“We’re not going to make it!” screamed Kevin Ferrell over the roaring river as we shot from Upper to Middle Keeney rapids just right of our intended line. Under a heavy sky and driving rain we desperately tried to move the boat to the left as massive waves crashed all over the boat. Adrenaline surging we careened toward a large sieve affectionately known as “Meat Grinder” at the right side of the entrance to Lower Keeny.
In the week leading up to our descent of the Gorge the crew made at least ten runs in kayaks and rafts at water levels ranging from 4 ft to 6.5ft. In familiarizing ourselves with the run, planning lines and discussing contingencies, our confidence grew daily. The Gorge is a place of incredible beauty and power. Marshall wrote in 1812 that the river, previously spreading over a bed 300 to 400 yards wide, becomes “compressed by the mountains on each side, into a channel from 20 to 60 yards wide…”, those limits even more narrowed by “enormous rocks which lie promiscuously in the bed of the river, through which it is often difficult to find a passage wide enough for the admission of a boat”. The result of such compression is whitewater characterized by big waves, strong current, and massive holes. While we scouted for a week, it should be noted that Marshall’s voyage was ”performed by boatmen who having never before seen the river, were reduced to the necessity of selecting their way at the moment, without the aid of previous information.”
Along with familiarizing ourselves with the run we were waiting for the water to drop out. At six feet the Gorge features huge standing waves and a fast current in the pools between rapids. The river was slowly dropping, but with more rain further away in the watershed we were sure a rise was in the near future. On Monday the 21st we decided that unless the river rose dramatically Wednesday the 23rd would be our day. We put the word out to the paddling community, the NPS and Adventures on the Gorge, the raft company that would be carrying our gear through the Gorge.
On Tuesday we made our final preparatory lap, and spent a great deal of time scouting. The Keeney’s were our biggest concern; taken separately none of the rapids presentd a problem. Together, Upper Middle and Lower Keeney would be our most challenging series on the river. Kayakers and rafters can catch eddies and break the three up but our momentum and difficulty in maneuverability meant we would run all three at once. Upper Keeney is formed by a large rock, Whale Rock, in the middle of the river, constricting the flow against the right bank and creating a large wave train. Middle Keeney is a similar constriction rapid formed by boulder gardens on the right and left bank, concentrating the flow in the center of the river. Lower Keeney is formed by a large sieve on river right and is best run on river left but favoring the right side of the tongue at the top of the rapid as several large holes and rocks guard the left side of the rapid. From the top to bottom of the Keeney’s is a few hundred yards, and it would all happen very fast in a batteau. Our biggest fear was being unable to get far enough left at the bottom of middle and crashing the boat into the sieve on river right at Lower Keeney. We developed a daring plan to sneak behind Whale Rock at upper Keeney and run on the left, which would set us up perfectly for Middle and Lower. After a few more hours of scouting we returned to the boat for a good nights sleep before the big day.
Wednesday morning came with a strange combination of calm and excitement as we prepared to take on the greatest challenge of our journey. After unloading the boat and removing two of the walk boards to have access for bailing we were ready to go. Slowly the entourage began to gather and at about 9:30 a corps of about twenty kayakers, several rafts, and safety from the NPS departed Thrumond to see the Mary Marshall through the New River Gorge.
The first several miles from Thurmond were uneventful so Kevin and I had plenty of small shoals to warm up on since we had spent an entire week away from the batteau. Surprise, the first rapid of the day, features one of the biggest hits on the river; fortunately we skirted the entire thing and didn’t get a single splash of water in the boat.
The only regret I had going into the Gorge was not having contacted a man called Squirrel, a legendary guide from Class VI who has accumulated over 3,500 trips down the Gorge in the last thirty years. It is safe to say he knows the Gorge better than anyone else alive, and secretly I wished I had been able to consult him. Fortunately Dave Arnold, one of the owners at Adventures on the Gorge/ Class VI had assigned Squirrel to a raft that day. Through the day Squirrel, along with another Class VI guide, Nugget, proved valuable resources in discussing lines. Beyond their knowledge their enthusiasm was a huge confidence booster.
Beyond Surprise things began to pick up. After negotiating a series of small wave trains we arrived at Upper and Lower Railroad. Whenever possible we chose lines that would both require the least manuving and avoid the biggest hits in an effort to keep the boat dry. Upper and Lower Railroad were both run without incident. The next few rapids went just as well, and soon enough we had arrived at our first real test of the day: The Keeney’s. Scouting with Squirrel and Nugget, Kevin and I quickly determined that our plan to sneak behind Whale Rock and skirt the big hits on Upper Keeney was a potentially disasterous move. The majority of the current flows right, and a steep ledge guards the entrance to the left channel where we wanted to eventually arrive. We would have to shoot the boat through an incredibly swift current, much of which piled up against Whale Rock- should we miss our move we would likely lose the boat.
