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Down the Allegheny

A spectacular first day of June and my husband Bruce and I are heading down the river with the “Admiral of the Allegheny.”  Dick Krear likes the honorary title and deserves it.  As an unpaid River Keeper, he keeps a vigilant eye on human activities along the Allegheny from Franklin to Foxburg. He has also been honored for bringing together utility companies and conservationists in the construction of osprey and peregrine falcon nesting boxes along the shores of the river.

He has been a “river rat” ever since his boyhood in Emlen.  At the age of ten, he was already navigating a canoe on the river by himself.  But today, as a licensed commercial captain, he is navigating a 24-foot-long johnboat, which he purchased three years ago to fulfill a dream.  He wanted to provide nature tours on the river so people would learn to appreciate it.  Krear named his business Red-Tail Eco Tours, an apt title both because red-tailed hawks are common raptors above and beside the river and because he is also a falconer.

With over 40 years of experience on or beside the river, Krear is eminently qualified to talk about the human and environmental as well as natural history of the Allegheny River.  And we quickly discover he is also a raconteur, full of short anecdotes about river life that he and others have observed.

“Some folks,” he says, “told me that they watched a bald eagle with a two-and- a-half-foot-long carp swim across the river holding on to it.”  Most likely, the bald eagle was towing the carp along the surface until the raptor reached the shore, since none of us believes for a minute that bald eagles can swim.  Whatever the truth of the story, there is no doubt that Krear is particularly happy about the return of bald eagles to the river.  Several fly over during our trip and once he points out an adult standing on a massive nest, which he tells us, is four years old.  Two years in a row two young have fledged from it.

Other wild creatures have also made a comeback.  When Krear was a boy growing up beside the river, there weren’t any beaver.  Now there are more every year.

Wood ducks are another success story.  “They were a rare sight 15 years ago,” he comments as several fly past.

We are taking his five-hour tour from Kennerdell to Foxburg, putting slowly and quietly along as Krear show us “his” river.  The water is high, so we can explore the many backwaters in the flat-bottom boat.

“I love these little channels,” he says as he points out an active bank swallow colony.  He also shows us freshwater jellyfish, a sign of good water, according to Krear.

He names each stream that flows into the river–the mouth of Little Scrubgrass Creek, Big Scrubgrass Creek, Whann Run, and Shaull Run, and around every bend and on every snag, he knows what to expect.

“Usually some woodies around here,” he says and there are.

“Should be some basking turtles on that bank,” he tells us and we watch several eastern spiny softshell turtles slide into the water.  “I just call them leatherbacks,” Krear says.  “I’m seeing more and more of them.””Leatherback” is probably a better name for this aquatic turtle because its tan-colored shell doesn’t have the horny plates of other northeastern turtles.  Instead it is leathery and flexible around its edges.  Found only in Lake Erie and the Allegheny-Ohio drainage system in Pennsylvania, the eastern spiny softshell turtle eats crayfish, fish, and especially aquatic insects.  One of those aquatic insects, a mayfly, lands on Krear’s hat and reminds him that there has been a good caddisfly hatch too.

I’m amazed there are no other boats on the river this brilliant, blue-skied day and few people heard or seen on shore despite the fact that most of the land is privately owned and occasional homes and camps dot the riverbank.  One home sends Krear into a mini-fit.  A landowner is filling in the back channel below his house with dirt.

“What’s he doing that for?” he asks and immediately notes down the location because he plans to report the illegal action.  Previously, he has reported several homeowners who have allowed sediment to run into the river from raw dirt banks below their homes.  Clearly, he takes his River Keeper duties seriously.

Our day, though, is mostly one of natural beauty because much of the riverbank is forested and the neotropical migrants are back and singing–scarlet tanagers, black-and-white warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, wood thrushes, eastern wood pewees, northern parulas, and red-eyed vireos–and once Krear points out spotted sandpipers bobbing up and down on the gravelly edge of the shoreline.

