After an hour on the river, I'm ready for a pitch of white. Except for a few ledges, the river has been gentle. It runs smooth and dark as far as I can see.
This narrow trail—called the South Fork—never seems to change. Bend after bend, it winds northward, cutting horseshoes through these North Carolina mountains until it meets the North Fork to form the New River. From water level, we are not aware of the pattern. We simply paddle, letting the current carry us along the outside bank, where the water runs faster and deeper.
It is a Sunday morning in July 1980. Dave rests his paddle across his knees and looks back, smiling. "This is it, the trip we wanted," he says.
We plan to paddle the dark-green canoe from West Jefferson, N.C. to Thurmond, W. Va.—260 miles through northwestern North Carolina and the two Virginias. We know the river becomes rugged when it enters the New River Gorge at Thurmond. We'll concede the gorge to the wild-eyed boaters and weekend rafters who enjoy dropping over five-foot ledges and plowing through towering haystack rapids. Where the gorge begins, our trip will end. Ours is a peaceful beginning through the rolling farmland and tall stands of birch and pine in Ashe County. Circling a bend, we startle a half dozen wood ducks, which settle behind a fallen sycamore downstream.
August 19, 1984
Dave and I are modest paddlers. We wear no crash helmets, no wet suits. I wear L.L. Bean shorts and Carolina-blue sneakers, in keeping with my image as a University of North Carolina fraternity man. A floppy red hat keeps the sun off my neck.
Dave is an old high school buddy. He joined the Army the year after he graduated, with low marks on his report card and a dream of playing college basketball. I was finishing my senior year when he left for boot camp. He was first stationed in Hawaii as an infantryman. The year before, he'd been assigned to Fort Dix, N.J., where he learned of the death of his parents. His father died in April, his mother in May, both from cancer.
I attended his mother's funeral in Winston-Salem, where nearly forgotten aunts and uncles offered Dave enough advice to plan a dozen futures. He received a discharge shortly afterward, and he said he wanted to get away. I mentioned my plans to canoe the New River, and soon I had a partner—one who'd never been in a canoe.
Early this morning my parents dropped us off at a narrow bridge near West Jefferson. We loaded the 16-foot canoe to the gunwales with boxes of supplies and gear. We carried sleeping bags, a tent, fishing poles, a water jug, an ax and saw, extra boots, life jackets, bottles of suntan lotion and a roll of topographical maps in a waterproof tube. What we had thought were the bare essentials nearly sank the boat when we shoved off.
By late afternoon, we're tired and cramped from kneeling in the canoe. Every white-water guidebook I've read advises paddlers to kneel to make the boat more stable in rapids. But that advice seems pointless today: We faced no rapids of any consequence, hardly a ripple.
Our conversation lags as the boat drifts past a garden of gray whale-backed boulders. Worn smooth, they give an idea of the age of the ancient New River. At 100 million years, it is generally considered by geologists to be the second-oldest river in the world. Only the Nile is older.
The New broadens and gains strength as it travels northward, slipping silently past towns like Mouth of Wilson and Ripplemead and showing its fury at places like Buzzards Roost and Foster Falls.
I first learned about the New through newspaper stories when I was in high school. In the mid-1970s I read about a power company's plans to dam the upper river valley and force its residents out.
The Appalachian Power Company wanted to build two hydroelectric dams in Grayson County, Va. The reservoirs were to flood nearly 50,000 acres and displace more than 3,000 people living along the river. But many of the residents fought the project, scoffing at the company's promise that economic prosperity would accompany the recreational development of the reservoirs. To these people the loss of their homes and farms, their churches and cemeteries, their simple way of life, would have been too great a sacrifice.
In 1976 the project was scrapped after the state of North Carolina and a diverse coalition of conservation groups joined forces with determined residents. The Congress and the North Carolina legislature designated a 26½-mile stretch of the river as wild and scenic, which preserved the valley.
A year after the New was saved, I learned to canoe at Buzzards Roost, the first treacherous rapid of the river and the place where one of the dams would have been built. As a student at UNC, I returned to that stretch often, sometimes with a canoeing partner, sometimes alone. After setting up camp I often wandered up the dirt road leading to the quiet community of Cox Chapel.
One trip I met Elze Cox. He was sitting atop a tractor in his potato patch, not more than 100 yards from the frame house where he was born in 1910. He recounted proudly the history of Cox Chapel. It was settled after the Revolutionary War by Lieut. David Cox, who had discovered the valley years before as a hatchet boy in one of George Washington's surveying parties.
