Known Firsts

Before the COVID-19 quarantines started some weeks back, Souzz and I snuck in an overnight paddling trip to Hopeville Canyon in West Virginia. We’d paddled that stretch on day trips several times before, so an overnight packrafting trip was a new twist in a familiar place (and a socially distant twist at that).

On the drive up, Souzz asked if I knew anyone that had camped in the canyon before. I answered that I didn’t know anybody, that the run was a “known first.” This little fun fact added to the anticipation for me, but it made Souzz a bit anxious. She remembered plenty of those kinds of trips in the past, like the time when an escaped cow wandered through our camp, or the time when daylight revealed a giant pile of trash next to our late night bivouac. Her reaction was an amusing contrast in our partnership: one of us balances adventure with sensibility, and the other unwittingly camps next to garbage dumps.

Despite the sunshine, it was a pretty raw day, and my hands were freezing as I biked the shuttle back from the takeout (after dropping off the car).

Perhaps an hour after launching, we were sitting streamside next to a roaring fire—staying plenty warm despite a brisk wind and temps in the high 30s.

As for our camp, the shoreline was a bit rocky, the tent wasn’t quite level, and the wind was pulsing…but this place was all ours, away from the city and the lights and the people and the tension. We shared a pasta dinner as we enjoyed the sounds from the rush of the river and some passing mergansers.

We were in an area that doesn’t get much use (we didn’t see a single footprint, a rarity in the East), so wood was plentiful. We fiddled with the fire well into the night–moving a stick here and a log there—and we found ourselves wondering if this might be the last time that we got out for an overnight for a while.

The backcountry has a tendency to re-order one’s priorities, and this trip was no exception. With so much happening in the world, it was great to focus on staying warm, finding our way downriver, and pulling together a few meals. Thankfully, we also managed to avoid errant cows and heaps of garbage.

As we drove home, we enjoyed reminiscing about past trips and I let my mind wander a bit…until Souzz pointed out that we were almost out of gas. This time our reactions were in sync, perhaps because running out of gas is not a known first.

Stepping In Old Footprints

My last post was about the Adirondacks, a place that I’ve visited over and over through the last several decades. There are only a few destinations like that for me, with Alaska leading the pack—but Alaska is such a huge geography that it doesn’t really count (are you really going to the same place when your trips are hundreds of miles apart?).

Another regular stop for me is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a whitewater paddling school in Western North Carolina. NOC was founded in 1972, which happened to be the same year that the movie Deliverance hit the theaters–with its dueling banjos, twisted locals, and scenic paddling on the nearby Chatooga River. NOC’s timing was perfect, as the movie sparked a huge increase in whitewater recreation. And it did so in spite of its dark plot, like a bump in cruise traffic after seeing Titanic.

My first visit to NOC was way back in 1988 for a kayaking class, and I returned the next year for a four-day clinic in whitewater open canoe. I’ve been back maybe ten times since, mostly to brush up on various hardboating skills (learning to roll, river rescue, tandem paddling, playboating, etc.), and have introduced a few friends to the place along the way.

I was at NOC this past weekend for some more paddling instruction, this time in an ultralight Alpacka packraft. Alpackas weigh in at six pounds and stow easily, which makes them perfect for fly-in or carry-in trips. We were roadside for this trip, but there are trips further afield down the road.

My instructor for my clinic was Will Norris, and I shared with Will that I wanted to get more comfortable in this boat so that I can do more remote trips. On a more general level, I shared that my goals were to have fun and push myself. I didn’t mention to him that those two pursuits are often the same thing for me (although I think he figured it out).

NOC has changed a lot in 30 years, maybe even more than I have. This used to be a sleepy little place, and now there’s a big gear store, a full service restaurant, a tourist train stop, and permanent slalom racing gates across a lower section of the river. And the facilities are much improved, with the old hostel lodging mostly replaced with fancy cabins.

Most noticeable is that there are a lot more people around, and especially more rafters. The raft crowd doesn’t always get a lot of respect from hardboaters, but rafters create the market that makes for good gear and dam-release whitewater. I’m glad they’re here.

Over the course of the weekend, we paddled three different rivers, the Nantahala (an easy warm-up), the Chatooga (a nice class III), and the French Broad (some bigger water). I refined some strokes, tried some new moves in harder water, and had a chance to revisit some of my motivations for paddling.

Will asked me how I got into paddling, and I shared that I’ve always been drawn to things that I was told I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. I’m also drawn to places that are “off limits” because of skills barriers (harder whitewater, glacier travel,  requiring avalanche knowledge, etc.). I’ve been fortunate to do some of those things (and fall short at others), and to see at least a few off-limits places. I hope there are more to come.

