My friends Mike, Kim and I canoeing Smokehole Canyon, 1995
The summer of 1995 my friend Ray, my oldest daughter, Chelsey, and I took a fishing, canoeing, camping trip to the mountains of West Virginia. We started off at Big Bend campground in the Smokehole Canyon of the Potomac River. I have always wanted to canoe it, good whitewater when the river is up. Chelsey and I went first down the river while Ray fished and followed us along the road. It was wonderful! Rapid after rapid. Kind of scary too flying through a rapid that turns through a bend and having no idea what is around the corner. The last rapid was like stairsteps, each about two feet high, three of them. I messed up and hit a rock and was thrown forward to my knees, HARD! I bled profusively. The next day Ray canoed while Chelsey and I fished. We caught nothing. Ray thought the ride was wonderful too.
There is another section of the canyon I wanted to canoe that is very remote with no roads along it. That night however it started raining, a lot. The river was way up the next morning and it was still raining. I decided it would not be safe for me to take Chelsey in there, once you go in, you are committed. Ray wanted to go however. He cut three holes in a garbage bag and wore it for a raincoat. Chelsey and I just laughed and laughed at Ray wearing a garbage bag around camp. Ray replied,"Hey, not everybody can wear a garbage bag and look this good!" We sent Ray off down the river and Chelsey and I went and visited a commercial cave called Smokehole Cavern. It continued to rain all day and I began to worry about Ray as the river was really high now. We went and waited on Ray at the take out point. Finally Ray showed up. His face was as red as an apple and he was soaked, head to toe. He said there was a really big drop off back there and he was afraid of trying it by himself, so he tried to walk the canoe through. It didn't work, and he lost everything but the canoe. He lost his wallet, his paddle, his floatation cushions, his water bottle, and his ropes. He managed to find them all, except the ropes, on down the river. He said it was really nice back there and had a pair of Bald Eagles follow him down the river.
The rain continued all that night, so fishing and canoeing there was out of the question as the river was in flood stage. We decided to drop down to the Greenbrier River to see what it was like, but it was worse. So we went up to a mountain lake that is stocked with trout to fish from our canoes. The lake, called Summit Lake, also had a campground. We never caught any fish, but it was still nice. The first night there, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of a very large man slowly tiptoeing around our campsite. I thought about scaring him off, but decided that if somebody was that desperate to steal something from camp, let him have it. And I went back to sleep. The next morning nothing was gone, but there was a very large hole in the pepper shaker on the picnic table.
That evening as we were loading our canoes on our van at the lake, there was a big commotion at the picnic area nearby. We went to see what was up and found a 300 lb. black bear going through garbage cans. I have been traveling through bear country for 13 years and have never seen one. My first excursion with my daughter and we get a bear in camp. The large man I had heard sneaking around our camp had been the bear! We went to camp and got out and here came the bear walking right by us. Chelsey just loved it!
My fascination with canoeing smokehole canyon was not satisfied. I still wanted to see the remote section of the river, as well as shoot the big rapid that Ray spoke of. I was soon planning another adventure of canoeing it. Both Ray and I had told some of our friends about how wonderful the last trip had been and four more people stupidly decided to go with us on our next trip. Two professors from Ohio State University, Pat and Jerry, a Denison University student, Kim, and an old friend of mine, Mike, went on the trip. Before heading to the canyon, we stopped off at Blackwater Falls. The Blackwater River was way up. This could be good, I thought.
As it turned out, the Potomac River in the canyon was down. Jerry and Pat couldn't wait to go canoeing the next day, so Ray took them that evening to do the section of the river that Chelsey and I had done. Ray put them in the canoe and sent them off on their own down the river. "Have fun!," he called out to them. Neither Jerry or Pat had ever canoed, let alone white water canoeing! They returned at dark. I asked them how it was and they said they had to drag their canoe through each rapid. Yuck! But I was optimistic and thought maybe it was just their canoeing technique.
The next day, we all set out on the river. Pat and Jerry started where they had left off the night before. Mike, Kim and I started at the beginning. Ray, who sometimes makes an intelligent decision, decided not to canoe and meet us at the take out point at Petersburg. Before we left, I put my suitcase containing all my clothes in Ray's van, in case I needed dry clothes when we were done. The day was very cool and extremely overcast.
It turned out to be just as Jerry and Pat had said. We got stuck in every rapid. My plans of whitewater canoeing had turned into the horrible chore of whitewater canoe dragging. But I was still optimistic, maybe it would get better as we went downstream. The only rapid we were successful in was the before mentioned stair-step rapid. It was nice to actually flow through some nice whitewater.
When we finally reached the entrance to the remote section, it seemed like we had been on the river for hours. None of us had a watch and since it was overcast, I couldn't see the position of the sun. I knew we would need at least six hours to canoe it with all the dragging. I was so eager to see that section of the river, that common sense left me (something that happens occasionally). I decided to go for it, hoping it was noon, giving us plenty of time to make it out of the canyon before dark. It was actually two-thirty, I found out later. Not enough time to get out before dark!
We entered the first rapid of the remote section and it was nice and deep and fast. Wonderful, I thought, maybe it will now be deep enough. As we were approaching the next rapid, an Osprey flew out above us and sounded a warning. I wish I had heeded the Osprey's warning. When we hit the next rapid, we hit a rock and the canoe turned sideways and flipped all of us out into the cold water. The canoe then flipped right side up and without it's cumbersome weight, started shooting the rapid without us! I tried to stand up, but for some reason my legs wouldn't work right. Then suddenly I was being pulled by my ankles. I held my feet up out of the water to see what was happening. The rope which was tied to the rear of the canoe was tangled very securely around my ankles! I was being keelhauled by an unmanned canoe! Grabbing gulps of air when I could, I finally managed to free my legs from the rope. I then started chasing the canoe and the gear floating downstream. Mike and Kim were still in shock from being thrown unexpectedly into the cold water. They were doing a perfect impression of soaking wet scarecrows, standing in the river with their arms held out. I fell four times on the slippery rocks trying to retrieve our gear. One of those times, I wrenched my back.
We decided to abort the adventure and drag the canoe back up to the entrance of the remote section. The initial rapid turned out to be waist deep in very fast water. We could not pull the canoe by the rope from along the bank of the river as it was too steep. We had no choice but to push and pull the canoe in the rapid. With each step, we could only gain an inch of ground, it was very hard going. After a half hour, we finally made it back up the rapid. We left the canoe there and walked back to camp, wet and cold. Mike and Kim had dry clothes to put on, but mine were in Ray's van. Mike had an extra jacket, so I took off my shirt and put it on. We built a fire and I hung my shirt over it to dry.
After a while, my shirt was almost dry and I turned to pick up some firewood. When I turned back, my shirt was gone. In the fire was a big black ash that used to be my shirt. Ray, Pat and Jerry returned at dark. I finally had some warm clothes to put on. Pat and Jerry had dragged their canoe through the entire valley and arrived at the take out point just before dark. We all relaxed and joked around. It had been a good adventure!
This story is still not done. I do intend to defeat the smokehole canyon and see the remote valley. Either that, or it will defeat me.
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