Most of the 220 paddlers who participated in Saturday’s 7th annual Loyalhanna Sojourn did so in a kayak. But Jason McCartney, 46, of Unity Township completed the roughly nine-mile float on a stand-up paddle board.

“This was my first time doing this,” he said of the sojourn. “The whole thing has been a good experience. It’s well organized.”

The sojourn takes participants from Cardinal Park in Latrobe to Gray Wing Park in New Alexandria, floating along the winding Loyalhanna Creek — a top-5 contender for Pennsylvania’s 2021 River of the Year.

I caught up with McCartney around the excursion’s halfway point, while paddling in a kayak myself. While he had been stand-up paddle boarding for about four years, Saturday was his first time partaking in the sojourn.

“I finally got a board I felt comfortable enough going through the rapids on,” he said. “You start out on lakes, and you work yourself up to rivers and then rapids.” The float features just one or two sections of “Class I” rapids, which, according to paddlers.com, are classified as “easy, smooth water; light riffles; clear passages ... and gentle curves.”

After we both finished the sojourn, which took about three hours, I asked McCartney about his thoughts on the scenic waterway.

“Oh man, it’s beautiful. We’re lucky to have it here,” he said.

McCartney’s feelings towards the Loyalhanna highlights the goal of the event, according to Susan Huba, executive director of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association (LWA), which hosted the sojourn with Latrobe-GLSD Parks and Recreation and Keystone State Park.

“The whole purpose is to raise awareness for this great resource that we have in our backyards,” Huba said of the LWA, which was founded to address the various pollution impacts throughout the watershed and to preserve natural areas. “And people can take advantage of that and enjoy the stream.”

Every so often, I’m reminded of why I love living in western Pennsylvania. Saturday morning’s event was certainly a reminder why, as I participated in my first-ever Loyalhanna Sojourn.

Registering for the sojourn was very simple — something I did at the last minute Thursday afternoon by calling Latrobe-GLSD and signing up over the phone. The cost was $23, which included a nifty event T-shirt.

Boaters began gathering at Cardinal Park around 8 a.m., with temperatures in the high-30s and water temperatures in the upper-50s to mid-60s. Soon, a line of a few dozen multi-colored kayaks started to form along the pathway leading to the park’s launch.

That’s where I met John Dudzinsky, 64, of Herndon, Virginia. He was waiting near the launch for his sister and brother-in-law of Unity Township to begin the float.

He said he was visiting his family, and they asked him if he wanted to take part in the sojourn.

“This sounded like a pretty fun day ... I’m excited,” he said. “I’m really glad they’re doing it.”

Last year’s sojourn was cancelled amid the pandemic and largely because the creek’s water level was too low, Huba said. Luckily, with Thursday and Friday’s rain showers, Huba said the water level “was perfect” for Saturday’s event.

The stream’s rate of flow was at 584 cubic feet per second on Saturday, up significantly from last year’s measure of less than a hundred when the sojourn was cancelled.

I launched my kayak — well, my brother’s kayak — around 9 o’clock. As somewhat of a kayaking “beginner,” I was reassured to know that safety boaters were on-hand to ensure paddlers safely completed the float.

Each person whom I encountered during the sojourn could not have been more friendly: Some brought gear to fish, others floated in groups, and a few, like myself, went out on their own — all taking in the Loyalhanna’s picturesque views and serene sounds of nature.

One kayaker I passed thought he might have seen an eagle soaring above the trees lining the stream. A few geese did fly right over my head.

Paddlers, for the first time this year, could document the various forms of wildlife they observed during the float by participating in the “Sojourn BioBlitz.” Participants were invited to take a moment to snap a photo of a plant, fungus, animal, insect, etc. that caught their attention along the float and post it to iNaturalist.

“It encourages people to post interesting wildlife that they see or or anything else along the way,” Huba said. “It gives us an idea of what’s out there that people are seeing.”

Paddlers finished the sojourn in New Alexandria, where they could listen to live music and order from food trucks.

All in all, I’m glad I was assigned to cover the sojourn and take photos — and even more glad I was able to participate. It was a much welcomed reminder that Pennsylvania has so much natural beauty to offer … even right here in our backyard!

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