Packrafting the New River Gorge

…continued from Part 1: The Raft and the Train

I woke up an hour past daybreak on Saturday morning, and got my first look at the river from the campground. It was one of the calmest places I had seen yet. The river, though a thousand feet wide, didn’t make a sound. It was violent and chaotic when it wanted to be, and in other places, though always powerful, was entirely serene, beautiful and calm, flowing quietly under a canopy of morning fog.

I was back in the water an hour later, just as the fog started breaking on the mountaintops. I made distance over a long pool as sunlight came over the mountains and breaking clouds, lighting up the river and western slopes of the valley.

I approached Brooks Falls, the first big Class III rapid on the Upper River. I hung by the left bank as each wave got bigger than the last. My cargo-heavy bow seemed to crash through every one of them. Suddenly, I saw a huge four foot drop off up ahead. At the high levels, the boulders were submerged completely in a crashing pour-over, which dropped a few feet and crested into another big wave ten feet down. And I was heading right for it!

I had no time to dodge it, so I balanced and braced myself for the drop. I went over the edge, got spun around and thrashed backwards on the next big wave, and leveled out into calm water a few seconds later. I paddled on, cheering and screaming my head off. THAT’S WHAT I’M FUCKING TALKING ABOUT!!!! BRING IT BABY!!! BRING ON THAT SHIT!!!

The water was calm again. But man, was I ever in a good mood. I passed a choppy section by Brooks Island without much trouble. I found out from a local later that a huge eagle’s nest sat right at the northern tip of the island. I went right by it and didn’t notice.

After more calm, uninterrupted distance, mist rose from the river ahead and the faint roar of Sandstone Falls echoed across the valley. I paddled along the western shore, looking for a portage takeout. I found it, drug my raft up the road, and carried my 30lb dry bag on my shoulders for a quarter mile, dragging the raft behind me. It was exhausting, but I finally got to the observation deck and put all that shit down so I could go see the waterfalls.

The entire river runs over 20 foot drops at Sandstone Falls, and at its base, wooden walkways and trails lead to the lookouts. I made a quick run around the trail system to get some pictures, and then carried my gear downstream to the next launch point.

A few miles downstream, I passed under I-64, which rumbled overhead, sitting on huge columns of concrete. Summer rainclouds passed above, which would no doubt build into thunderheads in a few hours. But at that moment, they brought a warm, pleasant shower on the river.

For the rest of the afternoon, I went from big rapids to calm pools to big rapids, most of which were pretty easy. The weather could not have been better. A nice, sunny day in mid 80’s with a number of cumulus clouds floating along, casting shadows on the slopes of the ravine.

On the longest stretch of calm water, I passed the Hamlet Bridge Piers, four large concrete pillars that once supported a lumber railroad to a boomtown nearby. As I floated along, they passed serenely by my raft, reminding me of the scene in Lord of the Rings when the Fellowship rowed their elven boats past the Argonath statues.

Eventually, I passed the town of Prince and the Army Campground, where I had originally planned on staying that night. But I decided to keep going. It was good day, I was back on schedule, and had four hours of daylight to make even more distance.

The river bended eastward after the Army Camp takeout, and after hitting a hard rapid and leveling out at the next pool, some kayakers caught up with me. They got started at Glade Creek, some ten miles back, and planned to take out at Fayette Station, a wild section of the Lower River.

Up ahead, the roar of Ledges Rapids faded into earshot as the crests of the waves jumped above the water line. It was another Class III.

I paddled to the right to avoid some big waves and caught a good 100 feet of calm water. Down below by 20 yards ahead was a large boulder. I was heading right for it.

I turned to the left to get out of the way and a 4 foot wave flipped my boat completely over.

FUCK!!!!!! I scrambled out from underneath, swallowed a mouthful of river water, and reached for the bow line on my raft. It slipped out of my fingers and the raft floated upside down ten feet ahead of me. SHIT!!! SHIT!!! SHIT!!!

Kicking wildly with my paddle in my right hand and waves crashing all around me, I absolutely had to catch that thing. I tried to pull it back with the paddle and had no luck.

After a good, persistent minute of chasing, I got my hand on the bowline at last. I flipped the boat over, put the paddle on the far end, and lunged forward. No luck! It flipped again, sending me back into the water.

The rapids started to calm down. I thought maybe I could wait it out until the next calm section. No chance, up ahead was another run of rapids. I had two minutes to get back in or risk getting my feet beat up by the rocks.

I flipped the boat back over, put the paddle on the far end, lunged as hard as I could, and made it, sprawling me across the raft, scrambled into position, ferried to shore, stumbled onto solid ground, and completely lost it.

The late afternoon sun hung above the western ridges. Big, lazy white clouds floated by. The river moved on. And in a quiet and lovely grove by the shore, I paced around trying to process what the fuck had just happened.

