Backpacking the New River Gorge

Everything feels lighter in the shoulder season – a time of year when the weight of the hazy summer gets blown away by cool air, the sky turns to a dark blue, and deciduous leaves turn gold in the late morning sun. I am the only passenger to step out of the train at Thurmond on Wednesday morning in mid-October. Canyon ridgelines are high and steep. The air is brisk, yet it will be at least a week before the forests turn to red. The New River is raging at a highwater swell. Waves are loud and chaotic. It’s moving fast. I cross the bridge and point my camera back to the town.

I am back to the New River Gorge on another adventure because two river trips aren’t enough. My trail route is scribbled on paper. I pack two days of food. I think I have enough layers. I reach the far parking lot and look for the Southside trailhead. As I walk north, it becomes evident that this was once a railroad track, now decommissioned and converted to a hiking trail. There is virtually no gain, and many rails and cross ties lay on the ground, collecting moss, rust, decay.

I hike east for two hours before the canyon bends northward. After a mile, I go down to the riverbank to look at Surprise Rapid, a bigwater mega-hole that threw me out once upon a river time. True to its name, it’s difficult to see at horizon level. But rest assured it’s there, waiting to give any novice boater a thrashing. I continue north and set up camp near the ruins of the Brooklyn Mines, one of several abandoned mining settlements that once belonged to a thriving coal industry – only to be left behind when the industry, and its people, moved on.

Later that night I see the moonlight on the side of my tent. I get out and walk to the river’s edge. Canyon walls and the rushing river illuminate in blue under a waxing gibbous moon. To the north I see Cassiopeia, one of many constellations in our hemisphere that I learned to recognize as a kid. I sleep uncomfortably. I packed one layer too light in effort to cut corners and now I’m regretting it. I’m not cold enough to be in danger, but enough to have to keep moving. The night seems to go on forever as I sleep intermittently, waking up to shift around and bring up my core temperature.

I get through it and pack up in the daylight. I hike north, passing Baloney Hole Rapid. The back story to its name has to do with Surprise Rapid upstream, where the Surprise Hole would toss you, your canoe, and everything in it in different directions – including your baloney sandwiches. And you would have to gather them up in the flatwater after. Baloney is a smaller rapid by local standards, but at today’s levels it still looks huge.

The trail meets Cunard Access Road and I hike up switchbacks as it climbs steeply along Coal Run. At times the elevation reveals dramatic backdrops of the far canyon rim through openings in the trees. I find the Kaymoor trailhead and continue north. On a terrain map I can see a shelf halfway up the gorge, where the Kaymoor appears to follow. Sheer sandstone bluffs of the Endless Wall line the far rim for almost three miles, and the roar of the Lower New River echoes from far below.

This canyon is old. Its origins date back to before the Ice Age, when a huge continental glacier blocked the river downstream, forcing it to change course and flow into what is now the Ohio River Valley. Yet the New River stayed on its present course, continuing to carve into millions of years of bedrock – even as the landscape around it shifted and folded into the mountains that we see today. I hike on the western side, wondering how many ages it took these walls of rock to compress and erode under pressure and time.

My hunger distracts me from the river’s epic backstory. I find a flat mossy outcropping to sit down and eat. Reception is spotty, but just good enough to receive a message from my boss. One of the website modules is down and our temp can’t figure it out. I try to load it up to investigate, but my phone battery dies in the cool temperature. Shit, I have to get out of here and find a signal. I am four miles from the Kaymoor Mine trailhead. I take off at a hard pace, regretting that I don’t have time to enjoy the view.

Well, almost. The canyon bends to the right and the western side of the New River Gorge Bridge slowly comes into view. I reach the Kaymoor Mine Trail and begin a steep uphill climb out of the canyon. Parts of it are steep trail dirt, wooden stairs, or stepping stones, switching back along an old connector from the west rim to the mine site at the bottom. I get out, sit on a rock, and take out my phone and charger. It’s what I thought it was. I uploaded a code revision two days ago and forgot to update a database table and it broke the query. I fix it, call my boss, and leave on the road for the campground.

Conveniently located next to the trail system, the Arrowhead Bike Farm is a self-proclaimed Biergarten, advertising “Bikes, Brats, Beer, and Camping”. And the other thing they don’t advertise but also have: dogs and goats. It is literally across the road from the Long Point trailhead, offering perhaps the best unobstructed view of the bridge. I leave my backpack at the main building and check it out.

When I get there, I discover that this overlook is an outcrop of high cliffs on three sides and a panorama of 300 degrees. I’m terrified as I timidly crawl along the middle to the vantage point. This is freaking me out, BUT! Holy shit, that bridge is huge! Out ahead I see a perfect end to end view of the New River Gorge Bridge, towering above the valley below. Tiny cars go silently from one end to the other. The river runs wildly along the canyon floor. It is ten times bigger than I remembered from my computer.

I expect my surprise is like that of the Rock Biter from the Neverending Story when he first came out of the woods and looked at the Ivory Tower. Regarded by its creatures as the “Heart of Fantasia”, it was an icon in their land. Likewise, I think that has happened here with this bridge. Matter of fact, Bridge Day Weekend begins tomorrow – and with it, base jumpers, one after another, plummet into the gorge. I, however, have other plans. I hike back to my campsite, unaware that everything is about to get derailed.

I try to sleep and the left side of my head is congested. Fuck. I know what this is. I’m at the onset of a bad headcold, one of about two I get each year. I’m supposed to be out here for three more days and raft the Gauley on Saturday, but I don’t see that happening in this state. I take out my phone, cancel the rafting trip, and reschedule my train from Sunday to tomorrow. It won’t be fun, but it will get me home two days sooner.

The night is cold and awful, but I get through it and pack up in the morning. Fog along the canyon rim frosted over the rain fly. My face is throbbing from sinus pressure. But I’m well enough to hike for one day, even if I do have to blow my nose on the grass. I head out on Gatewood at 9, going for a half day hike to the Thurmond depot.

Dogs bark at me from the houses as I walk along the back roads. I forgot that country dogs are like that. I used to get chased by dogs all the time on my bike, like the Rottweiler in central Illinois that ran after me for 50 yards. Most of the ones here are on a chain or behind a fence, but you never know.

At midday I actually do get approached by one. A small dog resembling a half-grown lab puppy comes up to me wagging his tail. It has been a shitty day, but it’s always good to have a dog come out of nowhere who wants to be my friend. I pet him and he starts walking with me on the road. Away from his house. I’d bring him along if I could, but I don’t feel like talking to the local police. I tell him to “Go on, git!” and he goes back home.

I reach Thurmond at 3pm and wait out four more hours, sick, hungry, exhausted. And without tower service. So I can’t check if the train is on time, which often times with Amtrak it’s not. If I miss it, I’m stranded out here for two more days. In the rain. Because yeah, that’s in the forecast. The canyon darkens, and I see the waxing moon again, carving sharply into the evening twilight sky. At 7 I hear a familiar train whistle and the headlights of #51 rumbling in from the south. I board, check in, and immediately go to the dining car for whiskey and a roast beef dinner. I’m almost too sick to enjoy it. But not quite.

Sixteen shitty hours later, I’m finally home. I get medicine at a CVS and sleep all afternoon, order Chinese takeout, and sleep into the next morning.

I don’t regret it. I got to have two good days on the gorge, and it looks like I am going back if I want to use my raincheck credit. I have $213 at Ace, if anybody wants to bomb the Lower Gauley next season.