Soon we reached the Pembroke Virginia and the canoes were pulled up onto the riverbank. Ryan and I walked into town while Duncan and Elijah guarded the boats and studied the map. Ryan and I walked about a mile into town, barefoot in the rain, and had to be a helpless sight. We reached Tangent Outfitters who had shoes on clearance under the front shelter. I carefully put on a pair of shoes, trying not to rub the sores on my feet, and then went inside to buy them. The store was a hit because Ryan and I came out with shoes, 4 gallons of water, and a new paddle. We asked an employee if they provide shuttle services and what they would charge, and he did not want to give an answer without his boss’ approval. I shared my number, and we walked in the rain back to the river where the boats were waiting. I was not confident that I would hear back, but we remained hopeful that through the good people of Virginia, God would provide a way. We heated MRE meals under the shelter of the bridge, and our attention was caught by a big truck pulling up to the river.
Shawn Hash, owner of Tangent Outfitters, stepped from the truck, and joined us under the bridge. He asked about the shuttle that we needed for Bluestone Lake, and we planned to be picked up the next day at Lower Indian Creek, WV – to be dropped off at the town of Bellepoint, WV. We flooded him with questions about the river, rapids, and camp options. When shawn talked about Arsenal Rapids and how bad the left side is, Duncan and Ryan jumped in, “We took the left side!” Shawn made the mistake about mentioning ducks, and Ryan started a new series of questioning. Shawn showed some duck pictures and probably assumed that Ryan would never give it back as he scrolled through the pictures. We looked back at the map, and Shawn suggested an island to camp on near Pearisburg Virginia where the AT (Appalachian Trail) passes through. From that point, we would have a 28 mile paddle to reach Shawn, and we promised to be at the meeting place by 4 p.m. tomorrow no matter what. Shawn’s last advice was that the remainder of today’s paddle would only be class 2 rapids, but for Thursday, the plan should be to rope the boats through the Narrows Rapids, take Schumate Falls on the left side, and all other rapids on the right side.
With a good island to sleep on, knowledge of the rapids ahead, and assurance that we have a shuttle for the next day, the canoes were loaded, and the New River Expedition pushed out from under the bridge and into the rain. We were immediately met by class 2 after class 2 rapid and the river moved at an incredible pace for the next 16 miles to our campsite. We passed several inflatable fishing rafts along the way, and they watched as our canoes bobbed up, over, and through the waves.
The rain ceased, and the sun peered through the trees before we reached our island camp. I was in the groove paddling, and Elijah pointed out that the rain was stopped. It was such a relief to have the warmth of the sun on us, and we thanked God for the break in the rain.
The tents were pitched, and much of our gear was strewn out over tree limbs to dry in the sun. We had been thinking about Mexican food all night, and so we decided to walk into town for dinner. After camp was set up, we changed clothes, and cleaned up for the first time since our departure, and paddled to land. I was concerned that the boats could be stolen, and so we pulled the canoes slightly up the side of the hill and hid them behind the brush. We scrambled up the hill, and started the hike to Pearisburg, Virginia. Pearisburg is a popular place for AT hikers, and it is here that the trail crosses the New River.
Many of the hikers visit the Mexican restaurant (La Barranca) that we ourselves were hiking to, and we used some of the AT to get to the town. We hiked 2 miles up hill and through the town to get to the restaurant. Our thumbs were out, and we hoped to hitch a ride to the restaurant, but nobody stopped. We must have still looked dirty. I thought to myself that I would never take for granted the short drive to Del Sol when I make it back to Dillon. We finally reached the La Barranca, and sat down to order. In the corner was a pile of backpacks and a few AT hikers at a nearby table. The hikers were surrounded by other customers asking questions about their journey. “Let the man eat.” I thought at first but I noticed that the hikers were enjoying the attention and that so much human interaction can be hard to come by on the trail. Elijah announced that his next trip would be hiking the AT and none of us had any doubts that he could or would.
