“Take me home, country road, to the place I belong…” -John Denver
I spent some time on the last day of summer sitting at the put in to the Skykomish River here in Washington, enjoying the remote beauty and pausing to recollect. My heart was three thousand miles away… after all, it’s September, also known as Gauley Season. While waiting to start, my mind drifted east, thinking about my friends and the rivers of West By God Virginia… so I picked up Noah Adams’ book FAR APPALACHIA ~ Following the New River North and returned for an hour.
Mr. Adams, host of NPR’s All Things Considered, although not truly a Dirt Bag himself, is a longtime river aficionado whose family roots stretch high into the mountains of Appalachia. We head downstream with him from the headwaters of the New River on the slopes of Snake Mountain in North Carolina, meeting the paddlers along the way that progressively guide him down more difficult sections of this classic river on its way to the confluence with the Gauley River in West Virginia.
In these characters, true Dirt Bags in every sense, I see reflections of my friends and for that reason I highly recommend this book. Written in 2001, it takes us back in time to an era that has since closed, or at least morphed into the super-adventure conglomerates that now dominate the lower river. If you’ve lived this life, or ever tried to convey to family members who’ve never grasped the appeal of paddling exactly what IT is that fulfills us, Adams’ book will help put into words those fleeting images and feelings for you to revel in or share.
For instance, we get to read a rafting trip safety talk from the customer’s perspective [page 184].
…Scott takes up a position at the front of the bus. He’s in charge of both boats. He faces us with a stern look.
“Everybody got a helmet? They’re all one size, you adjust them with that strap in the back, like a baseball cap. The rule is: Helmets on at all times in Whitewater. When we get on flat water and we’re floating and it’s hot, we can take them off for a while.
The blue vests had been waiting on the bus seats when we got on. Their professional grade, with a wide flap above the shoulders, designed to hold your head up out of the water.
“We’re going to put these on and cinch them down real tight. If you slip out of that jacket you’re history. If you’re out of the boat we’re going to pull you back in by the straps — not your arms. It’s easy to dislocate someone’s shoulder if their arm is extended above their head.”
Scott looks carefully from face to face.
“Any medical conditions I should know about? If you might have an asthma attack? If you’ve had a heart bypass? Allergic to bee stings? Don’t surprise me on the river. Talk to me privately after we get off the bus if you want to.”
He speaks more quietly. “If you’re having doubts about this trip now’s the time to decide. You may be here because of peer pressure, and you really don’t have to go. You can ride the bus back up to Class VI and go for a walk in the woods while you’re waiting; nobody’s going to think anything about it.”
He holds up a paddle: white plastic blade, aluminum shaft, T-grip handle. “This is the most dangerous thing you’ll see it today. In the boat, make sure you keep the palm of your hand over this grip. When we get into big water thing start flying around and if you’ve got this T-grip exposed you can break someone’s nose. It happened. To me.”
We all try out the proper hand position, now more afraid of hitting Scott than a falling out.
“Remember,” he says, the fun is in the boat; the fun’s not in the water. If you do swim, the first rule is hang onto your paddle. Then get your head up and your feet downstream and find me. Look at the raft, look at me, and I’ll tell you which way I want you to move…”
He introduces us to some of the original dirt Bags who started rafting many years ago [page 201].
Fayette station rapids waits just below the original bridge. It’s our last run of the day and we move through it nicely, bouncing in some big holes. It’s deceptive — doesn’t look scary. But a champion high school swimmer dropped off the bridge one day, without a lifevest, and drowned. The wave action is so strong you just can’t fight your way back up from the bottom.
Jon Dragan, who started the first rafting company, Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited, told me he was afraid to run Fayette Station, back in the 60s. “We’d pull in by the bridge and call it a trip; sleep till morning and drive home to Pennsylvania. All the locals said you’d die in there. Then one night we were drinking around the fire and promised ourselves we try it in the morning and so we did. Thirty years later we’re still doing it.”
And for those of us who remember the good ole days at Class VI… there’s this lasting image [page 205].
You can hear the music from out in the road well enough to know that it’s stuff from a couple of decades ago. There’s a base throb through the trees and you remember nights like this when you might have gotten in trouble. I parked the Jeep and start walking faster when the band starts playing ‘The Weight’: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling about half past dead…”
This is the end of season staff party at Class VI. A cool Sunday night with an early October three-quarter moon. You’d be comfortable in shorts and sandals, but with socks and a pull over. The river people are tanned, tired, smiling.
Stories float above the music… A guy came back one morning at Don wet and traveling with cold. He and his friends had been trying a moonlight river run and it got overcast and they didn’t have sleeping bags or even flashlights and had to sleep out on the rocks, tucked into the dew-covered rafts… A mom had taken the kids down to the Gauley to watch the boats come through Pillow Rock Rapids and along the way they saw fresh piles of sweet smelling bear gorge. The bears eat the apples in the old orchards, eat too fast and too many, and throw up… A young videoboater, who will soon be at Harvard Divinty School, describes a close call that afternoon, sweeping his hands through the air…
The band kicks off “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and the people laughing are the ones who heard it when it was new. The Class VI staff now has twenty years together, and many of them have been around since the start. They grin and hug each other and dance close for a night, barefoot and wearing tight jeans. There are mothers and dads holding babies, and three-year-olds running around.
Jeff Proctor, one of the owners, says, “I love these parties. We’re like a farming community and it’s harvest time. Everyone else has left and these are the people that made it possible.”
And he says, “Ten years ago this would’ve gone on until two o’clock in the morning…”
WHERE TO BUY FAR APPALACHIA
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