After a day of rest in Lynchburg we loaded the Mary Marshall onto the trailer for her 23 mile portage around the seven dams that lie between Lynchburg and Snowden, where we would begin the most challenging portion of the up-river journey; the James River Gorge. In this five mile section the James River cuts a jagged path through the Blue Ridge Mountains, dropping an average of 11 feet per mile. The Gorge is also home to Balcony Falls, a significant class III rapid with a steep drop and very strong current. With the crux of our up-river journey ahead, the crew eagerly unloaded the boat Tuesday evening just above Snowden Dam and began the ascent toward Balcony.
In less than a mile we had exited the backwater of the dam and were back into swift moving water; the transition from the Piedmont James to the Appalachian James was quickly apparent as we battled our way through noticeably steeper and more successive shoals. About a mile below Balcony itself we made camp, then ferried across the river to scout our lines. For those of us from Lynchburg we consider Balcony our back yard. As we walked up the river bank scouting the familiar drops our vision for the ascent began to take shape; lines were selected, anchor points for ropes noted, and contingencies for disaster discussed. In scouting Balcony itself we developed what we believed to be a solid plan with a high chance of success. Excited and confident we returned to camp.
Back at camp we continued a tradition begun the night before the Grace of the James became the second batteau in the modern era to run the Gorge; the reading of the Frank Padget story. In January, 1854 in the middle of a great freshet, a packet boat waiting to enter the canal lock above balcony broke its line and careened toward the dam guarding the entrance to the Gorge. The captain held the boat straight as his vessel jumped the dam and began a disastrous descent of the Gorge. Passengers abandoned the boat on various exposed rocks and Frank Padget, an experienced boatmen, volunteered to guide a batteau down the flooded river to rescue accident victims. Frank’s skill and daring saved at least six people on his first descent, but with more stranded passengers at the mercy of the river, the batteau was towed back up through the canal and once again released into the furious river. In an attempt to rescue another survivor the boat smashed on a rock and brave Frank “fought manfully for a minute, then went down to rise no more.” Frank’s selfless actions were widely lauded at the time and still live in river lore.
The next morning we woke early as the steady rain that was predicted had settled in hard. We stoked the fire from the night before, ate breakfast, broke camp and readied ourselves for the task at hand. In addition to the regular crew we were joined by Randy Waycaster from the Spirit of Buckingham, Mason Basten from the Grace of the James and Chip Coleman from The Rocky Creek Wildfire. With eight hands on the poles we began our march toward Balcony. Though Balcony is the largest rapid in the Gorge, the mile below it was no cake walk. With grit and determination the crew propelled the boat forward through continuous shoots, boulder gardens, and ledge drops. Skillfully we dodged rocks, followed the path of least resistance, and generally followed the lines selected the evening before. Through cold biting rain the crew, including our additional volunteers, fought the mighty current vigorously; we were only forced to attempt a few drops twice. Where required, ropes were deployed quickly and effectively, with Mason setting most of the rigging. We were also assisted by our friends Ronnie and Dan Tucker who paddled along with us in canoes, helping Mason pull the line at various points. Within less than two hours we had come to Balcony itself. Anchoring the boat in the eddy behind the island which lies to Balcony’s river right side, we scrambled over rocks to take one last look at the drop. Once again we ran through the plan developed the night before.
Balcony is a constriction rapid on the river left bank. Pinched between an island and the bank it only occupies about a quarter of the rivers width. Of that quarter most of the drop is a vertical ledge, with a glassy tongue that is about ten feet wide breaking free in the middle of the drop. The water angles slightly to the left and both sides of the drop feature large eddies. Our plan was to ferry across the wave train at the bottom of the drop to river left. Before beginning our ascent we sent our rigging team to complete two essential tasks. First, they secured our 200′ climbing rope to a large triangular rock that would serve as our anchor as we actually pulled the boat up through the rapid. Second, they positioned themselves above the river left eddy with a secondary line. We planned to use them to ascend to the middle of the rapid just below the lip of the ledge. Once halfway into the rapid we would then take the 200′ line and begin dragging ourselves to the anchor point. As we pulled to our anchor on the triangular rock we would be angling the boat into the flow so that water would try to push our bow hard downstream, swinging the boat onto a serious of nasty guarder rocks. The secondary line crew’s job was to prevent our bow from going downstream as the crew on the boat hauled to the anchor point.
