Last night at nine o’clock an exhausted but excited Marshall crew poled into Lynchburg where we were greeted at the James River Float Company by a dedicated group of friends and family. Four of the six crew are Lynchburg natives; all eagerly devoured the pot luck meal provided and regaled our hosts with stories of the river. The trip between Scottsville and Lynchburg was beautiful and challenging. The gradient became noticeably steeper than in the first half of the Piedmont, and as we battled successive rapids and shoals the river lost a considerable amount of volume. With more rocks exposed, our journey became all the more arduous; many times we were forced to drag the boat against the current through gravel bars and ledges. Regardless of increasingly difficult navigation we managed to maintain our goal of keeping with the James River Batteau Festival down river pace.
Scottsville to Howardsville
Refreshed by a day of rest in the quaint river town of Scottsville, where we enjoyed visits by old friends and curious onlookers, the crew shoved off again early on the morning of April, 11th. Long time batteau man and VCNS board member Holt Messerly stood on the bank and captured some great photographs. Happy to be back on the river the crew made great time toward our first challenge of the day: the rapid at Hatton Ferry. Hatton Ferry, opened in the 1880′s is the last remaining poled ferry in the United States. Though the state cut its funding several years ago, the Albamarle County Historical Society continues to operate the ferry, and every so often offers motorists and tourists passage between Albamarle and Buckingham Counties. Dr. Trout’s river atlas, which serves as an unparalleled guide to the river, cites an 1818 survey of the river, calling the falls at Hatton Ferry “a very hard passage for ascending boats.” The Mary Marshall tucked behind a small island on river left and a determined crew poled us through the swift channel with relative ease. The next few miles featured small ledges, swift water, and spectacular scenery. Later in the day we faced Goosby’s Island Falls, a rapid generally considered one of the more difficult on the Festival Trail. With a bit more water in the river than the general Festival flow we decided to follow the historic route on far river right, where the old batteau sluice had been. This move put us behind a series of islands into water none of the crew had seen. The entrance to the archipelago was guarded by a hazardous series of boulder gardens. Slowly and carefully we picked our way up through the rocks, traversing across shoals multiple times. Finally we came to the main rapid, a long constricted wave train with strong current and numerous boulders. As with some other difficult rapids we chose to ascend the main drop at Goosby’s with a rope. Dylan Schumacher carried our line to a solid anchor about thirty yards upstream, and with the rest of the crew on poles the Mary Marshall slid to the head of the rapid. One difficulty in ascending rapids is loss of momentum due to the inability of poles to find suitable river bottom to push off, causing us to slide backwards. Using the rope negates this problem by keeping constant upriver momentum. Having successfully navigated Goosby’s we poled through relatively easy water on toward Howardsville where a hot spaghetti dinner waited. By seven o’clock we arrived at Jimmy Crew’s boat landing, where we were greeted by Roger Nelson, Holt Messerly, Mike and Ellen Neal, Doug Berry and Jimmy Crews. The hospitality of the river community has been a real joy of the expedition, and spirits were high as we enjoyed a hot meal and good company. With lows in the high 20′s that night, we awoke at six thirty the next morning to frost on the sleeping bags, 18 bacon egg and cheese biscuits and a half gallon of orange juice provided by Jimmy Crews. There’s nothing quite like a good hot meal on a frigid morning to start the day.
Howardsville to Wingina
After breakfast we pushed off into the frigid morning with the goal of making Wingina by nightfall. Right away we faced a long succession of shoals which the crew battled through in good time. After a few miles of swift water, we tucked behind Sycamore Island into a constricted channel lined with massive trees and characterized by tight rapids. We generally take every opportunity to tuck behind islands as they often provide shelter from our persistent nemesis- the headwind- and provide excellent scenery. Beyond that we made good time through miles of flat water and were within two miles of Wingina by four o’clock. In the next two miles we confronted one of the steepest ledges on the entire river, one that had been quietly haunting me for the entire trip. The river wide ledge is varies from 6” to 12” vertical drop and has only a few breaks. Generally during the festival I run the ledge on the far right bank through a narrow sluice; with that in mind we battled up through the 100 yards of swift water, clinging to the right bank. Arriving at the ledge it was quickly apparent that we planned route would not work- a sharp angle and large tree branch impeded the path. Seeing no other option we decided to ferry across the ledge to the complete opposite bank. What happened next was a true testament to the maneuverability of a tapered boat with a rounded hull. A vertical drop such as this ledge creates a hydraulic which recirculates the water back upriver. Kayakers use features like this to ferry across river all the time, and I have spent a lot of time talking about and thinking about the same application in the batteau. Just as I would in a kayak, I had the crew distribute weight to the downstream side of the boat, raising the upstream edge. I then cocked the boat at an angle, pointing toward the opposite bank. The poles propelled us into the hydraulic, and just as planned the current caught the edge of the boat that was digging and without a pole in the water we ferried laterally to the middle of the river. Losing my angle in a wave train, we lost a few feet only to be rescued by the strength and determination of the crew, back in the hydraulic we completed the ferry into an eddy next to a desirable sluice. Feeling the force of the river drag the boat to the desired location was one of the greatest thrills I have had on any batteau trip, particularly as I glanced behind me at the hazardous rocks that lay in our path should we begin sliding downstream. The move was completed as we popped out of the eddy, ferried a few more feet into the sluice and the boat was straightened up parallel with the flow. With significant effort the crew triumphantly poled the boat though the steep sluice into the calm water above. The next mile to Wingina featured a few minor shoals and ledges, but with an hour we were loaded into the back of Roger Nelson’s pickup on the way to his house for yet another evening of river hospitality. Once again good food and company lifted our spirits and revitalized our tired bodies.
