19 May 2002
Paddling the Blackwater River: Canaan Valley, West Virginia
The day began at 8AM on Sunday the 19th of May, 2002 as Dave Saville of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and I departed Morgantown and headed to the headquarters of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Tucker County West Virginia. It was here we were to meet the group Dave had brought together for a paddling trip beginning on the West Branch of the Blackwater River which snakes its way through the Valley.
I had been anticipating the trip for several weeks. We ( Betsy and I ) had recently purchased two Dagger "Zydeco" flat water Kayaks and I was anxious to spend more time in the water enjoying the spring weather and getting more experienced with the boat. This trip was to be only the third time I had been in the water in a paddle boat and this time I would be on my own, not in a canoe with someone who knew what they were doing.
So as the day approached, the weather reports were checked many times. The reports went from bad to worse and back to bad. The weather reports looked so grim - highs in the 40s with a chance of snow and/or sleet - it looked like the trip would fall apart. At the 11th hour encouraging emails from Dave and Chip Chase of White Grass Ski Touring Center in Canaan Valley kept the anticipation up. This did the job and about a dozen hearty souls showed up at the refuge parking lot of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge at 10AM. When we arrived we could all see snow covered Mount Porte Crayon off in the distance.
After what always seems to me to be the controlled chaos of organizing and implementing a shuttle, we all ended up at the put-in on the North Branch of the Blackwater, just off Courtland road.
Following introductions all around and some brief remarks from Jeff Shryer, the Refuge Manager, about the section of the Refuge we would be paddling through, we all got in the water and headed down stream. There were roughly 5 canoes, 1 shredder and two single kayaks. It was just about noon when we got on the water.
Here is my ancient route map which I made using ArcView 3.1 GIS software.
From what I gather, the North Branch is often too shallow to paddle. But the recent heavy spring rains had deepened and widened the water course to the point where it was navigable with a canoe.
By any standard, the North Branch is narrow, brushy and serpentine. Challenging for a newbie. The water was moving right along and I instantly had trouble handling my boat in the twisty, tight turns and I was constantly trying to avoid banging into the boat in front of me. I wasn't in the water five minutes when I got into trouble. I somehow managed to get my boat turned sideways in the creek. The current pushing against the side of the boat gave me the feeling that I was going to be rolled over. So without thinking (obviously) I leaned in the boat to compensate. Fine. Good idea. The problem was I leaned the wrong way, lost my balance, tipped the boat and plunged into the chilly, but thankfully shallow water. I was soaked to my chest and the boat was swamped. So there I was standing in waist high water with my boat upside down and me wondering what the hell had happened.
I got my boat upright. It was loaded with water the color of Appalachian Ale. I grappled with the boat against the current and got to stream side which was luckily only a few feet away. I threw my dry bag and paddles out on shore trying to save them from floating downstream and becoming lodged in the brush. I turned the boat upside down in an effort to get some of the water out. I was trying to do what I remembered from reading in books and being told to do should this very thing happen. My efforts at draining the boat met with limited success so I righted the boat and struggled to get it up the bank. By this time Charlie (My Hero!) had seen what was happening and was asking me how I was doing and if I could get my boat up on shore. I told her what was going on and she saw that I was struggling and before I knew it she was out of her boat, on shore and dragging my boat up what was in actuality a short bank, but it seemed like a cliff face to me.
Charlie immediately began draining my boat and asking about my well being.
By this time Dave was there as well with obvious concern on his face. Along with me, they were both concerned about my being soaking wet at the beginning of what was to be a 6 and a half hour trip with on and off snow showers the whole time.
I was determined not to ruin the trip for myself or anyone else so I assured Dave and Charlie I was fine and was ready to get back on the water.
I have to say the only thing that made my continuation of the trip a possibility was being totally outfitted in synthetics and wearing a windproof shell top and bottom. This along with the foresight to at least bring a spare pair of gloves and extra fleece hat made me feel that in spite of my current condition and the less than favorable weather conditions I could continue.
So back on the water with my main concern being the lost gloves and soaking wet fleece hat I had been wearing, I tried to gather my wits that got wet along with the rest of me and paddled on down that windy creek.
The trip was great - in many ways. Just being on the water was fun. Getting the experience of maneuvering hairpin turn after hairpin turn on that narrow and confining creek was, to me, a delightful challenge and what I had been hoping for from the first day I loaded the kayak onto the car.
The scenery? There really was none on this section of the water. We were down so low, especially the two of us in kayaks, that one could see nothing but the grey sky over head and the dense vegetation that hugged the stream bank forming a continuous, narrow corridor.
Battling the current and the brush was not the only obstacle to navigation on this trip.
We went over and around downed trees, barbed wired fences, a pipeline and a foot bridge. Very interesting.
Through all of this and the numerous times getting in and out of the boat, Steven, the other kayaker, never even got his feet wet!
The previous description may not make the trip sound like much fun or very inviting, but it was.
Being on the water in such a remote, but accessible area gave me a feeling that I had had nowhere else but my very first paddling trip in South Carolina on Wambah Creek. To me, this is the allure of getting out on the water and what so many folks already cherish and enjoy.
So, back to the trip.
