Above Royal Glen dam at Petersburg, West Virginia, the South Branch of the Potomac River flows through 12 miles of wild, uninhabited gorge. The river is pinned tightly between North Fork Mountain on the west and Cave Mountain on the east. Peaks in these ridges are over 3,000 feet, and in many places the mountains rise straight up from the river, in cliffs 1,000 or 1,500 feet high.
This is an article from the April 27, 1964 issue
This gorge is called the Smokehole, and the reason why becomes apparent as soon as one lights a fire along the river. Smoke is protected by the gorge's high walls and will hang over a camp, motionless, in a flat canopy. The first white explorers, looking down from the rim, found the hole full of smoke. Below, Indians, who made of the gorge a fishing and hunting camp, burned drying fires on the ledges and in the shallow shelter caves that pock the cliffs.
Places, just as people, can give a first, strong, abstract impression of their character. Thus you file away the memory of a frozen, windy Ontario lake under barren skies. Dark is the word for a camp made on a hummock in a dank Virginia swamp. One week, late in November, we climbed up from the Valley of Oaxaca into the Sierra Madre of southern Mexico. The light was harsh, lemon yellow. The valley floor was yellow from drought. Acre after bright acre of wild marigolds bloomed golden on the sides of the mountains. Our memory of this place is yellow.
Clean is the Smokehole. The river is cold and clear. The water is jade-green marble, with veins of white where the current breaks over scoured boulders and ledges. (This is the same Potomac that flows sluggishly past Washington, by then dark as chocolate, heavy with silt, garbage and sewage.) The cliffs rising from the river are bare and clean. Only a thin skin of vegetation can cling to the rock: mosses, lichens, some stunted white cedar, Virginia pine, columbine, polypody ferns, prickly pear. Frequently landslides strip off even this poor cover, leaving great scars of sterile rock from river level to canyon rim.
On the Cave Mountain side of the gorge there is in some places a narrow strip of level bench. The benches are heavily, softly turfed and are as open and neat as parkland. A few deserted farms and cabins still stand on these benches. The unpainted slab buildings bleach pale, paler, clean, cleaner, season after season.
The clean water, the clean cliffs, the clean benches are insulated in a gorgeful of clean air. Fresh-air descriptions in these days of self-conscious modern living are no longer fresh, having been appropriated by persuaders for deodorants, air conditioners and cigarettes, but the truth remains that the genuine article has body, flavor and kick. Good air feels good, tastes good, smells good. In the Smokehole, for one place, you can sit down, simply breathe—and be doing something worthwhile.
The process of civilizing, humanizing the land has been reversed in the Smokehole. The gorge is less used, less visited by men now than it has been for a century or more. For generations, families of the small, tenacious Smokehole Settlement farmed the benches, made whisky and grazed sheep on the mountain, but the last of these settlers was driven out by a series of terrible floods and landslides in the late 1940s. Now there is not a single permanent dwelling from a point below a federal campground in the upper gorge to Royal Glen, some 10 miles down. Each year now, the few tortuous, abandoned roads that lead over Cave Mountain to the old Smokehole farms get a little worse. There are still at least two of them that are barely passable with a very good jeep and driver, but it takes a rough hour and a half to get from the last hard road to the river.
Most of the canyon is not fished or hunted much these days because of the time and effort it takes to get into the place. Still, there is an interesting and increasing wildlife community in the gorge: deer, bear, turkey, bobcat, perhaps an otter or two, bank beaver and the smaller mammals. There are big trout in some of the river holes.
Among the few regular visitors now are white-water canoeists who have the means and desire for getting into the gorge. We came, John and I, one Good Friday, to clean ourselves up. We came, too, because we knew we could go two days without meeting another soul. We hoped to see bear and beaver and brake fern, and, as always, there was the certainty of finding fine waters to paddle with and against.
One thing should be said about the motives of those who run the Smokehole in a canoe. Anyone who knows enough about white water to consider the trip knows that there are certain dangers in the passage. Paddlers who enter the Smokehole do so at least in part for the pleasure of engaging the risks.
Nowadays you can respectably speak for sin or against motherhood, but the consensus is that anyone who has a good word for moderate risk is either sick or subversive. So be it. The good word for risk is this: there are times when a little risk will do for living what lime juice did for the British navy—keep down the scurvy.
