State buys wild stretch of whitewater in west; 783 acres purchased along Youghiogheny


FRIENDSVILLE -- This place gives life to the phrase "golden October day."

The sun is little more than a sliver over the top of Elder Hill at a rocky bend of the Youghiogheny River, making the bright yellow and burnished orange leaves of the oaks and maples lining the west bank glow as if they were lit from inside.

Trails of mist rise from a pool where the river slows, then drift off on a light breeze toward the black of a mountain facing away from the sun.

It is one of many postcard scenes in the 783 acres on the wild and scenic portion of the Youghiogheny (pronounced "YOCK-a-gainy") in the farthest reaches of Western Maryland that the state Board of Public Works agreed this week to purchase from the Frantz family.

"The farther upstream you go, the prettier it gets," says John Braskey of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Program Open Space.

The $2.7 million purchase of parcels on the east and west banks of the river between here and Sang Run, 10 miles south, will substantially complete the state's program of preserving a stretch of nationally famous whitewater that attracts thousands of expert rafters and paddlers each year. The rafting companies that operate from this village tout Class IV and Class V rapids, among the most difficult.

The state has spent about $5.77 million since 1988 to buy 3,794 of the 4,700 acres in the 20-mile stretch south of here designated by the General Assembly as a Scenic Corridor.

The Frantz parcels represent the second-largest purchase in the effort. The family operates a farm on the edge of town and had applied for a state permit to log portions of the land. No members would comment on the deal.

The purchase, which includes 4 1/2 miles of riverbank, should go a long way toward settling tensions that have festered in conservative Garrett County since the state enacted a wild and scenic river law 30 years go, says Gary Yoder, who handles special projects in Western Maryland for DNR's fisheries division. Many residents believed the state's efforts to protect the Youghiogheny, a river steeped in history, infringed on their property rights.

"We had meetings out here. There were people waving Bibles in one hand and old, yellowed copies of the Constitution in the other," Yoder recalls. "There were shots fired."

Home to endangered species

The parcels are home to the smooth rose, a plant on Maryland's endangered list, the North American green salamander, an endangered reptile, and its cousin, the hellbender, which depends on the cold, clean water of the Youghiogheny for survival.

Once so polluted from nearby logging and mining operations that no fish could live in it, the river supports growing brown trout and smallmouth bass populations and "quite a few rainbow trout fingerlings," says Bob Lunsford, DNR's director of fresh water fisheries.

The river "has the potential, with the cold water releases from Deep Creek Lake, to be one of the best five trout streams in the state," he says.

The otter population, once wiped out, is returning with the help of imports from the Eastern Shore, says Clarissa Harris, DNR's outreach coordinator for Western Maryland. The woods now support black bear and wild turkey populations.

"As the quality of the water increases, things are coming back," she says.

'It's almost primal in there'

To call this land pristine, however, would be a misnomer. It has been logged since colonial times. Judging from their girth, few of these trees were here when John F. Kennedy was killed. An abandoned logging railroad right of way runs along the east bank of the river.

But it is land of rugged beauty, even within earshot of the trucks roaring along Interstate 68.

"It's probably some of the most untouched land in Maryland," says Yoder. "Even though it was logged over, it's almost primal in there."

Trees hug the mountainsides down to the banks of the river, which gurgles over stones worn smooth by its waters. Occasional green stands of pines and beds of ferns break up the browns, yellows and oranges of the deciduous trees. This time of year, leaves fall so quickly they almost sound like rain on the forest floor.

Gray sandstone spokes out of the sides of the mountains where the river cut through in ancient times to create its gorge. Moss-covered boulders are piled up near the banks as if they had come crashing down in a landslide.

The Kendall Lumber Co. Railroad once hauled wood along here from a town that no longer exists. The rails and crosspieces are long gone, but the black cinders used for track ballast are still visible under the grass that covers much of the path. The only sign of Kendall, the town the lumber company named for itself, is a pit in the right of way where mechanics crawled under the trains to grease wheel and axle joints.

Walk far enough and the noise from the highway disappears, leaving only the sounds of the rush of the river, the guttural caw of crows, the chirps of swallows and the flutter of a grouse flushing from the carpet of leaves.

But in summer, when GPU Inc. releases water from its hydropower dam at Deep Creek Lake, the river roars through this gorge that is only about 30 yards wide from bank to bank, carrying rafters at dizzying speeds.

It is these rafters and the business they bring that have provided some glimmer of an economy to this fading town where some folks haul coal for a living, some work for lumber companies and "the rest are on welfare," says Margaret Frost, a native who works for Precision Rafting in a rambling old building a few yards from the river.

"If it wouldn't be for the boaters, this town wouldn't be anything," she says. "When we're getting a [water] release, there's people lined up down the street. Now, the season's over and this town's dead."

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