For longer than people have existed, there has been Earth’s single longest day of the year — the day in the Northern Hemisphere when the top of Earth is most tilted toward the sun, and the sun is highest in its sky, making for the longest daylight and shortest night of the planet’s annual journey around the sun.

This year that day was Wednesday.

Degawëno:da’s, a current day descendent of the indigenous people in this region now known as the Seneca, spent a good part of the daylight paddling down a Pittsburgh part of the Monongahela River, after having ceremoniously greeted the sun as it rose near its source at Tygart Lake State Park, West Virginia.

Carrying some of that source water with him, he paddled later Wednesday from South Side down the Mon, past industrial and commercial buildings, apartments and storm drain pipes, skyscrapers and railroad tracks. But in his mind, he could see it all back in the time of Guyasuta, the Seneca leader who nearly 300 years ago ruled over what was mostly pristine w and earth, trees and air.

As a celebration of those constant life-giving elements that remain, Degawëno:da’s — a Cold Spring, N.Y. resident and environmental activist whose name translates as He Who Thunders — led a small group summer solstice paddle Wednesday down the Three Rivers.

At the Point, the wiry, tattooed member of the Wolf clan met fellow Defend Ohi:yo (“beautiful river” or the Allegheny River) leader and T-shirt-wearer Mark Alessi, who’d paddled down part of the Ohi:yo/Allegheny, carrying some water from its source. At the confluence they were joined about 20 other paddlers from several environmental groups and causes (including the Breathe Project, Eyes on Shell and Three Rivers Waterkeeper, as well as 3 Rivers Outdoor Co.) and set out down the Ohio River for McKees Rocks, aiming for a patch of sacred ground that not many Pittsburghers know still exists along its mostly industrial impacted riverfront.

Groups that participated in the summer solstice paddle to McKees Rocks on June 21, 2023. (Courtesy of Breathe Project)

Atop the riverside cliffs once owned by McKees that give the borough its name, ancient peoples that we call the Adena — from about 2,000 years ago — built a burial mound.

We know it was a burial mound because in 1896, industrialist Andrew Carnegie had his Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh excavate part of it. A 2002 blue state historical marker at what’s now McKees Rocks’ Ranger Field park marks the site, along with two signs at the base of a steep outcropping that warn “No climbing. Sacred ground.” The pile of dirt dumped there is not the mound.

The marker reads: “McKees Rocks Mound: Largest American Indian burial mound in Western PA (16 ft high & 85 ft wide). It was hand-built by the Adena people between 200 BC and 100 AD and later used by the Hopewell and Monongahela people. Late 19th C. excavations uncovered 33 skeletons and artifacts made of copper & shells.” 

People alive today remember exploring and playing on this outcropping when it was denuded of trees and before a quarrying operation — some stones helped raise the town’s main drag of Chartiers Avenue above the perennial risk of river floods — destroyed the mound.

The mound is no more, the site said to be empty of artifacts and pretty much inaccessible, due to the steep terrain and thick flora, including poison ivy and an armory of thorns, as well as a fence that separates it from the oil tanks and train tracks on the river side. This event was meant in part to ensure the mound and the early people who built it and who were buried here aren’t completely forgotten.

Degawëno:da’s, a current day descendent of the indigenous people in this region now known as the Seneca, regards the state historical marker for the McKees Rocks Mound in the borough’s Ranger Park on June 21, 2023. (Bob Batz Jr./Pittsburgh Union Progress)

McKees Rocks Historical Society President Sandy Saban has been up there, to the spot that to this day is mostly grassy and flat. “The energy is incredible,” she said Wednesday afternoon, as people waited for the flotilla to arrive.

She talked about ambitious proposals currently being considered to turn the mound site into a visitor attraction that could feature terraced gardens and elevated pathways. Her society is in the process of lining Chartiers Avenue with informative pedestals explaining local history, and the first one is to be about the mound. She worries even the historical society won’t be around forever. “We figure that [this] would be a lasting thing to leave.”

Writer, historian and McKees Rocks fan Charlie McCollester, who wrote the text on the historical marker as well as the the book “The Point of Pittsburgh,” told some of those waiting about how this was safe gathering spot for workers of many nationalities during the summer of 1909 Pressed Steel Car Co. strike, visited by Eugene Debs, who called it, “The greatest labor fight in all my history in the labor movement.” 

People talked about how Lewis and Clark stopped near here on their expedition to the American West that started in Elizabeth on the Monongahela. George Washington considered this as the spot for Fort Pitt, instead of what’s now Pittsburgh’s Point. There’s so much history here, and there was so much time to talk about it, because the paddlers were scheduled to arrive around 2:30 p.m. and didn’t do so until about 6:30.

Degawëno:da’s and others had climbed the rocks from the riverside to ceremoniously pour the rivers’ source water on the ground they determined to be close to the original burial mound, before joining everybody else on the other side at the baseball field, by now teeming with young athletes and cheerleaders who seemed to be performing a perfect piece titled, “Summer.”

Emcee Thaddeus Popovich, co-founder of Allegheny Clean Air Now, and Mayor David Flick gave opening remarks, with Flick solemnly telling Degawëno:da’s, “Welcome home.” Then he quipped, “Please everyone — buy a house while you’re here,” which made people laugh. It was the first night of summer. It was beautiful.

Degawëno:da’s was at a loss for words as he shared a bit of his stories — of his forebears, of his life and his river activism, and of the journey of this day, which he called an “opportunity of unity” in protecting land, water and sky that all is, in a practical sense, sacred. Referencing recent train derailments and wildfires, he pledged to help others do what can be done on environmental issues ranging from pollution to climate change. He thanked them. They thanked him.

Cheryl Johncox of the People Over Petrol Coalition was delighted to have come over from Columbus, Ohio, for the paddle and the perspective. “We’re surrounded by all this beauty and life and the water that supports all this life,” she said. “We need to care for all of us.”

So her group took everybody in the group who wanted to go out for dinner — “many cultures breaking bread” — at Carmody’s Grille, a landmark on nearby Neville Island, before she and Zach Bollheimer still had to drive back to central Ohio. They’d started at sunrise at Tygart Lake.

“The longest day — literally,” he said, and they both were smiling.

The state historical marker for McKees Rocks Mound at the borough’s Ranger Field (the pile of dirt and rock is not the mound, which indigenous people built atop the outcropping in the background). (Bob Batz Jr./Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Correction: This story originally misspelled the last name of Mayor David Flick.

Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at

Bob Batz Jr.

Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at