July 2-4, 2022
It was June of 2019, and the crew members of the New River Expedition were marooned at the Base of Sandstone Falls in West Virginia. The expedition paddled 206 miles over the last 8 days and now exhausted, stricken with poison ivy, and facing the river at flood stage, awaited rescue leaving 34 miles of the most exciting stretch of the New River Gorge unseen. Since then, every time I looked at my map, I was reminded that the New River Gorge had to be completed. My wife, Shannon Jordan, and I finally found our chance to finish the trip over the Fourth of July weekend, 2022.
Shannon and I spent the last week of June packing and planning our trip. The weather forecast called for rain, so we packed a large tarp, raincoats, and match-light charcoal because dry wood may not be readily available. The charcoal was stored in a dry bag like everything else and 1 bag was more than enough for cooking 4 meals and a dessert. We packed snacks, lunch wraps, 5 gallons of water, and planned to cook breakfast in a skillet and supper in the Dutch-Oven. Shannon and I used old Boy Scout books to plan the menu. We premeasured each ingredient and bagged them in small Ziplock bags, with all ingredients for a single meal inside of a gallon bag that included a copy of the recipe. This made it easy to find what we needed at once and minimize prep time in the field.
Shannon and I left Dillon on Friday morning, July 1 bound for Hinton, West Virginia; a historic coal mining and railroad town nestled between the confluence of the New and Greenbriar Rivers. We checked in to the Guest House Inn where we would stage up for launch the next day. While in Hinton, we filled gashes in the canoe with JB Weld, walked the town, had dinner out at the Market on Courthouse Square, and retired early for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we loaded up and were on the road by 6:15 am. We dropped off our car at our destination, Cunard, WV, to which we would reach on Monday, July 4 after paddling 34 miles. Our shuttle service arrived, and Adena with Hills-to-Hills Shuttle transported us back to our starting point in Sandstone, WV. Shannon and I clipped everything to the boat with carabiners and she took her seat at the front of the canoe with her paddle at hand. I shoved us from land and took my seat to begin our journey. It was 9:30 am and the sun was shining, making a perfect scene to start the trip.
It was not long before we met our first rapids, which we paddled through with ease, preparing us for the greater rapids to come. We successfully navigated a class 2 rapid after 4 miles of paddling. The wildlife was active along the river; we saw deer, turkey, eagles, and a random wild Pomeranian who barked at us from a hilltop. We brought a fishing rod with us, and we paused paddling on occasion to make some casts. Along with being a world-class whitewater river, the New River also boasts a healthy smallmouth bass population, and we quickly had some bites. Unfortunately, the hook was rusty, and we lost 4 before changing lures.
From the river, the walls of the gorge limited our view of the sky and in a moment, the blue sunny skies turned gray, and we could not even see the top of the gorge walls. We pulled over to the shore and had lunch on the rocks. Thunder echoed through the gorge, so we suited up for the storm before pushing off into the river again. The rain hit and it intensified to what Forrest Gump called “Big ole fat rain”. I could only see Shannon’s rain gear and hood from my seat, and she was steady paddling except once when she paused to look around, probably thinking, “What am I doing out here?”
Shannon and I were not alone on the river, but we were the only canoe. The locals had inflatable whitewater rafts with umbrellas and coolers on board. Some even had speakers. We all moved along through the storms and 9 miles into the day’s paddling, approached our first class 3 rapid of the trip. The inflatables took the Grassy Shoals Class 3 through the center, and I wedged the bow of our canoe into some rocks before the rapid. I told Shannon that we could walk the boat down the side to dodge the rapid, but she said, “We can do it!” We shoved off the rocks and skirted down the river, right side of the rapids. We passed waves to our left of up to four feet tall from the current rolling over the rocks. The rain finally stopped, allowing the sun to come out again, a welcomed sight for both of us.
Shannon and I were now paddling through Grandview Bend- the East Coast’s rebuttal to the Horseshoe Bend of the Grand Canyon. 900 feet above us was the Grandview Lookout point where the New River Gorge Horseshoe photographs are taken. I caught a smallmouth bass from behind a rock and then had to stow the rod to paddle through a rapid. We took on some water as we navigated the rapids, so we wedged the boat into rocks afterwards to bail water. We tucked our rain gear away but kept it within easy reach so we could put it back on at a moment’s notice. The views at Grandview bend were spectacular and the walls of the gorge towered above us.
Quinnimont Rapids Class 3 were next, and we shot through the rapids in the main current. I used all my steering power to make a turn and, though we made the turn, we were dead in the current heading towards the next rock. I yelled, “Paddle Shannon Paddle!” She paddled hard but we still rammed the rock and pivoted over the top, splashing into the water on the other side. It was a narrow escape, but we balanced and made it through. After paddling our goal of 14 miles for the day, we pulled over at a secluded campsite, just before another storm rolled in. Our priority was to tie up a rain tarp and from there, we could unload the boat and organize camp. It rained all evening, but the giant tarp made camp-life comfortable. I lit the charcoal, then we breaded chicken breast and cooked pasta to make chicken parmesan. It was a wonderful meal and we retired to the tent for the night.
