The New River has always held a revered position in my mind. When I was a beginning boater in the mid 90’s, the New was considered a class III+/IV test piece, at least amongst the crowd I ran with, one of those rivers used to gauge your progress like the Ocoee and the Gauley. I ran the Ocoee plenty back then, but never made it up to the New. So, I was really excited when our new boating buddy we had met at Cheat Fest invited my son Jake and I out for a weekend of whitewater boat riding.
I would like to start things off with a bit of a disclaimer: I don’t claim to know this river well. However, we squeezed in five laps in two and a half days. The New fluctuates level and temperament to huge degrees; things went from just under 3’ to just under 2’ two days later. We scouted the big rapids on the first trip down and then mostly went from memory on the lines. Jake and I were the only kayakers on this mission. Our friend Curtis and his two buddies Craig and Mike were kind enough to show us down one of their home rivers, as well as the local countryside and restaurants. That’s West By God hospitality at its finest for real. All three of these guys run oar rigs on catarafts and Curtis had graciously agreed to let my Pops hitchhike on the back of his boat. So this was a three generation dirtbag extravaganza.
After an all night drive, we set camp, set shuttle and got right down to business. What follows is my recollections and loose rapid descriptions of a river trip that I will never forget.
Let’s start off with the put in. The park service has built very nice accommodations at the Cunard put in. The bathrooms are solid and there are multiple staircases leading down to the river. I finally saw a kayaker bomb the stairs and slide into the river right before our final run. I pussed out on doing it, reasoning that I didn’t want to ruin my awesome weekend by face planting down the stairs, which seemed like a possibility. There are multiple launch ramps, which are necessary due to the amount of commercial rafting coupled with plenty of private boaters.
The river is pretty chill at the beginning, with some flat water and ripples. The first rapid is called Pinball. To be honest, I don’t remember it as being anything very significant other than a decent size wave train but I know the grins were getting bigger at this point. Like a lot of East Coast runs the New is drop and pool. That means flat water paddling between the Rapids. This actually worked out great for Pops. In the pools he would get out his fishing rod and Curtis put him into some great shoreline spots. He was slaying the smallmouth all weekend.
Anyway, Upper and Lower Railroad come next. I assume the name comes from the railroad trestle that runs over the river at this point. In my mind this is where the real fun begins, because for whatever reason the synapses told me we are for sure in the Gorge proper and I was happy. So the layout of Upper is a drop just before the trestle where the river bends around to the right, and then after you pass below the tracks comes the Lower section. I ran the Upper from the middle working left and the lower just on the left. This was Pops’ first taste of real whitewater and the look on his face was priceless. There are a bunch of cool features that follow below, good surf spots and solid action read and run.
Faces turned more serious when Whale Rock came into view. Whale Rock signals the Keeneys. I knew from reading numerous guidebooks over the years that the Keeneys were definitely some of the the more difficult rapids on the New. We scouted Upper and Middle Keeney from river right. Upper was pretty straight forward, ferry back over and peel out in the middle, don’t get knocked sideways by the cross curlers before a super fun wave train. The move then is eddy behind Whale Rock. The trick is not to get so caught up in the juicy haystacks that you miss the eddy because then you could get pushed into an area of Middle Keeney that you don’t want to be in. For Middle Keeney, we peeled out into the current that was flowing kinda center/left and rode a huge wave train down a decent drop, while skirting a hole on the left and a big chompy looking one on the right. The danger factor of swimming or getting too far right in Upper and Middle is the Meat Grinder, a boulder jumble sieve below on river right. There is time for rescue, but if mistakes pile up we were told it can be deadly. From where we scouted, Middle Keeney isn’t super easy to see, and we were following catarafts, so I felt a little bit blind and on the defensive. After two successful runs in my Diesel I decided to run the gorge in my playboat and got Wallaced here, resulting in my first ever bootie beer and a lifetime of harassment from my father for being a bigger beater than my son.
Once we made it through Middle Keeney there were some eddies to catch our breath in. We then ferried over to scout Lower Keeney on river left. The line for Lower Keeney is on the left and if memory serves it was punch a hole at the top, wave trains with another hole to punch mid way and then get your boat angle right and brace a little and ride the curler right. If you don’t make this move, it looked like you could end up getting pushed left of the big rock/curler and that would be bad, as it pushed into a pretty manky area with some undercut action. There’s still some big waves and maybe small holes in the runout, but the heavy action is over. Somewhere around the bottom of this rapid, our hosts mentioned the halls of karma. The name of the spot was familiar to me as I have always dreamed of piloting an underwater spacecraft. We saw no squirt boaters on our trip, but I hope that someday I will get a more intimate view of this stretch of river.