What had just happened, I thought. I had been kicking this river’s ass up until now. And one wrong turn was all it took for me to go flailing into the water. Needless to say, my morale took a dive along with me. But by some stroke of pure luck, I recovered, losing nothing except a water bottle.

Eventually I calmed down. I went back to my raft to check on my cargo. Everything was intact. The dry bags were strapped securely on the bow, and my gear didn’t get a single drop of water. Somewhere in there, my electronics were ticking away like nothing happened.

I rested for a few minutes and looked out at the river again. It was at the end of the rapids, and I still had a couple hours of daylight left. I wanted so badly to call it a day and set up camp, but knew I needed to keep going. Yes, my boat could capsize again, yes, it could be worse, but it could also be just fine. I got over bigger waves than that one without any trouble, just keep the bow pointed straight and I’ll be fine. I got back in and kept going.

It was calm again, giving me time to rebuild my confidence level. By the time I came around the next bend towards Silo Rapids, I felt better. I knew that if I had to, I would turn right towards those waves and hit those fuckers head on.

Turns out I didn’t have to. I glided over some choppy shallows by the western bank and got chased to shore by an oncoming thunder cloud.

It’s almost impossible to tell when that will happen in that gorge. You can’t see the rainclouds until they’re almost on you. I pulled my raft up to a sandbar, said hello to a Boy Scout troop that was on a trip of their own, and got chased under my raft by a downpour not even ten minutes later.

The storm seemed to last forever. I leaned my raft on a tree and sat underneath for at least an hour, disappointed that I missed my window to set up camp and had to wait out the downpour. Then all at once, it cleared up as quickly as it started.

I walked out to the river’s edge. To the west, a golden sunset broke through the clouds, and to the east, a rainbow stood high above the ravine. The storm clouds rumbled off into the night, the muggy landscape darkened, and I found a flat area in the woods to set up camp. I was four miles south of Thurmond. Good enough.

I slept in the next morning, seeing as I didn’t have to catch the Thurmond train until 6:00pm that day. Another dark cloud came over the gorge by surprise, rushing me to pack up before the next downpour. I had had enough of the river by then, so I packed everything up and started hiking northward on the sandbar right as the rain started.

I reached a rocky outcropping, forcing me uphill. I pushed through some thickets and came out on the Stone Cliff Trail, which parallels the river to the Stone Cliff Bridge a few miles ahead. From there, I followed the road all the way to Thurmond.

Formerly a thriving coal mining town, Thurmond is now mostly abandoned, and has since become a tourist attraction on the river. With fewer than a dozen people still living there, the railroad depot was bought and renovated into a visitor center for the National Park Service. They staff the building with a park ranger, and have different exhibits on display of the history of the town and river.

I got there at noon, and spent the afternoon relaxing around the town and chatting with the ranger, a charming lady in her forties. She left around 5:00, and I waited for my train.

An older man and his wife showed up at the station, where their son was planning to arrive. As it turned out, the older fellow was one of the original guides on the Lower River, which started gaining popularity in the whitewater community in the 70’s. Though at the time, the rafts weren’t nearly as developed, as durable, or as safe as now. It took some time, he said, for people to catch on.

I asked him how many fatalities happen a year out there. “The New River gets about one or so every year, but the Gauley is worse. That one gets about three.” One death a year isn’t bad, I thought, considering a lot of factors.

The train finally came. I stepped out the gorge and into an air conditioned train car. Minutes later I was sitting in the dining car, enjoying a hot meal and a cold glass of whiskey.

The New River is huge, powerful, and unlike any that I have seen in that part of the country. Likewise, the gorge is among the most dramatic vistas in the entire range of Appalachia. Would I paddle that river again or recommend it to other people? Absolutely. In fact, I plan to come back next summer with some friends and take a guided trip on the Lower River rapids.

But the one key mistake I made at my experience level was my decision to go alone. I wouldn’t recommend any beginner going anywhere higher than Class II rapids without experienced people around.

In my case, it turned out that the area where I fell in wasn’t that dangerous as long as you wear a PFD (raft-speak for life jacket). Outfitters often take groups of families and kids on those same runs. The water was deep, and was mostly just choppy wave trains, meaning that it would have been easy to abandon ship and swim ashore if I really had to. But I almost lost my raft and some expensive camping gear.

I realized that along with having people around, it was also a simple matter of leaving my contact info written on the side of the raft and sealed in the cargo. And maybe even rig a GPS tracker on it, so that if I do lose it, I’ll have a way of chasing it down. I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.

Nonetheless, I’m proud to say that I took an Alaskan packraft on one of the oldest rivers in our continent. It truly is a versatile, adaptable, badass way to get down a wild run of water. If you’re experienced, or you’re going with people who are, by all means take on that river and anything it throws at you. I’ll see you there.

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