With everyone confident of the plan and the rigging set we began the ferry across the bottom of the rapid. Ben Moore, who had previously been shooting video, jumped on board to help with the ascent and the Mary Marshall glided across the wave train and pulled securely into the river left eddy below the drop. Next, Chip Coleman made his way to a rock just above the lip of the drop and sent the secondary line down to the boat. Tension ran high as we sat in the eddy through several failed attempts to send us the line. After a few minutes, our secondary line was received and secure; time to really put the plan into action. Regardless of a running start from the eddy, as the boat entered the drop we were quickly pushed back downstream. Looking forward from the rear sweep I saw Mason, Chip, and Dan all struggling to hold our secondary line as the river jerked us backward. After about fifteen feet of backsliding the crew was able to get good bites on the river bottom and with the help of the line crew we ascended about halfway into the rapid. Holding fast, the secondary line crew sent us our 200 foot tied to a life preserver. For a tense few seconds I focused on nothing else but pointing the front of the boat directly toward that PFD. Should we miss the line someone would have to go back to the anchor, retrieve it, bring it back across and float it down; a procedure that would take several minutes and burn precious energy. Luckily Kevin Ferrell secured the rope and within a few moments had the line running through a wheel at the head of the boat.
Now came the real work of climbing the steep head of the rapid. The secondary line crew gave us slack and I angled the boat toward our anchor as the crew pulled vigorously on the new line. The boat slowly ascended the steep drop, but with everyone on the boat pulling with all they had we were unable to bring her over the lip of the drop. The wet rope cut hands and muscles burned as the crew held the Mary Marshall steady in the middle of Balcony Falls. Not only was the crew burning out in the stall, our secondary line crew was struggling to hold our bow at an angle that would prevent us from going broadside. At that moment, Kevin Ferrell sprang into action.
Kevin has ten years of commercial fishing experience and is a veteran whitewater kayaker. As such, he has a great deal of experience with ropes and pulleys. In planning this trip we spent a great deal of time discussing different pulley systems to set up on the boat to help ascent rapids; to this point none had been necessary. At the crux of the rapid, when our strength had gotten us as far as it could, Kevin tied a prusiks knot on the line which served to hold the line, giving the crew a much needed break. As we sat in the middle of Balcony, whitewater just inches below our cap rail, Kevin coolly and quickly set up a 4 to 1 pulley system, running the line the length of the boat and anchoring from our stern sweep mount. With half the crew on poles helping the secondary line crew hold our angle, the rest of us hauled on the pulley line, and with great relief the Mary Marshall began surging toward the top of the rapid. Having gained about ten feet, we ran out of line and Kevin repeated the entire process. This time we pulled nearly the whole boat out of the rapid and when we had taken all the pulley would give us, all hands tugged on the anchor line and ascended us safely above the drop. Without Kevin’s skill and quick thinking we surely would have had to descend the rapid and concocted a new plan. As we ascended the drop Kevin yelled to some of our spectators on the rock “I learned all that from the the Blue Ridge River Runners!”- the men standing on the rock were long time club members, including president Steve Emory, who years ago shared their knowledge of whitewater with Kevin.
Elated at the top of the drop, we pulled our secondary crew to the boat across the river on the line they had so dutifully held, and freed our primary line from our anchor. We then made our way to a beautiful beach on the river right bank just above Balcony. Shivering and cold, we could not have been more elated and quickly built a huge bon fire and set up camp. The night before our dedicated friends Chip and Mason had run the Gorge in the dark, dropping off a box oven and two pork shoulders. We spent the rest of the afternoon reveling in our achievement and within a few hours were dining on BBQ.
We count ourselves extremely privileged to have the support of the batteau and paddling community through this project. From the build, to ground support in the Piedmont, to guys standing in the cold river gripping a burning wet rope as we ascended Balcony, we have been blessed with many individuals who are helping make our vision reality. Slowly the support crew drifted off, back to the real world and this morning the crew ascended yet more difficult shoals to the entrance to the Gorge. Tonight we are camped at the Wilderness Canoe Livery a few miles above the Gorge in Arnold’s Valley, where we again are enjoying the hospitality of folks on the river.