Elze was a fine storyteller, with a wonderful rolling laugh. One tale involved a band of slaves who planned to paddle to freedom in a dugout canoe. They knew the river ran northward to Ohio, a free state, but they weren't aware of its dangers. Until the flood of 1918 the rapid at Buzzards Roost contained a hole that sucked water down and spewed it straight back up. The slaves paddled blindly into the trap, and there they drowned.
Four days into the trip, Dave and I navigate Buzzards Roost without a hitch. We breeze past the road leading to Cox Chapel. I don't tell Dave about Elze. His mind is elsewhere. He hasn't said so yet, but I think he is growing tired of the river. He talks often about getting settled in Greensboro, possibly enrolling in college and playing basketball—not about what the river holds for us tomorrow.
Later we stop at a campground for a hot shower and a cold beer. What I envisage as a brief respite for our sore backs turns into a weekend of carousing in nearby Sparta, N.C. For three days we cruise the parking lot of the Sis and Bill Dairy Bar with high school kids. This is Dave's idea of fun, and I go along, with regret. It is becoming clear that we've come to the river for different reasons.
Sunday arrives, and we leave Sparta by mid-morning. I paddle from the stern, Dave from the bow. The broad river runs slowly, rippling from the breeze blowing in our faces. Three bends farther downriver, Dave rests his paddle. Three hours later, he lies back toward the center thwart, resting his head on a life jacket.
When we stop for lunch, we lean back in the shallows and let the cool water run over our sunburned shoulders. "It's beautiful up here, but those damn trees don't talk back," Dave says. We finish our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and paddle without speaking. He tells me he's had it.
Perhaps his quitting is best. Basketball and women have become stale subjects, and neither of us seems willing to talk about the confusing years since high school. We no longer are trusting friends. I think Dave is trying to forget that he'll never see his parents again, and I'm willing to let him try.
Late in the afternoon the river circles out of the woods and runs alongside a highway. We stop on a narrow sandbar; Dave packs his gear. Before paddling out of sight, I see a car slow down by the roadside. I hope my partner makes the next bus to Greensboro.
A mist is rising as I pass under the steel bridge between Independence and Galax, Va. I want to get away from the highway, out of sight of the rusty cars and small gray houses backed up to the river. At dusk I stop at the head of a slender island to camp. I'm tempted not to put up the tent, but I'm reluctant to sleep without a plastic roof over my head.
Wistfully, I remember summer nights when I slept under the stars as a child, not worried about the rain or bugs, just happy to be in the woods. It's hard to imagine being so uncomplicated now. I paddle in a plastic canoe and keep gear in plastic bags and metal boxes. I carry a portable stove, a kerosene lantern, two Styrofoam coolers and a plastic sleeping bag stuffed with plastic feathers.
For the sake of the trip, I need to dispose of these amenities. I'll send the extra gear home tomorrow, maybe the next day.
Tonight I'm tired. It's harder paddling alone, but ours was a collision course from the start. Dave was looking for a party on the river; I came to live simply for a while.
Another thing, too: The first time I dreamed of canoeing the river—it was months ago in some UNC classroom—I knew I wanted to canoe alone. Now I'm alone on the river after all, beyond the reach of my parents and commitments and responsibilities.
I awake facing the prospect of bypassing Fries, Byllesby and Buck dams in the next 15 miles. I paddle into the backwater above Fries by late morning and walk into the small town looking for a truck to haul the canoe around the old stone dam. An old-timer sitting in a pickup chuckles when I offer him $20 for a lift. Soon I'm riding in the dusty seat next to him, listening to his stories of the treacherous rapid below the dam.
"Last boy that tried to paddle that Double Shoals Rapid didn't make it," he says. "The rescue squad had to send a boat down after him. They got him all right, but he was scared. They say he had left finger holes in the rocks he was clinging to."
I'm relieved to know that I'm avoiding that rapid. But the relief evaporates when the old man warns me about another dangerous spot just before the final dam. I cannot escape that rapid, he says as we follow a gravel road as bumpy as a washboard, down to the second dam.
My plan is to put in below this dam and paddle down to the final one. Then I'll carry the canoe around to the river below. I can't help but feel nervous down here. A breeze rising off the river stirs the dark canopy of leaves overhead. The old man tells me it means rain. He points to dark clouds building on the horizon.
Before I shove off I roll out the topographical maps for a look at the rapid waiting three miles downriver. A guidebook warns of "irregular and unavoidable standing waves" created by the rocky riverbed. As a precaution I stretch a plastic tarp across the front half of the canoe and lash it to the thwarts with nylon rope. It should deflect water splashing over the bow in the rapid.
