring, when I approached Jeff “JB” Brunton, the owner of OARS, about writing a piece about their services, he suggested my husband and I take a kayak trip on French Creek. On this trip, we would experience the beauty and quiet of this Allegheny River tributary where George Washington visited in 1753.
The three-hour meandering trip from Utica back to Franklin, ending at the confluence with the Allegheny River, was a nature lover’s bastion. With no true rapids to speak of, only some areas with minor turbulence, it was possible to get a close look at the gnarled tree roots exposed along the bank and see fish just below the surface in the shallow areas. We spotted deer crossing the creek ahead, and while we fumbled for our cameras, they disappeared on the other side. Mother ducks gathered their baby ducks on the banks as we floated past. We waited and watched for a coveted sighting of bald eagles, but we didn’t have the fortune of seeing them.
We had no idea this playground for the outdoor lover existed.
After our afternoon journey on the water, we made our way into the town of Franklin, with its small-town America feel of sidewalks, friendly people and downtown parks complemented by its contemporary side offering a winery, brewery, a range of restaurant options and various shops.
Leaving the South Hills behind, just about two hours north, Franklin is situated at the confluence of the Allegheny River and French Creek, where kayakers, canoers and tube floaters can enjoy an adventure on the water.
OARS has been helping people enjoy these waterways for more than 12 years.
After returning to the area in 2004, Brunton said he couldn’t find a kayak to rent in town. When the company he worked for was sold in 2008, he changed that by starting OARS with ten kayaks, one trailer and a van.
Today he has five trailers, three vans and 100 boats – 50 kayaks and 50 canoes. New for 2021, OARS has added a satellite location in Utica to offer canoeing, kayaking and tube rentals along the upper French Creek.
While so many businesses suffered during the pandemic, last year was one of the best years ever for OARS. “We had a combination of awesome weather and people just having cabin fever after being cooped up all winter. Anything that had to do with the outdoors went gangbusters last year – campgrounds were all full; canoes, kayaks, bicycles, you could hardly purchase any of those because they were sold out,” he said.
His success comes without advertising. “It’s all been word of mouth. Most of my customers come back year after year and in turn, bring their friends and it just snowballs,” he said. Brunton credits his staff as well. “Our staff is the best. Very friendly. We always receive compliments on them.” He has nine staff members this summer.
Also in his favor, OARS has access to dual waterways, the Allegheny River and French Creek.
“One of the good things about the Allegheny River and French Creek is that it’s all considered Class One, or ‘flat water,’ meaning there are no rapids basically. It’s good even for beginners. Once you get the steering down that’s all it takes to control your boat and it’s very easy to learn when you are on flat water. We have a kids program where we teach kids 8-14 how to come down in a kayak. It appeals to a wide range of people, older adults can learn as well,” said Brunton.
In addition to the water, there is the 27.5 mile Allegheny River Trail which runs between Franklin and Emlenton for hikers and bicyclists. OARS has 11 bikes for rent.
When completed, the Rails to Trails from Pittsburgh to Erie will cover 150 miles. He believes communities and businesses along the trail will explode with the volume of people peddling from Erie to Pittsburgh. “It will be a whole new ball game up here. I think my business will be in the middle of that. People will stop here for a day because they like the town and will see the kayaks going up and down the river and want to linger awhile. The volume is going to double,” he predicts.
OARS offers 12-13 core trips and can also do a combination of any of these. “We do custom trips as well. We take people all the way up to the Kinzua Dam. That’s about 72 miles back to Franklin and takes about three nights and four days,” Brunton said.
Because OARS is busy seven days a week, Brunton said he only gets out on the water a couple of times each summer. But he says it’s OK because “it puts a smile on my face when someone comes up the first time and says ‘this is like heaven up here,’ with the mountains and the islands. We get kids coming in here saying ‘oh my gosh, we saw two bald eagles today.’ Some of these kids have never seen that before. So I get my enjoyment from hearing from my customers how much they enjoyed their trip.”
In past years OARS has held special event floats. For updated information, check the OARS website, www.oarsontheallegheny.com.