As I look back on another trip to NOC, I find myself wondering why someone with an explorer’s mentality has “go-to” destinations in the first place. Psychologists talk about “place attachment,” but adventure travel seems like just the opposite. My favorite place is often the new destination that I’m planning to visit, and once it’s discovered I usually don’t have much interest in going back.

And yet there are a few places–like NOC–that keep me coming back. Maybe I come back because I get to experience myself more than experiencing a place. Maybe it’s harder to reflect if my mind is busy taking in a new view. Maybe the unknown of a familiar place is me?

Paddles, Pies (almost), and Parades

With a kayaking trip planned to the mountains this weekend, we decided we’d stop through Petersburg, West Virginia, to catch their 4th of July parade on the ride back home. Petersburg is a town of about 2500 in the Potomac Highlands and we figured it was the kind of place that knows how to put on a good parade. Last year on the 4th of July, we had a lot of fun at a parade in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, so we thought we’d go for two years in a row.

But first, we were off to paddle. So on Saturday morning we met up with our good friends Scott and Denise, who were on a road trip through West Virginia. The four of us paddled one of my favorite runs, the Cheat Narrows, in the north central part of the state. Souzz and I were in our Alpacka packrafts–in part because these boats are lot of fun, and in part to get ready for an upcoming trip out west. Ultralight packrafts are capable of running very technical whitewater despite weighing just six pounds each (although my packraft likely weighs more when I am in it).

The Cheat Narrows is pretty easy, probably low class III, but it is splashy and fun and it runs through a beautiful valley below Cheat Mountain.

From there, Scott and Denise headed north while Souzz and I drove over the Allegheny Front to a cabin that we had rented for the weekend. Spruce Mountain Cabins are right on the road to Spruce Knob (the highest point in West Virginia), and these cabins are a great little place to stop over. Our cabin (#3) was simple, just a main room/kitchenette and a bedroom, but with a covered porch, a comfortable bed, and power and water.

Once at the cabin, we had planned on cooking some fancy meals and making an apple pie (hey, what’s 4th of July without apple pie?). But it turned out that the cabin had no oven, so the pie will have to wait (and it turns out that a 4th without pie is still just fine). We did manage to make a few fun meals, though, including slow-cooked ribs on Sunday. And we’d highly recommend these cabins!

In between meals, we mixed in a hike on Spruce Knob as well as some mountain biking, so it was a good full weekend of adventure.

On Monday the 4th, we woke up to steady rain, so we figured that the parade would be washed out–but we decided to pass through Petersburg anyway. Stopping for gas on the edge of town, we overheard someone say to the cashier “hey, a little rain can’t keep me from a parade for the good ole U.S. of A.”

Sure enough, we entered town and found the streets lined with people holding umbrellas and wearing red, white, and blue. A bunch of folks were on covered porches at houses that faced the parade route, while others chose to sit on their back bumpers under their car’s back hatch (very clever). We drove over to the east side of town, where the crowds weren’t quite as thick–but were still plenty enthusiastic.

Moments later, the color guard rounded the corner and led the Petersburg High School Band as it played The Stars and Stripes Forever. Following was a long procession of fire trucks, old cars, new cars, bands, golf carts, floats, motorcycles, and a few horses. Many in the parade carried signs thanking veterans, and there were several veterans riding along. A number of floats and cars were throwing out candy, most of which seemed to land in deep puddles of rainwater (which didn’t discourage the kids, of course!).

There was a lot for an outsider to take in, and it is easy for me to forget that scenes like this are repeated across the country every year (and I’m guessing the parade in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, looked much like the photo below from last year).

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As for Petersburg, it was great to see so many people come out–especially in the rain. It was also nice to see the strong theme around supporting veterans. Petersburg has lost a number of its citizens dating back to at least World War I, and there are several native sons and daughters serving now. I happened to stand next to the parent of one of them on the parade route, which offered great perspective about what (and why) we were celebrating.

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Souzz steals candy…ok, jumps in to help a youngster with a ripped candy bag

Closing out the parade were the Shriners, who came down the route wearing red fezzes and driving miniature cars in tight figure eights at what seemed like 40 miles per hour. Based on the looks on the drivers’ faces as they cranked along, nobody was having more fun. I learned later that most Shriners have a “Parade Unit” that does some variation of this display in parades across the country.

I have no idea how tiny replica cars powered by lawn mower engines have anything to do with veterans, the American Revolution, or our country’s independence. But then I imagine how disappointed those Shriners would be if the US had never separated from Britain, and I wonder when the next parade is going to start.

Happy Fourth of July!