I woke up Sunday morning to find that it was still raining. I stepped out of the tent and lit the charcoal under the tarp to percolate coffee. The coffee burped until it was dark, and I delivered a hot cup to Shannon who was in the tent. I then cooked hash browns, Jimmy Dean sausage, and eggs in a skillet over the coals. After a filling breakfast, we packed camp into the canoe and clipped everything in place. We were underway, paddling in the rain, by 9:30 am. Our canoe took on a lot of water at McCreery Rapids Class 2 but we continued on. We met a flotilla of locals paddling the river in their big inflatable rafts and they informed us that White House class 2 rapids were ahead. Shannon and I paddled our canoe through the rapids alongside their rafts. They cheered us on, and we would be referred to as, “the Canoeists” for the rest of the weekend.
Ledges Rapids were next. A set of 3 class 3 rapids that gave just enough space between each drop for us to stop and bail out water. Our canoe was faster than the rafts, but they caught up to us when we were pulled over bailing water out. We knew Silo Rapids class 3 was the next big one we had to watch out for. We paddled multiple rapids we thought could be Silo until we paddled through the actual rapid. We made it through, which boosted our confidence- an attitude we would regret around the next bend. Not all the rapids were named nor marked on the map, and one such rapid appeared on the horizon. I stood up for a good look and decided that we could easily shoot through the middle of this rapid. Shannon and I paddled full speed ahead and came over the horizon to find the current in a V shape that poured into a roller wave on each side with rows of waves behind it. We plunged into the first wave and the second wave wiped us out. We tried to stabilize the boat to ride out the rapid, but it tipped us out. I have been here before and Shannon knew what to expect, but this time, another rapid immediately followed. The swamped canoe was too heavy to stop, and I repeatedly yelled, “Keep your feet up!” We were drug across rocks which battered our legs, shins, butts, and backs. The moments in the rapids were spent fighting to keep things in place. When we made it through, our bags were scattered. Our duffel bag with the pistol and crew gear floated one way and my fishing bag floated another way. I left the canoe to rescue the duffel bag first, then the fishing bag, then balanced the canoe to keep the gear inside, slowly swimming it to shore. Shannon was behind me and rescued both paddles. Without our life jackets, we would not have been able to save our gear. The only thing we lost in the rapids was our coffee percolator.
I finally reached the shore and began unloading the gear onto rocks so that we could bail out the water. I took the crew bag out first and set it down on a rock. Noticing motion, I raised the handle and a copperhead reared back. I was shocked because it was so close to me and quickly crushed his head with my fishing net. Shannon swam to shore with the paddles, and we cautiously finished unloading the boat. Soon our gear was repacked and were back on the river paddling. It was scary to think of how bad things could have been which made us extra thankful to be underway. The sun came out and we had blue skies for the rest of the trip. We paddled on, past the town of Thurmond, WV and selected a camp after paddling 16 miles for the day.
Even though there was not a cloud in the sky, we tied up the rain tarp first, then pitched our tent and the rest of camp. We spread our sleeping bags on rocks in the sun to dry while we cooked. I heated coals and mixed chicken and vegetables in the Dutch Oven. Shannon stepped down to the riverbank and caught a smallmouth bass while dinner cooked. Our friends that we met earlier in the morning passed us and we greeted them as they went by. We had neighbors camping upstream and on the other side of the river from us. They paddled a boat over to our camp to talk twice. They outnumbered us and were a little too friendly for comfort. We felt like they were sizing us up. That night, the lightning bugs flashed all around the gorge. I sat off to the side of our camp in the dark with a flashlight and pistol watching their camp and did not go to sleep until they turned off their lights at 3:30 am.
Monday, July 4, we woke up and repeated the drill, but this time with no coffee. The sun was out, and it was a beautiful day to be paddling. We cooked sausage, eggs, and hash browns on the skillet and then packed the canoe. We had a short 5-mile paddle that morning and our canoe pushed off at 8:30 am to get a head start. We paddled through a few rapids and passed our friend’s camp while anticipating Surprise Rapids Class 4 which we had to be sure to approach from the left side. Like the day before, we had never seen Surprise and we thought we could have passed it multiple times, but there was no mistaking it once we were there. The entrance of the rapid did not look rough, but we could make out splashing behind a drop. Kayakers and inflatable rafts took the rapid through the middle and were tossed up in a splash when they hit the wave. We paddled along the left side of the rapid as we passed the ledge and the giant hydraulic wake behind that followed with just a few feet to spare.
Ahead, we saw the whitewater rafting companies launching their rafts and training their guests. We were paddling into Cunard, WV. That boat ramp marked the farthest North that a canoe can dare travel on the New River. Paddling beyond that point should only be attempted on a guided, whitewater rafting trip. The New River provides only class 5 rapids at close intervals from that point on. Cunard was the goal when we set off in June of 2019 and we were finally there! There was no time for celebration, in fact, some of the rapids that we paddled saw greater celebrations than the completion of the entire river. The boat ramp was crowded, and we had to drive 7-hours home.
We drove across the New River Gorge Bridge on the way home and visited the New River Gorge National Park Visitor Center. There, we could overlook the bridge, the gorge, and look at exhibits of the New River’s wildlife and history. Whitewater canoeing and wilderness survival can be a great team building activity, Shannon and I had much to talk about after we finished our trip. From the headwaters in North Carolina, through the ridges in Virginia, and into the gorge of West Virginia, the New River remains a rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep canyons and is one of the oldest rivers on the continent.