The next memorable rapid is Dudley’s Dip. This rapid was just more of the standard New River fun. It seemed like it could be run about anywhere, just stay out of the holes. We ran it center right moving towards center left. Again, nothing very hard, just more big water awesomeness.
If your timing is right, and ours was twice, you will understand why Sunset is the other name for Double Z. It is one of the most beautiful river sights I have ever seen. However, sliding into the most difficult rapid, while being blinded by the sun and keeping watch over one of my offspring definitely had my guts churning. Thumb Rock signals the start of things. It’s easy to spot because you’ve been waiting for it. It’s shaped like a thumb and its roughly centered between river center and the right bank. Skirt the Thumb on the left and head over kinda hard right into an eddy towards the right bank. From here ferry out below a big hole and then peel out into the downstream current and get in the center, while zig zagging a few more big holes. The ferry moves at the top are the crux of this rapid, but things can still go wrong. One of those lower holes backendered Jake, forcing a nice quick roll and a proud dad smile. There are some bad undercuts on River left and deaths have occurred here. This rapid is super fun, not too too difficult, but the stakes are still high and it’s no place to let your guard down.
If you’ve made it this far with no major hiccups then you should be feeling pretty damn good. Next thing to keep an eye out for is the Greyhound Bus Stopper. Easily boat scouted, look for a nice green tongue a few feet off the right shore. The hole is almost river wide and looked pretty munchy to me. I guess people surf it, but I wasn’t looking for a thrashing.
Upper and Lower Kaymoor are class III Rapids that by this time don’t seem like much. They are named after an old coal mining town that was on river left. Nature has reclaimed the town.
Miller’s Folly comes next. There is a large, easy to avoid undercut on river right. I can’t remember for sure, but I think this is where we did a cool little creeky slot move. Anyway, just avoid any big holes and you’ll be fine.
Around this time the Rusty Rainbow comes into view and you know the end is near. It is a breathtaking sight and made us all feel at peace with the entire universe. Lots of photos were taken with the bridge in the background.
Fayette Station is the last rapid most people ride. It is right at the takeout, so not running it is just as easy an option as running it. A nice play hole sits right at the entrance. I didn’t play in it, but I did see a very confident local shred it in a C1 Jitsu. He ripped it up, casually threw a loop and cruised down to shoot some video, probably one of those Boof and Destroy dudes. We just threaded our way down right of center into a wonderful last serving of haystacks.
The takeout is just as nice as the put in, with a beach area, boat ramps and a real family friendly vibe. I have to say that the New River surpassed all expectations of greatness and I would encourage anyone who’s skills are up to it to make the journey. This river has something for all mid level boaters from great river play, for the more accomplished, to stepping up into big water Class IV for the first time. Also, the hospitality and genuine kindness of West Virginians is hard to beat.
Another cool factoid about the New River that everyone pretty much already knows is that it is the second oldest river in the world. I’m not sure how scientists determine that but if you are into geology perhaps you can hold a seminar at Gauley Fest and explain it. All in all this was the best river trip of my life because I was able to share my love of the river with my father and my son at the same time. The look of surprise and pride in my Dad’s eyes watching what a confident and laid back boater his grandson is turning out to be is something I will never forget. That made me feel like in a mad mad world I was doing something right. Huge thanks to Curtis Warner for letting Pops ride, Michael D. Sawyer for the top shelf photography featured in this article, and Craig Pavlick for planting the seeds of a Grand Canyon trip.
Until next time, keep your head above water and safety in your mind.
EDITOR’S DESK: Joe, a DBP Admin and Staff Writer from Illinois (there’s whitewater in ILLINOIS??) is a great kayaker and dad who introduced son Jake to paddling last year through club boating with Chicago Whitewater. Joe took the following pics, as well as the header photo of this article, on his New River mission (except the last photo here. That one was shot by Jake of Joe gettin’ stylie!). If you enjoy his writing and are from West By God, you’ll have a chance to score an autograph in a few weeks at GAULEY FEST! (For more details, check the Events on the Dirt Bag Paddlers Facebook page.)
Michael D. Sawyer is an old school eastern cat boater, and there aren’t many of that type of boater around, so with such a tight knit sub-community, if you see one of these rigs chances are it’s him or a buddy of his. Michael is also a phenomenon photographer who not only captures great action shots, he finds a way to convey those quiet river moments and the soulful people who love a good adventure in the company of friends. His art truly embodies the OneLoveOneRiver Philosophy, and we are stoked to have him be a part of the “Our Rivers, Our World” issue.