At the head of the island the river once again opens into a broad placid pool. In spite of the persistent headwind we moved steadily toward Columbia, Virginia. My brother Alex, who lives in Richmond, had planned to come on board for the day, jumping on at Columbia and taking out at the end of a public road, 655, a few miles later in Starnes. Unfortunately fun goes to die at the end of Rt 655 and a disgruntled landowner who occupied the space between the river and road refused to grant access. Though unable to pole, Alex brought us supplies for that night’s dinner, Halibut from the Bering Sea provided by Kevin Ferrell.
A few miles above Columbia we were met with a series of shoals, foreshadowing the significant rapid that lay a few miles ahead at Bremo Bluff. Cobb’s Falls featured a swift current and a fairly significant drop. Running rapids downstream has been one of my great joys in life. Whether on a pole or controlling the boat from the rear sweep, running them upstream is perhaps more invigorating and certainly more challenging. As we approached the desired channel at Cobb’s Falls, I steered the boat up an eddy paralleling the main flow. At the last second I angled the bow into the current and the real fight began. The crew, having built momentum through the eddy, stabbed their metal tipped poles vigorously toward the river bottom as I struggled to hold the appropriate boat angle. Slowly but surely, the crew propelled the boat through the drop. We poled into the night that evening, ascending a long and significant shoal by moonlight. Dutch oven cooked halibut satisfied our appetites as we listened to the rapid we would ascend the next morning.
The next day we awoke eager to tackle Phelps Falls, a significant ledge rapid at Bremo’s Bluff. After about five miles we reached the drop and attempted to ascend the first of the two tiered drops on far river right. Unable to fight the current, we ferried across the river to the opposite bank. One of the most remarkable features of the new boat is its maneuverability, and particularly its willingness to ferry across swift water. By lifting the upstream side of the boat while set at an angle, we allow the current to push the boat laterally instead of downstream. The same principle is at work on ferries operated by cables and by whitewater boaters ferrying across rapids. Once on the river-left bank we were able to fight the current up to the second drop were we discovered a sneak line behind a small island. The current was quite strong but we were able to avoid the whitewater in the main flow and ascended beyond the drop without incident.
With Bremo in the rear view we set our sights on the challenge ahead: Seven Islands. Through Seven Islands the river searches its way through a seemingly endless archipelago full of log jammed routes, swift shoals, canal era relics, and immense gnarled sycamores. Seven Islands would be our greatest test of grit yet. Our entrance rapid flows from a constricted channel, where the water previously bound by islands breaks free into a wide pool. Once again we nimbly ascended the rapid by eddy hopping–a move characterized by poling up an eddy as far as possible and gaining momentum, then breaking out into the current aiming for the next highest eddy. Steadily we worked our way several hundred feet up through the rapid. At the top of the drop we used a rope to help maintain momentum upstream- one man on the rope, one at the sweep and four on poles.
Once through the difficult entrance rapid, we had but a few moments to catch our breath before we were back in the fight. For several hundred yards we battled a strong current and a continuous succession of Shoals. I had been contemplating this section for months and was thrilled by the grit and determination of the crew. Slowly but steadily we clawed our way upriver with poles, ropes and occasionally jumping into the frigid water to push off rocks. Tired but triumphant we made camp at 7:30 below yet another challenging drop.
This morning we woke up at the foot of the remains of an old canal era dam, the remnants of which form a technical rapid full of rectangular stones that have yet to experience thousands of years of river erosion. Again we rode an eddy on the bank as far as possible and struck out into the main flow. Midway up the rapid we became pinned on two rocks, angling our bow downstream. We tied a rope to a tree upstream, and with hands on the rope and a pry bar forcing the boat off its pin point we had passed the difficult rapid no more than fifteen minutes after entering it. Steadily, we marched up through the rest of Seven Islands shoals, relishing the scenery and eagerly anticipating the pizza and rest that awaited in Scottsville. By 4:00 PM we had made the ten miles or so to Scottsville and were delighted to be joined for dinner by Betsy and Betty, our hostesses in Cartersville.
Having made it to Scottesville we have made around 70 miles in the last five days. The crew is getting sharper every day and we eagerly await the challenges that lay ahead in the coming weeks.