One of the oldest rivers in the world, the New River courses more than 300 miles through North Carolina, Virginia, and, perhaps most famously, West Virginia. Downstream, in West Virginia, the New River Gorge takes its place as the jewel of this ancient river and is the scene of soaring cliffs and pounding waters surging as Class V rapids. Iconic places with names like Beauty Mountain, Double-Z Rapids, and Fern Creek Falls dot the landscape and lure adventure-seekers of all stripes to the area. While I have never gone rafting in this part of the New, preferring the Greenbrier River and area lakes, the gorge is one of my most favorite places on this earth. Little did I know that a different part of this river, in Virginia, would allow me to check something off my bucket list.
I have several things on my bucket list. Most of these include travelling to waterfalls in far-flung locations. Plitvice National Waterfall Park in Croatia is one, as are Niagara Falls in Canada and Multnomah Falls in Oregon. There are plenty of others. Rappelling down Falling Springs Falls is one. I also wanted to kayak over a waterfall. I have a nephew that yearly taunts me with his jaunts over raging falls in his kayak. He’s much younger and much more experienced than I. Be that as it may, kayaking a waterfall was on my list. Other than directly swimming over a falls, which is actually possible in some parts of the world, kayaking seems to me the epitome of becoming one with a waterfall. A dream come true for someone like me.
Almost half of the New River is in Virginia and in some places just a short drive from West Virginia. This is a very different river than the one that crashes through the gorge. Languidly entering Virginia from North Carolina, the New travels north through small Virginia towns as both an imposing force and, at times, a low water fishing area one can walk across, before making its way to Hinton and the gorge.
A few weeks ago friends and I decided to kayak the eight-mile trip from Ripplemead to Bluff City — not far from the West Virginia border. I had traversed this portion last year, albeit much later in the season and as a float trip. I thought I knew, if only a little, this particular stretch of the New River. I was right and I was wrong. I also thought it was the perfect stretch to christen my new kayak. We checked the water flow on the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), looked at a few very bad maps and were ready for a bit of adventure. We were not disappointed. (Unfortunately, I didn’t find the great map shown here after our trip.)
We put in at the small park at Ripplemead just upstream from the U.S. Route 460 bridge and downstream from the confluence of Walker Creek. The water is low here, and shimmering rocks on the river bed are visible through the current. I knew from past experience to stay away from the rock garden on the left side of the river, so we head to the far shore and downstream.
A very energetic Chesapeake Bay Retriever bobs along and follows us for several miles, swimming this way and that, happy to be on the river with some new-found friends. We paddle past towering sheer bluffs and make our way towards Quarry Rapids, a Class II rapid and the first of eight on this trek. We can hear the rumble of the descent as we get closer. The dog is still by my side in the river, and I begin to worry about him as I navigate around boulders and through whitewater waves. At the bottom I see him swimming along, not panicked at all. I breathe a sigh of relief. This is not his first time down this stretch. Another easy Class II rapid, aptly named Railroad Rapids, drops just below the railroad bridge, and we slow down to bask in the sun and have a bite to eat. The dog leaves us on the opposite shore and hopefully makes his way home.
The river is wide and deep now. I can’t see the bottom and wonder what enormous fish are swimming beneath my kayak. Taking off both my Chacos and life jacket, I dangle a foot in the cool waters on either side of the boat and lay back under skies of impossible blue. Birds lazily swoop to-and-fro, and the static hum of cicadas rings in the air. We are the only humans we can see. We talk and sit virtually still on the water. The wind could almost blow us upstream. Knowing these women for 20 years, old stories come out to be told once again. Our laughter joins the song of the cicadas. Dragonflies land on my boat as I take a swig from my cooler. My ice is holding, as is my dry bag. Tranquility reigns. Life is very, very good.
I hear the next set of rapids coming up and reorganize. Swinging my life jacket back on, I can see the whitewater ahead. I’m in the lead and look for dark, calm water to go through. It’s loud. Much louder than the last two rapids. How do I not remember this from last year? We went over this in a four-inner-tube float? I’m in the middle of the river, and I see too late I should be either far left or far right. Thelma is heading to the left and will be just fine. As for me? Large boulders jut out to my right, and I swing the boat to the left. Too far to the left actually, and for the first time in 20 years of kayaking my boat tips and dumps me into the river. Instantly it seems I become two people in my head. One is calm and collected and can tell I’m not hurt: I have my life-jacket on, and the boat, although upside down, is right in front of me. The other one is panicked with the unknown sensation of being unceremoniously dumped and being in the wave train at the end of the rapid. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” says one. “You are breathing. Calm down. You are okay,” says the other.
I grab onto the boat, my paddle, and one shoe and see Thelma paddling over to me. We turn to watch Mary Jane go over and can’t find her. Unbeknownst to us, she had gotten out above the rapids to make sure we got through. There she is! Mary Jane is the strongest paddler I know. I grab on to her kayak, find my other shoe floating towards me, and we make our way to shore — she paddling with me kicking. I find out later this Class II rapid is called Horseshoe Falls. Class II my rear end! I don’t connect the waterfall to my bucket list. I got thrown out. That doesn’t count. I search my memory for details of last year’s trip. Are there more rapids like this ahead? Even if there are, it’s not like we can turn around. I remember one at the very end that we didn’t do last year. We went left, but had to portage the last quarter mile. We will go right this time. I am both nervous and excited. We carry on.
Another long Class II and then a Class III rapid greet us. Thelma worries as I disappear over the fall. I am straight and upright and grinning from ear to ear. That was fun. So much fun I almost want to do it again. Almost. With these behind us and Pearis Mountain in our sights, I know we are within an hour of the take-out at Bluff City. I tell Thelma and Mary Jane to stay to the right at the split or they will find themselves skimming over a rock garden.
Not wanting to get caught in the current, I move to the middle of the river. I see the highway bridge. We are almost home. And then I hear it. This one is roaring. I see whitewater dancing up from the rapid and young “river rats” canoeing back and forth off the island shore. That looks awesome. How are they doing that? Before I know it, Thelma has smoothly gone over the far left and shoots out towards the shore. Mary Jane goes next. I see her and then look ahead to see a huge drop. Can I back-paddle? I think to myself, “Oh, s**t! No-no-no-no!” Then a calm takes over. “Breathe, Lisa. The worst that could happen is that you get dumped again. Look for calmer water over the falls. See that patch that looks like liquid glass? Keep your boat straight and keep paddling.” In an instant I was through the worst and still upright and paddling. Woohoo! Take that, Bluff City Falls! That was likely the biggest and best rush I’ve ever had in my life. I look back and see that the fall is about four feet. I’m so excited I’m shaking like a leaf. I had just kayaked over a waterfall. A bitty one for sure, but it counts. Check that off my bucket list. However, I’ve since found some very good maps. Maybe—just maybe—I could do a bigger one.