Packrafting the New River Gorge Part 1: The Train and Raft

If you hear banjo music, don’t investigate. Just keep on rowing.” – My father

In July of 2013, I paddled West Virginia’s New River Gorge for 35 miles using a packraft – a highly durable, inflatable raft that can be easily stored and carried in a backpack. The idea came about when I was researching two entirely different parts of the country for future backpacking trips: The Alaskan wilderness and the New River.

The New River got my attention because it is one of the best known rivers in Appalachia for whitewater rafting. Its headwaters begin in western North Carolina, it flows through Virginia’s western panhandle, and it continues to draw in tributaries and grow in size and power as it bends along the gorge, carving an ancient ravine into the heart of Appalachia. It is one of West Virginia’s most beautiful, powerful, treasured rivers, and without question, a badass place to get out and paddle.

Most people use commercial multi-person rafts or kayaks to take it on, but the idea came to try a packraft after I had spent some time reading blogs from Alaskan backpackers, who use them to traverse the rivers up there. In the alpine backcountry, rivers often run wild in their glacial melt, rising to levels that even the most experienced outdoorsmen would be risking their lives to ford. But the ones who bring packrafts with them can stop at a big river, inflate the raft, paddle across, pack up and keep moving. Or they can float downstream. Or hike up a pass to the headwaters and float downstream. Or ride into the country on a mountain bike, break it down, strap it to the bow and paddle across. They are durable, versatile, have the packed size and weight of a tent, and allow for more amphibious expeditions than other types of watercraft.

As a result, packrafts have been popular in Alaska for a while, championed largely by Roman Dial, a seasoned backpacker of more than 30 years. Other people like Andrew Skurka used one to traverse thousands of miles of Alaskan and Yukon wilderness, floating for hundreds of miles on the Yukon and Copper rivers. Packrafts have also been picking up in the national parks out west over the last few years, but I had yet to find an account of anyone who tried one on the New River. I wanted to bring this style of Alaskan wilderness traversal to the rivers in my home country of Appalachia.

But the idea didn’t really materialize until I realized that the Amtrak Cardinal line went from Chicago through West Virginia, stopping exactly at the beginning and end of the Upper New River. All I had to do was pack a raft and camping gear into my backpack, get on the train, ride overnight to Hinton, walk to the river, and get moving.

As for the river, it seemed doable from what I had researched. The Lower New River, a stronger, more powerful section with some big Class IV and V runs, was another whole story, but the Upper River was Class III at its worst. Being a popular spot for families to take guided trips, I figured I could handle it at my experience level. And as for a packraft, if it could handle the pristine rivers in the far north, then it could handle the ones in West Virginia.

As soon as it got warm that spring, I bought my own packraft and started using it on the calm Illinois rivers, fine tuning my gear and learning how to maneuver it in moving water. One time I devoted a whole trip just to falling out and getting back in, just so I could practice making a smooth recovery in case I got thrown out into the rapids. After a few months of practice, I finally left with a fully loaded backpack and three days of food in the middle of July on an overnight train to Hinton.

Unfortunately, the Cardinal train shares the track with the CSX freights, who are the bigger priority. Amtrak has to work its schedule around them, meaning that my train left Union Station, Chicago three hours late and got to Hinton six hours late the next day, putting me behind schedule and giving me only a few hours of daylight to make distance. The train passed Charleston and started its upward climb along the river. I stood between the train cars and scouted out the rapids of the Lower River, which were terrifying to look at. One guided raft after another went crashing down the river’s huge Class V torrents – made all the bigger by the recent spike in levels. What the hell was I getting myself into?

I relaxed a bit after the train passed Thurmond, my final destination on the trip, marking where the Upper River ends and the Lower one begins. I got a good look at the rapids I actually would be paddling, which were nowhere near as bad in comparison. That’s not to say that I wasn’t out of my mind with fear and excitement, I was. I was outright terrified.

The train dropped me off in Hinton thirty minutes later, the old timers who I made friends with wished me luck, and I was off and looking for a good launch point. I found one, inflated the raft, strapped my gear on the bow, and got moving with a few hours to spare.

The rapids at Hinton were calm, giving me a good warm up to whatever lay ahead. Rednecks were out fishing on the river banks. Up ahead, a loud crack of thunder echoed across the valley as the setting sun got blotted out by a large storm cloud. The rapids started picking up, and I got my first chance to see how my raft could handle them. It bounced over choppy 3ft wave trains that didn’t seem to bother it one bit. I had about 30lbs of camping gear sealed in a large dry bag and strapped to the bow, which seemed to help stabilize the raft in the random, swift currents.

More flashes lit up the thundercloud ahead and the evening darkened. I knew it was time to get off that river and find a place to camp. I paddled along the left bank, looking for a good spot to pull out. To my right, I noticed an island and figured that would work. I paddled over, spent twenty minutes bushwhacking through thorn bushes, looking for a place to set up my tent. I finally found a relatively flat spot, but I realized that this island had recently been flooded pretty badly. All the weeds were washed over, there was nothing on the ground but wet rocks, and wrecked trees lay all over the place. According to the forecast, more rain was on the way. So if that did happen, my gear could get washed out in the middle of the night. This was actually a horrible place to camp. The night darkened. Time to get out of there.

I spent the next 20 minutes repacking in the dark, got back into my raft, ferried over rapids to the left bank, spent 20 minutes packing the raft into my backpack again, then pushed through thorns, poison ivy, and whatever other kinds of bramble there were in those woods with nothing to light my path but a small battery powered lantern, scrambled up a large river bank to the road with no idea where I was going to sleep that night.

I turned to the north and walked. At the worst, the observation deck at Sandstone falls was eight miles ahead, and maybe I could walk there and wait out the night by the pretty waterfalls. Sure, it would be a shitty walk, but it was a required portage anyway, and it would put me back on schedule. Up ahead, I saw a lit sign by the road. Turns out I scrambled out of the river less than a quarter mile from Berry’s Campground. I went into the campground office and asked Berry if he had any primitive tent sites available. “Yep, we got one left!” Ha! Funny how things work out when you’re too lazy to make plans.

He got me set up and told me I could find someone at the campground pub if the office was closed. No shit? I lit up at this. One thing I always enjoy about traveling to new towns is a good drink or three at the local watering holes. Reluctantly, I decided against it. I had a lot of distance to cover the next day and needed every second of daybreak that I could get. So I got in my tent, ate dinner, and went to sleep.

This story continues in Part 2: The Gorge