We arrived in Buchanan in the midst of a cold, driving rain that persisted for the next day and a half. Our friend Jimmy Lewis opened his home to us and we all enjoyed showers, clean laundry, and sleeping inside during the storm. By mid-day on Monday, April 23 we were back on the river, fighting a river swollen by the weekends rain. The next few days the crew pushed through countless shoals and intermittent rain as the river wound back and forth through the mountains in a series of seemingly endless ox bows.
The James River and Kanawha Canal was never operational beyond Buchanan, but the twenty odd-mile “unfinished division” between Buchanan and Eagle Rock is home to some incredible canal relics that were never put into operation. One such relic is the Gwynn Lock and Dam, owned by Jim Blankenship and Ken Harless. Canal locks raised or lowered canal boats, thereby eliminating the gradient of the river and allowing for a calm flat body of water for traffic. Since Gwynn was never used, it still features a batteau lock built to allow batteau traffic to continue as the dam was being constructed (in locks that were actually used, the batteau locks were permenantly sealed once the actual canal lock was opened).
The crew spent the afternoon of Wednesday April, 25 enjoying Jim and Ken’s company, feasting on chili, and marveling at the stonework of the Gwynn Lock. That night the crew went to sleep full, rested, and happy to have spent the day in good company.
Once again the rain pounded through the night. The river had jumped with the past weekend’s rain; but much of the water was absorbed into the ground. By Thursday morning the ground had been saturated and we awoke to a river that was begining to turn a rusty brown- a pre cursur to a much more significant color change and spike in river level as the mountain streams began pouring their excess flow and silt into the James.
As the rain persisted and the river rose I un-characteristically turned my phone on to check for messages. We received the shocking news that a good friend and high school wrestling teammate of Dylan, Isaac and I had passed away on Tuesday night. Josh Woodring was a loyal friend, a hard worker and a joker who could bring a smile to almost any situation. Together we shared the trials of long wrestling seasons and the joy of countless late nights and camping trips. Josh served his country proudly as an infantry man, with two tours in Iraq behind him. With heavy hearts we abandoned the boat, and walked through the rain to Eagle Rock where we would get a ride back to Lynchburg. Josh is deeply missed and was loved by many.
On Saturday evening we returned to the Mary Marshall, eager to make the next 45 or so miles upstream to Covington by Friday evening in order to participate in the VCNS Annual Conference; the focus of which was the John Marshall Survey. After driving to scout some difficult sections of the Jackson on Sunday morning, the crew set out again at about one in the afternoon. With the river still significantly higher we struggled for over four hours to make the two miles between Gwynn Lock and Eagle Rock- by far our slowest two miles of the trip to that point. Regardless of river level it was a relief to be back on the river where our challenges are immediate and the solutions are within our grasp. The crew pushed hard Monday and made about 12 miles, camping a few miles shy of the head of the James at Glen Welton.
Eager to put the James in the rear view, we pushed hard toward the Jackson on Tuesday Morning. By noon we had put the 200 or so miles of the James behind us, but their was little time for celebration. Marshall notes in his 1812 report that “difficulty increased considerably past the mouth of the Cowpasture River on the North Fork James.” The North Fork James is now known as the Jackson River. With over 200 feet of elevation gain between the head of the James and Covington of 25 miles, the narrow and often shallow Jackson River promised to be a battle every step of the way.
As anticipated, we fought through a seemingly endless succession of shoals and rapids, frequently jumping out to drag the boat upstream and often setting ropes. Bit by bit we battled upstream to the rapids at Rainbow Gap, about three miles up from he head of the James. The long continuous class III rapid is not as steep as Balcony, though it is considerably longer and more technical from a downstream perspective. We went about the familiar task of setting anchors and rigging pulleys, and slowly ascended through the boulder garden.
Wednesday Dylan Isaac and I left for Ohio to pay our respects to Josh. With over twenty miles to be made through the difficult waters of the Jackson by Friday and three men down Kevin, Wes, and Ford stepped up to the plate. Assisted on Wednesday by our friend from Lynchburg, Dan Tucker, they slowly walked, roped and pullied their way up the Jackson. With only three of them Thursday they removed everything from the boat, sunk her, and pulled her under a low water bridge with only 16” of clearance. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon before they were beyond the bridge and with only two men at the poles they clawed their way through whitewater until 11:30 that night to a bridge where we could easily rejoin them. Wes, Ford and Kevin’s dedication and perseverance is a clear illustration of why we have been so successful as a crew; each member is selflessly dedicated to our goals and willing to work tirelessly to achieve them.
Dylan, Isaac and I returned to the boat at 1:30 Friday morning. Dylan and Isaac’s father and brother, Rob and Robert, had come in Thursday night to help us sprint the last 15 miles to Covington. All day Friday the crew battled rapids. The hours rolled by as we moved slowly and steadily toward Covington, often paralleling I-64 we were teased by the knowledge that while we struggled toward Covington, passing motorists would see it within a few hours. Around two PM we were surprised by JRBF Captain Mike Neal who was waiting for us under the I-64 bridge. Eager to lend a hand, Mike jumped on board with no guarantee of when or where we would end that night.
As the river approaches Covington it takes a sharp turn to the west; no more than a few miles away as the crow flies, the river meanders frustratingly in the wrong direction. With extra hands and determination the crew marched steadily into the night. The full moon poured light over the river, and though tired and eager to see the finish line, we delighted in our task and situation. Around midnight we were still about two miles from the boat ramp and decided it was time to call it quits. After going to get our car and taking Mike to his hotel, we drifted off to sleep at around two AM under the lights of the Wal-Mart parking lot and to the rumbling of trucks on I-64.
On four hours of sleep we continued our journey, and by nine AM had arrived at the boat ramp in Covington, just a short distance downstream from the mouth of Dunlap Creek, where Marshall took out in 1812. The crew was elated to have realized our goal of poling over 225 miles upstream from Richmond to Covington. Within a few hours we had the boat on display at the Magic in the Mountains festival in Clifton Forge. Last night we attended the VC&NS banquet and enjoyed the company of other history buffs and river enthusiasts.
In the past month we have worked long hard hours, enjoyed beautiful scenery and experienced the hospitality of people on the river. Like all good journeys it had low points and was full of challenges. Through it all we have remained a cohesive and positive group. Right now we are sitting on the Greenbrier river just across from Howard Creek, where Marshall began in 1812, and are relieved and excited to begin the downstream journey.