I relieve my nervousness by paddling hard until I hear a roar in the distance. It is several minutes before I see the rapid, guarded closely by high gray cliffs on the right. I stand up in the stern, zipping my life jacket as I search for a calm V of water to enter the narrowing river.
The current takes hold, drawing the canoe down into the rapid. Boulders littered with debris from spring floods pass quickly on both sides. The boat drops over a sharp ledge, the bow plunging down into churning water. I feel engulfed by the river.
Suddenly a wave rolls over the bow and nearly fills the canoe. Cold water pours into my lap. The boat rocks precariously as it grinds over a staircase of ledges. It handles like a half-sunken log. I dig the paddle deeper, careful to keep the boat headed downstream, feeling its weight in my arms. It hangs on a final ledge before slipping into calm water.
It takes most of the afternoon to carry the canoe and gear around Buck Dam. After setting up camp I paddle to the center of the river and wedge the boat between two rocks. I assemble my bamboo fly rod, pulling the leader through the shiny metal eyelets, and then tie on a yellow popping bug and cast it into an eddy below a log. I work the spot a half dozen times, drawing the bug across the pool with gentle flips of the rod. Suddenly the water explodes, and the line goes tight. The rod bends almost to the water. The fish breaks the surface, its mouth clamped firmly on the bug.
I break the neck of the dark shiny bass with the handle of a knife and draw the blade along its belly. I flick the entrails into the water, rinse the fish clean and roll it in pancake mix and fry it in a greased skillet. That's supper, along with blackberries picked in a cow pasture and biscuits bought in Fries.
The next morning I paddle until I reach the bridge at Austinville, Va. I find the post office and dispose of the tent, the coolers and a plastic bag stuffed with clothes. I'm left with the shorts and the T shirt I'm wearing, a rain parka, my sleeping bag, a string hammock and the tarp. I consider my hat indispensable. Its brim is encircled with fishing bugs.
Back at the canoe I roll out the maps. I have been out here nine days, seven on the river, and I have traveled 105 miles. My destination of Thurmond is still 155 miles away. I give myself 10 more days to get there. I reach Claytor Lake in Virginia in two days and Bluestone Lake in West Virginia in six.
I enter the backwater of Bluestone as wet and cold as I have ever been. The night before I paddled until dark and decided to sleep under the stars. I built a roaring fire and fell asleep with the tarp wrapped around my sleeping bag. Hours before dawn, I was awakened by rain and a frog sitting on my stomach. It apparently was searching for the highest ground it could find.
At daybreak, paddling is drudgery in the driving rain. Clouds hang low over the dark hollows where streams empty into the widening river. I spot two young deer standing on a slender shoal. They don't jump until I'm close enough to see the white markings on the yearling's back. Two graceful strides carry them crashing into the brush and out of sight.
I paddle most of the day through the dark flat lake. When I come within sight of its dam, I ask a fisherman to carry my canoe around it in his pickup. He agrees, but not before telling me that the rain has swelled the river below. I shrug off the warning and offer him $20. He'll take only $15. "You might need the rest," he says.
Below the dam the river is overrunning its banks. On a narrow island two orange-and-blue tents stand in a foot of water. I pass Hinton, its rows of houses carved into the mountain. Shrouded in clouds, the town looks lonely.
The canoe bounces over a long stretch of standing waves above Tug Creek. I hear a roaring up ahead. The river drops out of sight, a sure sign of treacherous water. I paddle to the left bank and walk down a narrow road below the rapid, named Brooks Falls. I look for a chute, but there is none. The river pours over a long series of ledges, spinning in dangerous hydraulics below each drop.
I lean on the scarred wooden paddle that I've used for the past 230 miles. I consider carrying the canoe around the rapid, but I've had enough. Thurmond is only 30 miles away, but I'm tired, dirty and hungry for steak and pizza. It's time to go home.
I walk back to the canoe and paddle across the river to a row of neat houses. An old bachelor asks me why I'm walking through his backyard, and after hearing my story, he invites me to share his supper of ham and eggs and sliced tomatoes. Later, he brings out a box of cigars, two glasses and a fifth of Ancient Age.
"I figure I got one of the best places to live in the United States," he says. "A nice home on a double lot with a deep, beautiful river behind for fishing and trapping." I sleep in a bed for the first time in 16 days.
The next day, I'm home in Greensboro. I will shave my beard in the morning and give Dave a call. I'll return to college next week. Then my life will become cluttered again with books and booze and thoughts of girls. When I'm bored in class, I'll remember the trip, those lazy afternoons when I had nothing better to do than lie back in the stern and sleep. I will try to imagine the river between Hinton and Thurmond that I didn't paddle. I'm sure that stretch is beautiful, too. There will be other summers to go back and see.