A great blue heron flaps past low and high overhead and a mature red-tailed hawk harries a bald eagle.

“There’s a merg,” Krear says and shows us a female common merganser sitting on a flat rock.  We also get a close look at a red-breasted merganser when we approach one that can’t fly.  “He’s been there for weeks,” Krear tells us.

Red-breasted mergansers migrate through northwestern Pennsylvania in April but move on to Canada where they breed.  We are lucky to see this not-so-lucky, left-behind diving duck and take full advantage to study his crested black head, long red beak, wide, white collar, and rusty breast.

We continue to be amazed by Krear’s knowledge of the river.  He points out ice scars on sycamore trees along the shore.  The sycamores are even-aged and date back to the brutally cold winter of 1977-78 when ice floes knocked the trees down.  That was the time when Krear found a small opening in the river where he put in his canoe and paddled down stream between two 10-foot walls of ice.

“I must have been nuts.  I never felt so alone as then.  But it was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen.”

He has a wonderful memory for how the river has changed over the years. “These little back waters used to be filled with bullfrogs,” he says.  “But when they built the Kinzua Dam it made the water colder so their eggs wouldn’t hatch.”

With no prior warning, he pulls into shore and helps us out of the boat.  We follow him up a short path through a woodland filled with false Solomon’s seals, white violets, jack-in-the-pulpits, and skunk cabbage and along a boulder-lined stream until we reach what is clearly the surprise of the trip–a 20-foot-high waterfall.  Slowly we work our way down through the boulders to the water for a closer look at the falls glittering in the sunlight.  We also stop to admire a large yellow birch tree growing atop one of the rocks, its roots snaking down over its sides, and the beds of common polypody or rockcap ferns that blanket the boulder tops.Krear tells us we are on private property but that he has met the owner and received permission to share this wonderful place with his clients.  I am particularly impressed by the abundance of hobblebush, one of Pennsylvania’s loveliest native shrubs, growing beside the stream.  In most places it has been destroyed by deer browsing, but here it is protected by the steep, rocky terrain.

Krear gives us a running commentary on the plants in the area and those we see from his boat–banks of rhododendron and wild azalea.  But he inveighs against patches of the invasive Japanese knotweed growing beside the river.  That’s one new arrival he is not pleased about.

On the whole, though, the natural life in, on, and beside the river has improved over his lifetime and his boat trip is a litany of praise for the changes.  “More porcupines than there used to be.”  “The bass fishing has improved immensely.”  “This creek was dead from mining.  Now it’s better.”

We watch two American crows chase a red-tailed hawk and 30 turkey vultures circle overhead.  We see another relative newcomer to the river–a double-crested cormorant–and admire the tropical look of a yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly as it flits past.

In 2002 Krear took 230 people on trips that amounted to 1000 miles on the river for him.

“I’ve met great people doing this,” he says.  School students, teachers, outing clubs, birders, camera clubs, Scout troops, and senior citizen groups have taken his nature tours on the river.

“The more you teach people about the river, the better the chances for the river to be protected,” he tells us.

After five hours on the Allegheny with Krear, we leave convinced that this section of the river is in good hands.  And we are grateful to have shared it with such a knowledgeable naturalist.

Twenty-five days later, at the age of 51, Dick Krear died of liver disease.  We were stunned.  He had looked perfectly healthy, his tanned, weather-beaten face wreathed in a graying beard, yet his obituary said he had died after an extended illness.  How well he had hidden it from everyone.  His friends from the Seneca Rocks Audubon in Clarion, where we first met him, were similarly shocked.  They sent a delegation to his viewing and my friend, Margaret Buckwalter, sent me an account of it.

“He was laid out in his river cap and brown T-shirt with a wildlife picture on it.  Good old Dick–defying convention to the end!  He will be missed.”

Most of all the river will miss him.  Who will advocate for it now?

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