The sun glints off the water as I paddle my kayak along the Allegheny River. It’s a perfectly sunny day with a light breeze in the air and the water gently lapping against the yellow fiberglass of my boat. They’re conditions that compare to some of the best paddling I’ve ever experienced, except the shadows cast across my boat come not from towering maples or a canyon wall but from the steel and glass highrises of downtown Pittsburgh.
“You never would have seen anybody kayaking down here 20 or 30 years ago,” says Jeremiah Morrison, group and youth programs manager at Pittsburgh’s Venture Outdoors. “There was too much pollution. Nobody would have been in this water.”
Pittsburgh has transformed itself from the soot-covered Steel City to one of America’s greenest. It’s a fact recognized by President Obama, who selected Pittsburgh as the site of this month’s G-20 economic summit.
The water is busy with kayaks and fishing boats, thick with fish and edged by recreational bike paths. Pittsburgh has become one of the nation’s finest urban outdoor destinations, and I don’t even need to leave downtown to find it.
After launching at Kayak Pittsburgh near the Roberto Clemente Bridge, I paddle up the Allegheny until I tire, using the mild current to return to the starting point. Heading east, I pass under several of Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges — the most of any city in the world, including Venice. Under the graceful spans of the Andy Warhol, Rachel Carson, Fort Wayne and Veterans bridges, I glide past the swooping white form of the Lawrence Convention Center and the red brick fortress of the old Heinz factory.
But kayaking isn’t Pittsburgh’s only urban recreation. A network of five recreational trails parallels all three of the city’s rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio — to form a triangular network reserved for bicyclists, skaters and pedestrians.
Golden Triangle Bike Rental 600 First Ave. (downtown) 415 S. 27th St. (Southside Works) (412) 600-0675 bikepittsburgh.com
I rent a bike from Golden Triangle Bike Rental to get a shoreline perspective.
The Eliza Furnace Trail leads me north over the Smithfield Street Bridge, past Station Square and finally alongside the mash of traffic snaking across Fort Pitt Bridge. It’s exhilarating to travel beside busy commuters and reassuring to see the concrete barrier separating riders from drivers. The route crosses into Point State Park with its landmark fountain spraying 150 feet into the air. It’s a good place to stop, take a water break and admire the Point, where the French and British took turns erecting forts in the 18th century.
Finally, I reach Washington’s Landing. This is the spot where George himself regrouped following a failed attempt to persuade the French to leave the territory. Chunks of river ice capsized Washington on the Allegheny, forcing him to dry out on the island, which is now home to tidy, upscale homes, a marina and markers commemorating the local history.
Segway in Paradise, which melds outdoor fun and high-tech innovation, is my last stop on this recreational tour. Bennie Blue, our “Glide Technician,” takes groups of about a dozen on two-hour tours of the city. Sticking to bike paths and sidewalks, we glide over the Smithfield Street Bridge and into the Cultural District, home of Heinz Hall, the Byham Theater and the Benedum Center. Katz Plaza marks a good resting point, with its eyeball-shaped benches and the refreshing spray of a towering bronze fountain.
The fresh air and vigorous activities rejuvenate me. It’s clear that Pittsburgh has shed its dusty image to become a burgeoning outdoor destination.