In the last week we have kept with our goal of making as few miles as possible each day. The Greenbrier provided a stark contrast to the Jackson. Instead of battling up continuous rapids through filthy water alongside I-64, we have floated leisurely down a beautiful waterway, finally benefiting from the weeks of rains that made our upstream journey all the more difficult. Along the way we have enjoyed exceptional West Virginia hospitality.
Our experience on the Greenbrier diverged sharply from Marshall’s; while we rode the high spring water, rarely touching a rock, Marshall came in September to determine the feasibility of navigation at the river’s lowest. That particular season was noted as being remarkably dry, “In its present unimproved state, and at the season when it was viewed, so very shallow…as to not swim an empty boat…your Commissioners at one time were enabled to advance only three miles in two days,” Marshall recorded in 1812. Despite the labor of moving the boat the 55 miles from Caldwell to Hinton over ten long days, Marshall was convinced that with navigational improvements the Greenbrier would prove to be a viable trade route.
It was a strange sensation to float the first few miles downstream, delighting in the fact that we were achieving our goal while doing minimal work. Sunday night we camped on a sandy beach with a few cat fishermen and shared tales of the river.
Monday morning we got back on the river about ten o’clock, still recovering from the last few days sprinting up the Jackson. The Greenbrier is a picturesque river, gently carving through the mountains. Downstream of Caldwell we admired relics of the late 19th century logging industry. Large wooden cribs built in the middle of the river helped guide great bundles of tree trunks floated down to the mill in Ronceverte on the spring floods.
On our upstream trip we rarely stopped to speak to onlookers; rather than break our momentum we simply shouted “Google the Marshall Expedition!” On the Greenbrier we pulled over to speak to practically anyone who looked at us. Monday we spoke with several groups, and, thanks to both local knowledge and Dr. Trout’s river atlas, were able to locate a large cave. We probed our way through several hundred yards of the tight passages and large rooms before returning to The Mary Marshall.
That night we made camp in the Rattlesnake section which featured numerous rapids and incredible scenery. Tuesday morning we met Bill Parker, NPS ranger who specializes in swift water rescue and has taken a particular interest in batteaux. Bill is also a board member with the Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River, a non-profit that is largely responsible for the wonderful condition of the Greenbrier River. Bill has been extremely helpful in West Virginia, organizing several appearances for us and helping us obtain our special use permit for our passage through the New River National River.
Shortly after picking Bill up on the river bank we came upon the town of Alderson, were a surprise reception awaited us. Standing on the bridge were dozens of town residents holding a banner that read “Alderson loves Batteaux.” Flattered, we pulled over to talk to residents and were invited for coffee at the brand new Alderson interpretive center. A few residents rode along with us for about a quarter mile, and though they were mostly under the age of ten we had 18 people riding downstream. After an hour or so we got back on the river, and spent the next few hours weaving in and out of islands, running rapids and reveling in the downstream journey.
Wednesday morning we visited the Graham House in the town of Lowell, one of the earliest settlements in this part of West Virginia. In 1770, Colonel Graham brought his family to the 63,000 acre land claim in the Greenbrier valley. Over two years they constructed a home and spent the next several decades living in the valley, fighting Indians, and farming. Marshall spent his 57th birthday September 23, 1812 with the Graham family. The 2012 crew enjoyed touring the old farm house, preserved to look much as it would have in Marshall’s day.
Beyond the Graham House we floated downstream for another public appearance. We headed for Talcott, where we planned a presentation for several elementary school classes. Unfortunately the rain kept the Talcott kids indoors, but, once again, our Alderson supporters came through. A bus load of kindergartners poured from the bus, clad in makeshift trash-bag rain coats, and they spent several minutes milling around the boat.
Below Talcott awaited Bacon’s Falls, the most significant rapid on the Greenbrier. Bacon’s is a long rapid the top of which is guarded by several ledges, shallow even at the elevated river level. The right channel beside a magnificent cliff face provided the safest route for the top half of the rapid. After charging through a considerable wave train that splashed water in the boat, we worked to the center of the river as the right bank became crowded with dangerous boulders toward the bottom of the rapid. Bacon’s was a blast, and we looked forward to Lindsey Slide, a short, steep, ledge rapid that creates a sticky river-wide wave. I have talked a lot about the rounded hull of the boat and how that enables us to raise or drop one side of the boat and thus effect our route. We had front surfed several ledge waves on the James, primarily as a means of ferrying, but this was a much more significant feature. Dropping the boat into an eddy, the crew went back to the familiar task of poling us upstream into the hole to surf. No sooner had the nose plugged into the hole than the boat began to move laterally. In an instant the entire boat was in the hole, perpendicular to the river. When “side surfing” a hole in a kayak the boater tilts downstream so the steep water upstream can’t grab the edge of his boat and flip it. We applied the same principle, with all the crew standing on the downstream side of the boat. Every boater knows the feeling of being in a hole, having a great ride, but wondering how it is going to end. We held tight in the wave for a long 10 or 15 seconds before the crew was able to push us forward (actually sideways) into a different current that shot us downriver.
After the excitement of Lindsey Slide and Bacon’s Falls we settled in to a mellow downstream float with several guests on board to John Farrell’s home. John’s family has lived in Summers county for generations, and his gorgeous riverside farm is a part of that legacy. John also happens to be an excellent photographer who captured some great shots of the boat along the Greenbrier. That evening we ate burgers and listened to Jimmy Costa, another Summers County original, pick his banjo. Aside from being an incredible banjo player, Jimmy is a local history buff who had several pictures of New River Batteaux from the late 1800′s and early 1900′s which were a rare treat to be able to examine.
With only a few hours float between John’s farm and Hinton where we had an appearance planned for mid day Friday, we spent much of Thursday running errands. First we scouted our portage of Sandstone Falls, a 23′ vertical waterfall on the New we intend to portage with a team of draft horses. After coming up with a plan we headed back to the Greenbrier to visit Jimmy Costa. Jimmy has an incredibly extensive collection of pre-industrial tools, as well as a deep knowledge of their production and uses in the Appalachian frontier. For several hours we examined his collection and learned a great deal.
Thursday evening we floated a few miles from John’s farm down to Chris Chanlett’s riverside nursery, Ground Works, just a few miles upstream from Hinton. Chris is the president of Friends of the Lower Greenbrier and took us a few miles way from the river to his home to enjoy another evening of WV hospitality.
Friday morning we were back on the river, and within a few hours were at the islands that mark the Greenbrier’s confluence with the mighty New River. Marshall stayed on one of these islands in 1812, but our destination was Batteau Beach in Hinton, just a short distance from the confluence. At 1 o’clock we were greeted by about 50 onlookers in an event organized by FOLGR and the NPS. The crew spent the afternoon talking to Hinton residents about the significance of the batteau era and our journey. Later in the afternoon we made some modifications to the boat that we hope will help divert water as we crash through huge waves on the New, and last night we enjoyed a nice campfire on a beach that, less than a hundred years ago, was the unloading point for batteau cargo in Hinton.
The crew relished the slow place and hospitality that characterized our journey down the Greenbrier. It was an incredible relief after a month of virtually non-stop physical labor. Now we have reached the final and most challenging river of our journey. In the next week and a half we will navigate the New River; the high volume and frequent rapids of which are sure to test our skill and provide great thrills. Once again we eagerly await the challenges ahead.
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