John and I and others are not frustrated suicides. We value our skins as highly as the next citizen. The point is that sometimes it is good to have to protect your skin or else lose some of it. What with seat belts, tenure, committees, plastic goggles, mutual funds, filtered cigarettes, personnel managers and non-explosive firecrackers, it is getting hard to find risk in the normal course of things. You must go farther and farther out to engage in action where the penalties for error, for ignorance, for weakness, rashness and timidity follow immediately, obviously and uncomfortably. This is one reason why accountants gladly descend into caves, salesmen struggle up the precipitous sides of mountains and chemists fall without a trace of remorse through the sky.
This is not to claim that the Smokehole is a monster, man-mangling river. There are other, more dangerous rivers where the penalties for error are more severe, but the Smokehole's white water can force you into as many errors as any river that flows. Canoeists use a numerical scale, one to six, to describe the difficulty of rivers. One is flat water, slow current, flowing unobstructed, safe for novices and motorboats. Six is white water so fast, with so many difficult spots, that only a very good, strong, lucky paddler can hope to get through. On this scale the Smokehole is rated between four and five. This is right for John and me. If paddlers were scored as rivers are we would be four or five. Ten years ago we were sixes, but we have come back a bit in agility, strength and nerve and the luck that flows out of skill.
On that Good Friday morning we put a 15-foot canoe into the water at the head of the canyon. There were still large patches of snow on the tops of both North Fork and Cave mountains. On the river it was mild, clear and calm, one of the first true spring days. At our put-in place the South Branch is only 30 yards wide and the current rips along at five or six miles an hour, a very good river speed. The channel is shallow, littered with boulders, ledges and scree. This is what makes white water—a swift, shallow river going over, around, between big rocks.
The first rapids are a typical Smokehole run. A long boulder with smaller rocks and debris piled up behind it makes a big jagged dike extending from the right bank well past midstream. This barrier compresses the current and forces it toward the left bank, where the canyon wall comes sheer into the water. The current bashes into the wall, rises up and recoils in a great haystack of piled water. Below the haystack is a line of rough standing waves marking the current as it turns away from the wall again. This pattern is sickle-shaped, the main channel approaching the rapids being the tang, and the current as it hooks around the dike of rock representing the blade. The reality can be as ominous as the image.
In such a place you must go in with the current, letting it carry you safely past the rocks on the right but retaining enough control to pull out before the water overpowers you. The turn is the critical move. If you wait too long or swing out weakly, the powerful current will smash a canoe into the canyon wall. If you are shy of the wall, turn away too soon or too strongly, the stern will be swung broadside in the current, and the canoe will swamp or flip over in the first haystack.
We sculled out from the right bank, sidling toward the middle of the stream, the tang of the sickle. As the current caught us, John on the left bow began to draw. He leaned out over the water, pulling the blade of his paddle straight back at right angles to the canoe, drawing the bow to the left, toward the canyon wall. In the stern, on the right, I began to sweep, reaching the paddle out and drawing it back through the water in a long flat arc to move us in the same direction. Fully into the upper curve of the sickle, we took two or three short power strokes—in fast current the canoe must move faster than the water or it cannot be controlled—bringing us to the wall quickly and so close that we could see the individual fronds of tiny ferns growing in the rock. John held his blade for a brief moment, until an inch or so of the bow had been driven into the churning haystack that rebounded from the wall. Then, right as he could be, John dug in and pried—the reverse of the draw stroke, the paddle pushing straight away from the gunwale—forcing the bow away from the wall and across the current. I braced my paddle to backwater and complete the pivot John had begun. We both leaned to the right, throwing the left gunwale up out of the water. For a moment the canoe hung on the vertical side of the big haystack, which lunged and spat at us. John drew, and I swept again to right ourselves coming out of the turn, but our recovery was a fraction of a second slow. For a yard or so we took the downstream standing waves slightly cross bow rather than cutting them cleanly, head on, as we should have done. It was a very small error but enough to draw an instant rebuke from the river. A half gallon of water flew up over the bow and smacked John in the face and chest.
"Hoo," John yelled, partly from shock, partly from pleasure. We made the proper recovery and came through the remainder of the chute straight, bouncing and bucking over the standing waves. At the foot of the rapids we pulled into the shelter of a back eddy.