Wingina to Bent Creek
After another great meal of biscuits and gravy from Roger the crew set out for Bent Creek. Fighting a swift current and headwind from the get go, the crew made good time to a set of nasty ledges just below the mouth of the Tye River. One of the ledges has a great sneak on river right behind a small island where a group of dedicated VCNS members built a wing dam to channelize flow around the ledge, and the crew was happy to take advantage of the path of least resistance. The next ledge was somewhat more difficult, and again a rope was used to haul the boat through a channelized wave train on river right. After a few miles of flat water we ascended through several miles of ledges beside the James River State Park, where many curious campers watched as we poled up the river. Regrettably, a few of them declined to loan us their horses. Above the ledges we made good time though flat water to another set of particularly nasty ledges just below camp at Bent Creek. At dusk we battled our way up river to our campsite where we were greeted by Danny Booker, and again enjoyed a campfire and burgers.
Bent Creek to Galt’s Mill
The water dropped noticeably the night we camped at Bent Creek and the next day proved to be one of our most difficult as we battled shallow shoals and a strong headwind. Higginbotham Falls was the first major rapid of the day which we ascended with relative ease on the far river right bank. A few miles later we tucked behind Wreck Island, a route none of us had seen but that allowed us to skip Wreck Island Falls, named for numerous batteaux destroyed there, ”a falls of five feet in something less than 300 yards, which was extremely difficult to ascend with five hands” according to the 1818 survey referenced by Dr. Trout. The path behind Wreck Island was difficult and we were unsure if we would actually be able to make it out at the top. We dragged the boat through several ledges, and only narrowly made it through a series of log jams at the head of the island back into the main flow. The next few miles alternated between ledges and flat water until we made it to the tip of Pettyjohn Island. After fighting vigorously through the swift entrance rapid we spent the next 3/4 mile or so behind the island negotiating tight channels and dragging the boat over rocks. We were granted a reprieve from our day long battle against shallow shoals as we entered the deep placid pool at the head of Pettyjohn Island just at dusk. Poling well into the night, we made camp with a gengerous family cat fishing on the riverbank. Sitting by a warm fire with full bellies, we once again enjoyed the experience of communing with others who love the river.
Galts Mill to Lynchburg
Eager to see home (at least for four of us) by nightfall, the crew was poling by 7:30 yesterday morning. A few miles in we were plesently supprised by the sight of my brother, Alex, yelling and running down the bank. Excitedly, he plunged into the cold river and made his way to the boat. This was the first additional poler was have had thus far, and by the end of the day the crew was very grateful to have the extra man power. The 15 mile sprint to Lynchburg proved to be one of our most challenging days thus far. Constantly aware that we weren’t more than a twenty minute drive from our desitnation, the crew fought through countless ledges and shoals, dragging over rocks and clawing up the river bank determined to see Lynchburg by nightfall. The exhausted crew pushed relentlessly for over 14 hours motivated by the promise yet again of good food and the company of friends and family. The ten miles below Lynchburg is framiliar territory for most of the crew, and we constantly passed landmarks that helped us gauge our distance to town. About three miles shy of the city, and running on little but will power we saw what we thought to be two tubers in the distance. We were plesantly supprised to be boarded a few minutes later by Mason Basten and Bryan Ferrell. Mason guided the construction of my first batteau and has been a good friend and river companion since. Bryan is Kevin’s brother and also an avid river rat. Invigorated by new energy, and with more hands than ever at the poles, the crew marched briskly upriver into the setting sun. We caught our first glimpse of the city at twilight and as we pulled up to the boat landing in the dark were greated by the cheers of at least 40 onlookers. Exhausted, we climbed the stairs to Mason’s shop and feasted on burgers, beans, pasta salad, deviled eggs and copious amounts of water. We are truly blessed to have the support of our familes and friends, and of all the times I have come home, this was easily the most meaningful. In ten days on the river we traveled about 130 miles through the magnificant Virginia Piedmont. Along the way we time and again witnesssed the generosity and good will of people on the river. We enjoyed beautiful weather, incredible scenery, and the thrill of living and breathing life on the James River. In a few days we will continue our ascent and as we march into the heart of Appalachia, where a whole new set of challenges and spectacular landscape lie. The crew can’t wait for the adventures ahead.