Along the trail the music best keeping me company has been that of traditional Irish songs. I was just learning the lyrics to “The Irish Rover” – a fictitious story about a massive Irish boat and its absurd crew and journey – when the lyrics of song came to real life:
Then the ship struck a rock, Oh Lord! what a shock,
The bulkhead was turned right over.
Our Aquablazing started out in Waynesboro VA and had numerous obstacles to maneuver around from the get-go. I assumed (falsely) that the widening of the river downstream as we went would make for an easier passage. Our guidebook mentioned several rapids we would need to run and how to handle then. It had directions on which passage to take when the river forked or when to portage around the most difficult rapids. The “Left Turn to Hell” required that we made a 500 ft portage in the city of Grottoes VA. During this portage we parked our canoe in a parking spot at the Dollar General and went in for some ice cream. We got hassled for not wearing shirts, but made the purchase nevertheless.
The first night we found a camping spot on the right bank which looked like a pavilion owned by a church. There were another crew of Aquablazers out on the river that actually found the site first and we joined them there. They are Ambassador, Lil Engine, and Timber. The pavilion was quite large and had picnic tables underneath but was quite dusty from lack of use. It made well enough for our dinner and most of us set up tents in the grass nearby. Jeremiah hung his hammock between two posts in the pavilion.
The first day we started late and made 15 miles. The second day we managed 25. After some difficulty finding a camping site among the privately owned properties along the river we found a nice place with a fire pit and old cafeteria table.
We saw numerous birds including blue heron, ospreys, and bald eagles. In fact, one bald eagle swooped down from the left and caught a fish about 100 yards ahead of us. It them continued it arc upwards to the right in the same fashion as it’s descent but dropped the fish from 30 ft in the air. It’s probably that the eagle just lost grip, but I like to think he said “ah, I can do better than this fish.” With the nearby farms we saw a number of cows in the river as well. Early on the first day we had to steer left to miss a cow standing the shallows 1/3rd of the way in from the right bank. We later saw a cow swim clear from one side to the other in a wide and deep section.
Jeremiah and Shaman had less canoeing experience that me so I took the rear position in the boat, the “Bottom’s Up”, during the first day when we anticipated the most rapids. Later the second day we switched positions and practiced each our turn steering the boat. The river did get wider and thus less steering was necessary but it also got faster and had numerous shelves of rocks where there were no clear openings and we were required just to ram the lowest looking spot. We probably hit rocks on the bottom of the boat 3 dozens times.
On our third day out we anticipated no serious rapids as our guidebook did not list any. However, the guidebook likely was written for normal water levels. It had rained hard a few weeks ago causing a lot of debris in the river but had since dried out significantly and thus we were dealing with low water levels and more visible rocks. I had chosen to steer for the third day as Shaman and Jeremiah did not like having the rear position where their views were blocked. We had camped around mile 41 and were anticipating a portage at mile 46 where there would also be an Exxon and McDonalds. However at Mile 43 or so the ship struck a rock.
There was a gradual turn to the right around which we did not have much visibility until we arrived. It seemed like many of the other rapids which we had safely gone through and thus I wasn’t too concerned. I kept the boat roughly in the center but slightly more to the right as it looked a bit better. A cross-current, along with a little oversteering, brought the rear of the boat about 5 deg’s left of center. There were rocks on the left that I saw we just missed. Then something seemed to have come directly from underneath. It missed the front of the boat entirely and Jeremiah stayed put. The back of the boat where I was shot up in the air and tipped over leftward. I was pretty sure the boat was going over and would have considered jumping out to prevent it had I the time to do so. Rather, before I could make such a decision I was thrown out of the boat along with Shaman. She managed to hang on to the boat and pull herself back in but lost one of her sandals overboard. I lost a sandal immediately as well. Also in my left pocket was the guidebook in 2 ziplock bags and in my right pocket the 55 SPF sunblock necessary for the cloudless skies and high 80’s F temperature we were having. The guidebook was already wet from the previous day and mostly falling apart. The ziplock bags kept it afloat and it quickly moved downstream to the left. Shaman yelled out “Banzai” to me. I thought she was concerned about me falling overboard or upset with my steering the into a near capsize, but she actually was hoping I’d grab her sandal. Her sandal was actually right next to mine but moving fast to the right and out of my reach. Having missed grabbing any of the stuff fallen overboard I remembered what I learned when whitewater rafting in West Virginia when I was a kid – keep your feet pointed downstream and do not try to stand up. There were numerous rocks that I got dragged through for about 200-300 ft, but I think it may have been the first rock that scratched me up real bad. It didn’t take long for me to lose my other sandal as well. Eventually I made it over to the right bank and shallow enough to stand despite the water still moving rapidly passed my feet. I was in the water for maybe a minute but it felt much longer. When I landed ashore I was far downstream of the canoe and could barely see it as they had managed to slow down over some rocks. Jeremiah jumped into the drivers seat of the boat but wasn’t able to steer to my shore. As they passed I told them to stop at the grass up ahead which they were able safely to do. I walked up to them with a smile on my face and left leg smeared red with blood. I had hoped at that point to patch up my wounds and continue on down the river, but Shaman had a pretty serious cut. Although I couldn’t see it because she had a bandana wrapped around her leg, the cut was vertical on the shin about 2 inches in length and down to the bone. I grabbed her pack and helped her walk up to a farmhouse about 1/4 mile away. A man was mowing the lawn but didn’t see us so we knocked on the door. An older woman came out but told us she couldn’t drive to the clinic as her husband at home with Alzheimer’s needs her full time care. She flagged down the guy mowing the lawn and he was able to bring us to town. He, Kenny Cubbage, turned out to be a real great guy and waited for us for an hour at the clinic before bringing us back to the farm. In the meanwhile Jeremiah brought all the gear out of the canoe and tipped the canoe over to dry. He had found out there were cracks in the boat which were letting in water. Kenny’s son Tony also had a pickup truck and was able to later drive us, canoe and all, to the city where we got a hotel. While we were at the farmhouse, Jeremiah and I helped Kenny and Tony remove the pool cover and bring it out to the yard to dry. They were helping the older lady and her husband with yard-work in preparation for them to move next door to a house they had bought which was more convenient for taking care of the man with Alzheimer’s. The farm itself was quite nice and it seemed they had some money but not exorbitant amounts. Although we only paddled for a half an hour today I feel like we are more exhausted from this ordeal than from the previous full day of paddling. Shaman got 7 stitches at the clinic and probably can’t hike for a day or two. Jeremiah and I will likely stay her so as not to abandon her.
Apparently the USB doesn’t work on this computer, so I’ll add photos tomorrow if I make it to the library.