Dinner came, and our own discussions broke out. Our morale hit an all time low, and the question was asked, “Why Cunard? What is the significance of reaching this place that nobody knows or cares about?” After a heated discussion that continued into the walk back to the river, the conclusion was reached that there is significance to setting off with a goal that is purposefully not easily attainable, see a major river from the headwaters to the end, and working together to achieve that goal, and the obstacles along the way, even if nobody will ever understand but us.
We made a risky crossing of the rushing river at dusk and settled back into camp. Elijah managed to start a fire despite the fact that it rained all day. Having a fire restored comfort to the crew, and we were again enjoying the moment. We would later find out that Pearisburg, VA was as far as we were expected to make it, and we were here on Wednesday night. We went to sleep, and Elijah stayed up with the fire and maintained it into the morning.
Duncan, Elijah, and I gathered around the jet boil on Thursday morning and made coffee for the safety vs goal meeting. Today would be a 28 – mile paddle, roping through the Narrows rapids, taking Shumate Falls on the left, and all other rapids on the right per Shawn’s advice. We would be crossing into West Virginia in 16 miles and that added a renewed feeling of achievement. We ate breakfast, packed, and prayed for safety before launching the canoes. The canoes were in the water and paddling by 7 am, our earliest launch yet, and we paddled North to meet Shawn by 4. We quickly reached the Narrows where Elijah and I roped our canoes through the rapids. Duncan and Ryan carefully treaded the poison ivy filled embankment around the rapids, and we met at the rapid blowout.
We paddled past shoals and countless class 2 rapids making great pace. Ryan and I heard a plane, and identified an air force B-52 bomber flying in the clouds. I had never seen one before in real life, and you can tell the size even from this distance. Ryan, who is full of military information told us that the AF only has 50 of the B-52 bombers still in action, and that they had to pull one from a scrapyard and rebuild it to keep the fleet at 50. Watching the giant bomber soar overhead was so mesmerizing that we paddled into a class 2 without looking.
We continued paddling and heard the rumble of Schumate Falls ahead. We aligned our canoes to the river left as Shawn had advised us, and could see the rapids ahead. The right side would easily eat canoes, but even the rapids ahead of us was not enticing. Ryan stood for a better view and yelled, “He meant left as in all the way against the rocks left!” Ryan sat, and we forced a hard to port turn. Both canoes gently rode the rapids, and pulled up onto the shore just below the main falls for lunch with a view. The MREs were heating on top of a perfectly flat rock slab, and this was one of the best lunch stops of the trip.
“We’re in hell gentlemen” Duncan said as his Al Pacino football coach side started to come out. “And we can paddle out of hell “one inch at a time!”Morale was high, the location was prime, the sky was clear, and our progress was good. We looked at the map, and found that we had one mile left in Virginia before crossing into West Virginia.
We loaded the canoes and paddled North, crossing Wylie Falls, into West Virginia, and immediately greeted by Harvey Falls. We were ahead of schedule,and pulled the canoes up to a great rock sitting in the middle of the river. The rock was smooth with deep sides. Ryan and Elijah jumped into the river to cool off, and I laid out on the rock to rest for a few minutes. The sun was warm, and I was totally dry for the first time on the trip. At least until Ryan started splashing to make someone help in pulling him onto the rock. We rested on the rocks for a few minutes and then continued to paddle. This was the last sunlight we would see for the remainder of the trip.
We paddled past a few light rapids and shoals before reaching the still back waters of Bluestone Lake. Hunting dogs were leaping into the water playing fetch ahead of us, and as we came closer, we saw Shawn there waiting for us. Shawn greeted us when we came ashore, and it was like meeting an old friend, even though we only met yesterday. We loaded the canoes into his trailer and were off to bypass Lake Bluestone. Much of the New River Expedition was paddled in uncertainty.
Through all of the planning, we could not have known the extent of our obstacles ahead or how we would face them. Most obstacles were within our scope of control to pass but there were times that we were helpless and the plan unknown.
We paddled trusting that God would provide a way in areas that we couldn’t plan, and by blessing us with the generosity of the local people. He brought us through.
Sometimes it takes moments of uncertainty to be able to trust. Quarter 3 of the expedition was over, and up next, the crewmen of the New River Expedition meet the gorge.