"I am exhilarated," John said fiercely. It is the way he talks, like the college professor he is, but he is not a pretentious man, only precise in his language. We were both exhilarated, high with the sight, sound, smell and feel of spring, of white water, our paddles and our paddling. As dogs roll in the grass in apparent glee, so that day John and I rolled, careened, bucked, drew, swept, pried, ferried and ran through the white water of the Smokehole. Twice having made good runs in heavy rapids, we beached, took our canoe back upstream and ran the stretch again, just for the hell of it. We were having the kind of day boys do, winter past, the world full of sunshine, a reawakening of life's mysteries and hope.
Even with a good partner tandem paddling is harder than solo—two minds, two paddles react more slowly than one—but there are compensations. Taking a canoe through white water with a knowing partner is to share the experience completely, to an almost telepathic degree. Your bowman knows when you are right, when you risk his neck and when you save it, when you have been indecisive or confident, rash or timid. You know the same about him.
Contrary to how it may seem to those who know canoeing as a lake or lazy river sport, the bowman in white water is not along just for the ride. He is the one who gets the spray, waves and, if things go badly, the rocks in his face. In rapids the bowman is the tactical commander, picking the passages and setting the strokes. The theory is that, using half a dozen steering strokes, he will bring the bow through, around or past heavy water. The sternman has only to make sure that his half of the canoe can follow the bow.
In practice, the responsibility for a passage cannot be so neatly divided. No matter how smartly one paddler operates, he has little time or reason to savor his triumph if the other half of the canoe swamps or wraps around a rock. Therefore the sternman must anticipate what his bow wants to do and help him into position to make his move. The bowman, having made his turn, must judge the effects of his strokes on the stern and help his partner compensate.
Because we were high, John and I came through the Smokehole that day like jugglers, tossing our thoughts and moves between the bow and stern with never a bobble. I would give John a position stroke at the head of a chute. He would catch my move, improvise his own strokes on it and, as he did, throw back something for me to use in the recovery he anticipated I had to make and believed I would make. We could do no wrong. Our tactics always worked. Our turns were sharp and quick. We paddled again like six water men. We had the very best of white-water paddling all that Good Friday afternoon.
One of the unique pleasures of Smokehole cruising is that there are good, empty camping spots everywhere. Thus in midafternoon, when we pulled out on the east bank at Shoock Hollow, we found everything we needed. There was a narrow strip of gravel beach for taking out a canoe and building a fire. There was enough squaw wood on the beach to cook a dozen meals without using an ax. Above the beach was a long, level strip of well-turfed bench where a sleeping bag could be laid out anyplace. Fifty yards across the bench a clear, strong spring rose. Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, even—forgetting the aftermath—Lord of the Flies.
The Shoock Hollow clearing, the bench, is a quarter of a mile wide, a mile long, between two cliffs which jut out from Cave Mountain to the river. The knob above the Hollow has a peculiar configuration and is called Bulls Head. Several small streams come down from Bulls Head, through draws, to the bench and river.
Shoock Hollow once was a principal river settlement in the gorge. A schoolhouse, two farmhouses, a cabin and various outbuildings, all abandoned, still stand on the bench. After supper we sat on the schoolhouse steps to smoke and look around. You can judge the place in two ways. With the eye of a tourist you can see it as a beautiful, romantic spot to camp, to cruise through for a few days. There are the old, empty farms, the narrow strip of open, green pasture, the river running green and white, the swatch of yellow gravel beach, the dark massive ring of protecting mountains, peace and solitude, quiet and clean, clean air.
But you can see it all in another way, as the families who once farmed the Hollow must have, as a hard, lonely and finally impossible place in which to live. There are flood marks on the schoolhouse, and across the river there are two great scars where landslides have cleaned off the cliff. (Try to see and hear the nights in the spring of 1949 when the rising river was an irresistible torrent, when great chunks of the mountain were splitting apart, thundering down into the canyon.) Behind the schoolhouse, up into a draw, you can make out the rutted remains of the road. It climbs, then hangs to the side of the mountain for nearly 10 miles before it reaches a public highway. Thousands of hours of hard labor went into making this precarious trail, and thousands more were spent to keep it open. (Consider this road in the winter. This is high, cold country. The mountains catch 100 inches or so of snow every winter. When the snow came, people on the wrong side of the mountain, in Shoock Hollow, stayed put. They remained there until there was a thaw.)