With a new plan to run the meat of the rapid we returend to the boat, and were greated by cheers from the crew when they were told of the new plan. After ferrying across the river we lined up on the far right of Upper Keeney with a hard left boat angle. As the boat dropped over the lip of the rapid we shot into the whitewater like a dart. Standing at the front of the boat as we crashed through waves, pitching up and down and side to side, water pouring into the boat, Kevin and I focused on only one thing; getting the boat to the left. Coming into Middle it was clear we were too far to the right and as Kevin screamed “We aren’t going to make it!” the crew abandoned their bail buckets for paddles. In the chaos of the rapid each member of the crew dug into the churning water desprate to move left. Toward the end of the wave train the boat slid sideways. Going broadside into Meat Grinder was about the worst thing we had contempltated on the river, and as Kevin and I dug with everything we had to straighten the boat, the crew continued their furious paddling. All the while I heard Squirrel’s reasuring voice from the eddy, ”You got it! Keep working!”
No sooner had we straightened the boat out from Middle than we plugged directly into Lower Keeney, we slid by Meat Grinder and began working the boat back to the right to avoide massive holes downstream. Repeatedly slamed in the face by waves I struggled to maintain footing and about halfway through Lower Keeney a wave crashed into my nose cone with such force that it broke my walkboards and sent me flying back in the boat. I clawed desperately back to the front of the boat. We had lashed the sweeps in for fear of just such an event and I dragged it out of the water and once again began moving right. Within seconds we passed through the rapid and punched into an eddy on river left.
About two chaotic minutes passed from the entrance to Upper Keeney to the eddy at the bottom, and the crew was extatic to be safely at the bottom of the drop. Still riding high on adrenaline we took a break to eat lunch before plugging into the next rapid.
After the Keeney’s, several big rapids came in quick succession. Next we had to face Dudley’s dip. Mostly washed out we ran a line that avoided the biggest waves on the right and a boulder garden on the far left.
After Dudley’s came Double Z, the most technical rapid on the river, it features several rocks and holes that must be avoided, necessitating big moves in the churning rapid. Coming into the rapid with a hard right angle we grazed the “fingernail rock”on the left. After dodging the hole on the left, we took the boat back center to thread the needle between a hole on the right and a massive boulder on the left. We then guided the boat further left to avoid yet another crushing hole on river right. The entire day to that point had felt incredible; I was picking the lines and Kevin was expertly working the rear sweep to put the boat exactly where it needed to be. In the midst of Double Z I was overwhelmed with a feeling every whitewater kayaker knows and relishes. The rapid slows down and the crushing noise becomes a soothing backdrop to the focus and clarity gained when your only concern is putting your vessel exactly where it needs to be. Rather than fighting blindly, each stroke feels as though it drops at exactly the right time and place. This is what I love about whitewater and I have never know this feeling so keenly as I did standing on the front sweep as we manuvered the technical whitewater of Double Z.
Our elation built with each rapid and with Double Z in the rear view our confidence soared. The next few rapids were pure joy, and once we passed the massive hole at Greyhound Bus Stomper, we called Chip, Dustin, Trent and Dan, onto the boat; all friends from Lynchburg who had helped out along our journey. The last three rapid were amazing as we crashed through huge waves thoroughly confident of our success. At Fayette Station, the last rapid of the day, we took huge hits and pulled into the eddy at the take out with plenty of water in the boat and wearing enormous smiles. It was a priceless moment, sitting underneath the massive New River Gorge Bridge and having just completed the final and most difficult part of our journey without incident. Still riding high on adrenaline, we relished our achievement before heading for Adventures on the Gorge to escape the rain.
While the Gorge represented a huge challenge and accomplishment for us, Marshall certainly viewed it with different eyes 200 years ago. After having viewed the James, Jackson and Greenbrier as prime for navigational improvement, Marshall declared, ”with respect to New River a judgment cannot be formed quite so decisively…the difficulties are great and deserve to be seriously considered.” Despite the difficulties presented by the “velocity of the current, and the enormous rocks which…interrupt it, the number and magnitude of rapids and falls, the steepness, cragginess and abruptness of the banks” Marshall was decidedly in optomisitc about turning the New into a transportation artery. Following in Marshall’s footsteps we often marveled at how confident he was in the mission of taming rugged Appalachia and providing for the safe and reliable movment of goods and people through it. The canal never made it, but Marshall’s vision was ultimatly realized by the railroads, and later highways and interstates that opened the American heartland to development. Marshall’s journey is an incredible story that highlights the vision our founders had for this Nation and the lengths they were personally willing to go to to effect it.
I feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to shed light on Marshall’s story and in doing s0 to live on the rivers he saw as so critical to our Nation’s development. Along the way we met wonderful people who opened their homes and lives to us. We relished the feeling of going to sleep after a long hard day only to get up and do it all over again. We looked forward to specific challenges and conquered them as a cohesive group. I can’t say enough about the Wes, Ford, Kevin, Dylan, and Isaac. Without their work ethic and attitude our misson would have failed long ago. Our biggest argument in seven weeks together was over whether or not buzzards vomit when they feel threatened. It was an incredible journey full of priceless memories and I am immensely thankful for all of the generous support and encouragement we met with along the way.
Check out this video from Adventures on the Gorge of our run through Upper and Middle Keeney: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpM9A6F6GDc
Chase Cam footage from our friends at Eddyflower: http://www.youtube.com/
Also, big thanks to Mark Hill, a video boater from Adventures on the Gorge for taking photos.
Josh Mays also contributed several photos.