A lunch break helped all of us refuel to generate the heat we needed to stay warm. We indulged in all we could eat of the delicious and varied items provided by Chip's wife Laurie Little of White Grass Catering. Fresh hummus and salsa, pita and whole wheat bread, cold cuts, cheese and AWESOME brownies which I and others ate with gusto.
To everyone's credit - those who knew of my impromptu bath had no unkind words for me and those who found out about it at lunch had only sympathy, kind words and offers of dry clothes.
The latter I turned down, no doubt foolishly some thought. But to my surprise I was only mildly uncomfortable, not chilled to the bone as I had expected to be. Once again I give credit to the synthetics. I think this, coupled with being down inside of a kayak and not on top of a canoe and the continuous movement while being in the water helped maintain my body temperature. Also having such great company and being in such a cool place kept me focused on things other than my own comfort.
It is hard to say when, but at some point the stream became wider and wider and we were then on the Blackwater River proper. Although the confluence looks obvious on the map, I somehow missed it
We were in open water now. The Alder thickets had been replaced by gnarled and ancient looking hawthorne, sugar maple and yellow birch.
The surrounding area was open and the impenetrable thickets had turned to open fields and vast wetlands. Awesome!
We stopped a couple of places to look around. In one place Dave showed us an area where the Blackwater 100 had been held for many years. This was a big event where dozens of dirt bikes and ATVs churned the fragile wetland into a muddy mess.
There had just been a brief snow squall, but now the clouds were breaking and the sun was punching through. The warmth felt great.
We were getting close to the end of the trip. Thus far the only problems I was having other than paddling were cold hands and numb feet.
But I knew I had dry clothes back at the car so it didn't really matter.
We continued down the river. I was out in front several times and I relished the feeling of being there by myself.
We soon passed a hunting camp and Charlie knew the take out point was near.
It wasn't long after that we were hauling boats and gear up the bank to the cars.
After some refreshments we gathered for a group photo and went on our separate ways.
What a trip!!
Now I will have to get ready for a two day bike from Bartow to Lewisburg that starts tomorrow morning. (21 May 2002)
Will my sore, tired carcass be ready to roll?? Yikes!!!
Thanks to everyone for a great trip. I'm ready for the next one!!
The day was not over yet.
After my kayak at the Camp 70 road takeout was loaded up, Dave and I went to Chip and Laurie's house at White Grass Touring Center and had some delicious food including fresh sushi rolls made by one of the youngsters. Very tasty. I was impressed someone that young could make the rolls.
After grub we started the drive back to Morgantown. It was nearly dark and soon was. It was a hair raising drive with snow squalls making the road nearly invisible. I can remember exclaiming several times: "Where's the fucking edge of the road!" I was a mess by the time we got back to Morgantown.
The next day I got an email from Dave in which he said: "I sure am glad I wasn't driving."
Some things I learned:
LEAN DOWNSTREAM !!
A canoe paddle would have been easier to handle in the tight areas of the stream.
Wear clothes that are easier to change if they get wet.
Pay more attention to what other boaters are doing.
Stay calm and don't get mad when you screw up.
Above I mention Wambah Creek in South Carolina. Just two months before the Blackwater River paddle, I went down to South Carolina to visit long time friend Margo Stilwell Harris. I originally met Margo at her downtown Morgantown bookstore. She opened the store in 1973 and I was a regular peruser. At some point (1976?) Margo asked if I would be interested in working at the store on Monday nights. Monday was one day when all the downtown stores stayed open until 9:00 and Margo understandably wanted that evening off. 6 days a week at the store were plenty!
I told her I would be interested and we then talked about my compensation. Since I was more interested in books than money, it was decided I would work at an agreed upon hourly rate but get paid not in cash but credit of an equal amount for books. And the books would be priced at wholesale. This was great for me! This allowed me to "buy" lavish coffee table books and give them to friends and family as gifts. What fun!
Now, back to South Carolina and Wambah Creek.
Wambaw Creek is a black water tidal creek located in the Francis Marion National Forest. It meanders through the Wambaw Creek Wilderness Area created in 1980. This trip can be run either upstream or downstream using the tide direction.
Source: © 2021 PADDLE SC
Margo had already planned to join a group of local paddlers on a float trip prior to my visit. She asked me if I wanted to go along. If so she could get me a loaner boat.
I was a bit nervous about this. I was not a swimmer, I had never been in a kayak before and I was still suffering from a shoulder injury and did not want to make it worse.
Margo assured me I would be fine, the creek was shallow and slow moving and I would have a life jacket to wear. Now the only deterrent was my shoulder. But I threw caution to the wind and said "Yes!" And am I glad I did.
When the fateful day came, Margo introduced me all around and made sure everyone knew I was a kayak virgin and couldn't swim to boot! Everyone was very helpful and with some assistance I got my boat in the water.
I was immediately entranced. Sitting there in that placid creek and looking out into the woods from water level was something I had never experienced before. I fell in love that day. All thanks to Margo.
The paddling was great. Relaxing, fun, exciting. This was all new to me. We paddled at a leisurely pace and after about 4 miles or so reached our take out point: Hampton Plantation State Historic Site where we had lunch and then headed back up the creek.
Fortunately for us, the tide was coming in and we had an easy paddle back to the launch point.
I was so psyched about the experience when I got home I told Betsy all about it and very soon after that we both had Dagger Zydecos with all the trimmings.
And soon after that I was paddling down the Blackwater River.
See you next time...