After a week of lazily floating down a healthy Greenbrier River, not to mention enjoying the best hospitality West Virginia has to offer, we entered the final and most challenging river of our journey on Saturday, May 12. The New River is a mighty volume of water that begins in North Carolina and forces its way through valleys and mountains for several hundred miles before breaking free into the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge, WV.
After departing Batteau Beach in Hinton on Saturday morning, our challenges were immediate. We picked our way through a shallow technical boulder garden just below the mouth of the Greenbrier. Within a few miles we ran Brooks Falls, a long, strong rapid with dangerous boulders and a steep ledge at the bottom. With only a few navigable lines to choose, we navigated the rapid without rubbing a single rock.
After Brooks, the rapids kept coming. The high waters on the Greenbrier had made for relatively easy navigation. The New, however, was a different story, and we relished in guiding the boat through more challenging rapids.
We soon reached Sandstone Falls, a 23-foot vertical drop. At Sandstone, the water fall is broken into three distinct sections; the most substantial drop being on river right, a lower volume waterfall in the center, and a gradual drop into an old mill race on the left. We approached via shallow water on the left bank until reaching a substansial ledge. The ledge was a 10-foot, 30-degree drop, and we charged it full on. For a moment, I was standing on the front sweep suspended in the air over the pool, and the boat slid peacefully down into the pool. Releived, the crew spent the rest of the evening hiking around the spectacular falls and, as usual, explaining our project to curious onlookers.
Two visitors of particular interest were Daniel and William Richmond. When Marshall arrived at Sandstone Falls, it was known as Richmond’s Falls, for the Richmond Family operated a grist mill at the falls. The Richmond’s have continued to farm the area into the present day, so Daniel and William are the fifth of seven generations of the same family with whom Marshall stayed during his journey. William and Daniel were full of stories of the area, and can both remember a time when a ferry ran below Sandstone. Casually riding his horse down the road and giving rebel yells, Daniel seemed as though we would have fit perfectly in Marshall’s day. To me he represented a piece of what this project is really about; the men who came to this rugged land to scrape out an existence in the face of poor transit and an unforgiving environment.
On Sunday morning, Bill Ball of Talcott arrived with a pair of magnificent Belgium draft horses to portage the boat around the falls. I was unable to contact Bill before the Friday before our portage, but, regardless of the short notice, he gladly agreed to spend his Saturday working the horses so they would be ready for the portage on Sunday. With five logs provided by Bill Parker we began our portage of Sandstone. The horses were hitched to the boat, and we worked to keep the logs underneath the boat as they pulled the boat up the bank, down a long straight away, and back down to the water. After four tense hours, the Mary Marshall was returned safely to the New River. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bill and his friends for assisting us at such short notice. In addition we were assisted by several bystanders, notably a father and son who, along with some of their friends, sacrificed a morning of fishing to help us see the boat around the falls.
With Sandstone behind us, we rolled on down the New River, eager for more rapids and constantly thinking of our greatest test: The Gorge. That evening we made camp on a small island and ate a delicious dinner of roasted vegetables and T-Bone steaks cooked in our Lodge Cast Iron. Through the last few weeks we have become accustomed to sleeping in the rain, and generally just drape a tarp over top of the boat as we sleep. We became progressively lazier in our rigging, and Sunday evening we finally paid our price. With the exception of Kevin, who had the good sense to rig a tight tarp over his hammock, the rest of the crew woke to a driving rain sometime around one AM. Over the next four hours our sleeping bags became completely saturated, and at about four in the morning there was nothing to do but laugh at our plight. In an effort to re-rig the tarp, Wes attempted to push a giant pool of water from our flimsy system over the edge of the boat. Unfortunately, his effort was misdirected and I received several gallons of rain water to the face, adding to the comedy of the situation. Anyone who has spent a night exposed in driving rain knows the feeling of counting the seconds before sunrise, and eventually we stirred and stoked a raging fire before shoving off.
The entire watershed from North Carolina to West Virginia had been drenched with rain and the river responded quickly. As we floated closer to the gorge, the river turned a muddy brown and began steadily rising. Within a few hours we had blown through twelve miles and several large rapids with significant waves trains. Before leaving Hinton we added a 12” board coming off the front nose cone at a 45 degree angle to help prevent water from pouring into the boat as we navigated large rapids. The flare has proved to be incredibly valuable as it not only diverts water away from the boat, but also provides lift as we crest through waves.
At Army Camp we found a beautiful beach, where we tied the boat up and watched the water steadily rise through the afternoon. The crew concocted a series of games including a variation of corn hole, a javelin toss, and shot put. Army Camp was one of the best campsites on the river, and after a massive meal of chili and biscuits, we drifted to sleep under a mercifully cloudless sky.
With only about ten miles to Thurmond, (our final stop before the Gorge) we set off on the swollen river at about ten AM. The boat proved difficult to control in the flat water as numerous cross currents and strong eddy lines appeared in the strong water. As we rode the high water, we crashed through huge waves, just a foreshadowing of what lay ahead in the Gorge.
After over 300 miles on the river our boat developed its first leak. The boat was built with fully swollen boards, and the planks were nailed up with extremely tight seams. When the boards dried up we then packed the seams with oakum, and when the boards became swollen it was incredibly water tight and ridged. This is an incredible asset, however with the pressure put on the boat during the portage, one of our boards just below the water line buckled, separating about half an inch from seven successive ribs. This left little room for the oakum to bite the seams and caused a slow leak. Arriving at Thurmond we were finally in a position to fix the problem. With the National Park’s Maintenance office on hand, we procured a raft pump and had access to electricity. The boat was filled with water, flipped over, then pumped full of air while it rested upside down in the water. About a half inch of oakum had been slammed into a seam that was only about 1/16th to 1/8th inch wide once fully swollen. We removed the oakum, hammered the board back into position, and drove a new nail in each rib. After re-packing the seam, the boat was flipped back right side up, bailed out, and is now as dry as ever.
The boat has been at Thurmond since Tuesday, and we have spent the last six days rafting and kayaking. Thursday we were able to run the New River Dries, Friday we got on the lower Gauley, and every day since Saturday we have been scouting the Gorge. At six feet on Saturday, the Gorge was still significantly higher than we needed for a batteau descent, but the whitewater has been phenomenal. The folks at Adventures on the Gorge have been a huge help and will be supporting us in the Gorge.
Today we visited the wood shop of Virgin Timber where we cut more pieces to exaggerate the flare that has proven so helpful in keeping the boat on top of whitewater. We are tentatively planning on beginning our descent of the Gorge on Wednesday, and the crew is eager to confront our greatest challenge of the trip.
The river is steadily dropping and each day we continue to scout.