The strip of riverside bench land is pretty and in the beginning must have been very fertile, but there was never enough of it. There was room for a house, a chicken yard, kitchen garden, a field of corn, a bit of cow pasture, but no place for a real cash crop. The only other land was on Bulls Head. First the slopes were timbered for cash, for fences, houses, furniture. Then the sheep were put out on the mountain. Year after year they scrambled over Bulls Head, pulverizing the earth, stripping away the tough cover with their strong jaws. As the cover disappeared, so did the thin layer of topsoil. The rain and wind scalped the slopes of Bulls Head, leaving them as they are today, dry deserts of rock and red clay, fit only to grow prickly pear and scrub sumac. In the end their own sheep, as much as floods, landslides and isolation, drove the people out of Shoock Hollow and from all the Smokehole Settlement. Just, natural retribution, it may seem, but these people were not state college agronomists, organic farmers living on fat land. Nobody paid them to keep the timber on and the sheep off Bulls Head. In the Smokehole, even from the first, it must have been root hog or die. The families needed the timber and they needed the sheep to make a go of it.
Deserted homesteads anywhere share a common metaphysical odor, compounded of history and tragedy. It is a compelling scent, and the urge to explore abandoned buildings and to speculate on their uses and users is irresistible.
On a ridge above Shoock Hollow there is an empty cabin whose owners were habitual snuffers and because of the habit became virtuosos at the use of empty snuff cans. Snuff cans were wedged between the log walls to keep out the wind and to give body to the mud chinking. The rusty cookstove was leveled with wedges of flattened snuff cans. On the smoke-blackened, packrat-gnawed shelves there were snuff cans filled with wax, with bits of string, petrified sugar and common pins. There was a small rag doll, a generation past its prime, which had been given heart and backbone by a snuff can. The loft of the cabin was ankle-deep in reserve snuff cans.
Another Smokehole house had been more substantial than the snuff cabin. Around the house there was a picket fence, now showing gaps like a 6-year-old's mouth. Straggly rose canes struggled with wild blackberry vines along the fence. Boards were missing from the front porch, but the view of the canyon was as good as it had ever been. The frame of the house had sagged and the whole building was listing, but once, 50, 75, 100 years ago, this had been a brand-new house, the lumber, probably sawed on the place, unchecked, solid, unwarped. Someone (a young man, because the house was built to last) had put it together. Someone (a young man and a woman, because this was a family house) had moved in when it was new. "That loft, when we get the chance, honey, we can finish her real nice. Plenty of room to stand up in, too. We'll need the room."
Either because the last occupants of the homestead vacated in a hurry or because it was too hard to haul it out of the canyon, much of the furniture had been left in this house. In the drawer of a massive oak bureau there was a pile of letters, some of which had not been shredded by nesting deer mice. If there is anyone who will not read other people's mail found in an abandoned house I do not care to know him.
The letters, V-mail, were from a soldier son. In thousands of bureau drawers there must be tons of V-mail saying much the same sort of thing that this Smokehole boy said 20 years ago. "I ate goat." "I talked to a guy thats daddy came from Petersburg and thats aunt is Mrs.———who has a place somewhere around Elkins." "Got your letter about Belle. It is too bad because she was the best dog we ever had. There is a lot of dogs around here but they do not take care of them very good. They are sure skinny and poor."
Through the letters there ran a strain of "How you going to keep them down in the Smokehole after they've seen Camp Custer, Tunis, Naples?"
"A real good buddy of mine who is from a place called Hagerstown which is in Maryland says his daddy could fix it up so as we could get a Good Gulf station. We're just figuring. It gives something to talk about. This buddy of mine figures we could get all the shop tools we need reasonable which the Army will not want anymore once this is over if it gets over."
The V-mail letters, like the landslide scars and the eroded land, are evidence of what had happened to the Smokehole farms. The young ones found out they did not have to or would be damned if they would be snowed in all winter, break their backs grubbing rocks out of played-out land, hunt imbecile ewes in a blizzard, spend the better part of a day getting to town. They got themselves Good Gulf stations and brick houses on the pavement and cars that were too low for the boulders and ruts in the Shoock Hollow Road. Who is to blame them? Paddling tourists who spend only a warm spring weekend in the Smokehole admire the place and then go back to the city, where there has not been a landslide in recorded geological history.
