Far Appalachia


A day's canoe trip starts in a panicky buzz that changes in a moment to a sweet, susurrant glide.

Don't lock the keys in the Jeep! Try to get the canoe down off the racks and over to the river's edge without banging it around. Be sure you have your water bottles. And your watch and the sunglasses and sunscreen and a hat and a bandanna in case you lose the hat. Tie a spare paddle up under the thwarts.

Other canoe voyagers were close to departing, on this sloping bank of the South Fork -- an outfitter's put-in, just below the 221 bridge. A young father in swim trunks walked out into the shallow water, pulling along the rental canoe that already carried his wife and two small children; he'd have a tricky move getting himself into the boat. A teenager was fitting a cooler into a canoe, and whistling; it took a moment before I recognized the music from Deliverance -- a movie that came out several years before he was born.

I eased my canoe down off the bank and kept a hand on it as it trembled in the water. The river was cold, a murky green under the clouds. A dripping step over the gunwale and I settled in, kneeling, with my back against the center thwart.

The boat rocked, then steadied, and the current caught the bow and turned it downstream. Then a touch with the paddle to add some speed. This is the moment of grace. There is a hushed rippling as the water carries you away and you feel as if you could look back at the bank and see yourself as a faint tracing in the air.

The canoe is a fourteen-foot Mohawk. My paddle is an old wooden bent-shaft, splintering at the blade's edge -- it's not intended for the rocky work of eastern rivers. I reached out for a few guiding strokes, to bring the boat to the center of the current. Then I used a deeper pull to swing the bow clear of a sudden, black rock. When the sky is overcast it's hard to see the rocks that surface just a few inches above the water, and the bigger ones can spin you sideways, kicking your pulse rate up as you fight to keep the upstream rail from going under.

This is a kindly stretch of river, though, early on. It's only Class I rapids, whitewater splashing past rocks and pouring across ledges. Sometimes in smooth water the bottom of the canoe will flex over an algae-slicked underwater shelf -- it's as if you're crossing the back of an ancient furry creature that could, if angered, rise up dripping and groaning.

I tried to be a river animal once. It was after a sticky, hot night and I'd been camping along the South Fork. When the sun started to slant down into the valley I decided it was time to get wet. I had been fearful of the water, concerned about flipping the canoe, too mistrustful of the river's darker parts.

But on this morning I waded in and let the coolness travel up my legs. Then a gasping dunk so I could taste the water and hear the current burble past my ears. I pointed my feet downstream and floated -- from rock, to ledge, to pool. I could turn around and kneel in the water and hold my chest against the flow. At this level I could see the New River coming around a slow bend and then downhill to me. I was looking at perhaps a one-foot drop. The New loses 3,216 feet in elevation from Snake Mountain down to its end in West Virginia.

Back at the outfitter's this morning I'd asked about this section of the river. (There are six classes of whitewater. A Class V rapids could be treacherous even for expert paddlers. A Class VI is simply ultra-extreme.)

"Any Class IIIs down there?"

"Nah, and there's just one II; it's a few miles down. It's a good ride -- just remember to stay left and you'll be fine."

I was happy about this. I wouldn't want to try a Class III rapids by myself. Even a Class II -- I began to think as I came around a bend and saw it coming up -- could be more fun than I wanted. As you approach, you hear the rapids more than you see them, because of the drop in the landscape. But I could spot a distinct line across the river, huge boulders on the right side, water spray on the left.

The noise grew louder. The water seemed flatter in the middle, coming into a V, and I started to go that way thinking the outfitter was wrong, but a stronger current pulled me away and to the left, down through a chute between two rocks, and I had to reach far out with the paddle for a sweep stroke to draw the bow back to the right for a drop over a three-foot ledge.

My little canoe likes to turn back upstream after it goes through rapids -- you have to work a bit to straighten it out. But this time I let the boat come on around so I could see this Class II from the downriver side. The tempting route through the middle was an easy drop over a ledge, but a drop directly onto a pile of nasty rocks. The outfitter's "left" advice had been right. But I wondered if this rapids didn't have a touch of Class III, because you had to maneuver some and the correct line wasn't obvious.

The boat slowed into a long pool, with the water reflecting calm from bank to bank. I laid the paddle across the gunwales and poured coffee from the Thermos. There was no apparent current. Then a white duck's feather overtook the boat on the right, its curve catching the downstream breeze. Whirligig waterbugs -- their feet dimpling the surface tension -- winked about in parallel zigs and zags.

It is mostly farming country here. There are a few fishing camps, cabins, and small trailers dose to the bank. If you have been lucky enough to buy some land on a hillside above the river, and sensible, you will build of natural materials and situate the house so it's tucked away and facing downstream -- a canoeist would have to look over his shoulder, back up the valley, to see it. If you put your summer home in full view of the river, and use an enthusiastic color of paint, the local people will say you have a "Florida house."

I stopped for lunch at a low-water bridge. Had to pull the boat out anyway to carry it across the road; the river level was just two feet below the concrete span. In springtime rains this bridge would be awash and dangerous even for a car.

The early afternoon brightened and warmed and I drifted the last few miles down the South Fork, almost sleeping past the small rapids. I watched a family of ducks doing whitewater maneuvers -- "ferrying" at an angle against the current so as to cross the river in a straight line. You can follow ducks down through the rapids; they aim for the V and tilt easily over the dropoffs.

Some large white cattle had come down close to the water. They were dozing and blinking on the sandy bank under the willow trees and one seemed close to tumbling in. The sunlight was sparkling up the shallow river and I was thinking this was the prettiest spot I'd seen -- when I noticed another river coming in from the left. I had arrived at the spot where the North Fork meets the South, and the day's trip was over.

But I wasn't ready and I spun around to paddle back upstream for a while. It was easy going against the slight current, and I could stop and hold the boat motionless; then watch the slow turn of the bow, moving downriver.

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Excerpted from Far Appalachia by Noah Adams. Copyright © 2001 by Noah Adams. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.