Below Shoock Hollow the character of the gorge changes. The mountains open up a bit, and the river spreads out. There is still good White water, and some fast runs, but the paddling is not as hard as it is above. Our mood changed correspondingly on Saturday. We enjoyed ourselves, but not with the high elation of Friday. We used the canoe, the white water as a means of exploring the gorge. On a dry cliff we found a patch of purple-stemmed cliff brake—an uncommon fern. Drifting in a back eddy we watched a pair of Cooper's hawks spiraling, gliding, passing at each other in their courting flight. We surprised a turkey cock along the river and he disappeared into the brush, running like a horse. We saw bank beaver, bear sign and shadblow in bloom.
On Friday we had no time or thought for anything but the contest between us and the river. On Saturday we gave the river only part of our attention, treating it like an opponent we had already beaten. About two miles above Royal Glen, where we planned to take out the canoe, the river came back at us and in its last try very nearly caught us.
The river was a hundred yards wide when we came to a place where a long ledge of rock lay from bank to bank. The water flowed over this natural dam in four big gaps. Below, there appeared to be a maze of gravel bars and low, brush-covered islands separating the chutes. From upstream there was little to choose among the four passages, but ordinarily in such places the middle channels have more water and are safer. However, we chose the far right chute for no better reason than that it flowed along the cliff and we were hunting rock plants.
We made a smooth, fast run through the breach, but as soon as we were below the ledge we saw we were trapped. The cliff rose straight out of the water on our right. On the left there was a high ridge of rock, starting just below the chute and angling toward the cliff, making a funnel-shaped formation. The end of the funnel, the gap between the foot of the ridge and the face of the cliff, was about five feet wide. We could have squeezed through here except that a big hemlock had either washed down in high water or fallen from the cliff and lodged in this opening. What with the trunk, the sharp, broken stobs of limb, the rock and the cliff, all that was left above water was a hole about the size of an oil drum. All the water in the chute was driven through this keyhole, looking as angry and powerful as the discharge from a fire hydrant.
We made two futile moves to stop in the funnel. We drew to the side of the cliff, but it was too regular to provide a back eddy and too slippery to hold against in the current. We reached for the ridge on the left, but it was no better, the rock having been polished by the river. By then we were within two canoe lengths of the keyhole. It was obvious that, like it or not, we were going to be driven into this small opening by the hundreds or thousands or whatever tons of water rolling down from behind. It was also obvious that if we stayed with the canoe we would hit either the tree or rocks face first. John and I took the only alternative and dived over the gunwale, kicking the canoe ahead of us.
I thought, dive deep and stay under. Having seen the rocks and the hemlock spears at close range, I was certain anything was better than coming up in the keyhole.
Once underwater I experienced a curious, dreamlike mood. After the dive I do not recall swimming, but seem to remember being pulled by a down-welling current. Probably this was directly under the keyhole. Adrenalin, shock, some physiological phenomenon insulated me from the cold. I was comfortable and seemed to have all the time in the world. I opened my eyes, could not see any one thing distinctly, but thought I was in a beautiful place. I was surprised to find that even below the surface there was white, bubbly water. Like ginger ale, I thought.
Finally, in those very few seconds I was underwater, I became irrationally angry with John. I was not worried about him, nor did I blame him for our trouble. Rather it seemed he should be there; that he had wandered off intentionally, like a bad child, to vex me. It may have been a good thing that I had this strange notion. Otherwise there is no telling how long I might have chosen to float along, warm and wondering, in the river of ginger ale. I came up, as I remember, more to find John than to get air.
Oddly, John had had a somewhat similar reaction about me. We popped up side by side and simultaneously said, "Where the hell have you been?" We floated, treading water, blowing, scowling at each other for a moment, and then began to laugh. We laughed, helplessly, as we dragged the canoe up on a gravel bar. (The canoe capsized, but miraculously came straight through the keyhole without damage.) On the bar we began to shiver from shock and the cold water. Then we started to gabble wildly: what we should have done, what we tried to do on the cliff, what might have happened, why we jumped, how deep we dived. Standing drenched and shaking on the gravel, we became as high as we had been on Friday in the white water, but for different reasons. The day before we had been elated by what we were doing, what we could do in the rapids. On Saturday we were high simply because we were so glad to be standing on the gravel bar.
After a time we calmed down, wrung out our clothes and started down the river. The cross-stream dike and the keyhole were the last obstacles. From there to Royal Glen the river is fast but open. We stayed in the middle and paddled cautiously, respectfully, as though a piece of ferocious white water might leap up at us anytime.