Text By: Carmen Bowes
Photos By: Sam Taylor
Note: Details on trip logistics are included at the end of the article.
Canaan Valley is 13 miles long and ranges from 3-5 miles wide down its length. It is stunning. The plants grow thick across its span and the Blackwater River snakes and twists its way, cutting deep into the boggy landscape.
We sit waiting for our shuttle to return, canoes at the ready. We weren’t supposed to do this river. We intended to do the Smoke Hole Canyon, the weather was lined up perfectly. A tropical storm was meant to blanket our entire region in several inches of rain. But our mountains caught it and held it too far west to reach Smoke Hole. We woke up this morning and the South Branch Potomac had the same measly water in it that is did yesterday. “No water,” Charles said. And like a true boater he followed the water, and we followed him, to the Blackwater. He said, “There may be a couple of trees down but nothing too bad.”
The canoe we are taking on the river was bought 2 years ago from an older man near Sam’s parent’s house. The man wanted $250 for it. A steal. We’ve only had it out 2 times before today. The first was on a lake and the second a mellow float trip down the Cheat. This trip is more than we’ve done.
I look at the swift, narrow, seemingly bottomless, dark water and I feel my nerves welling. I hear Sam’s nerves in his voice, I’m sure he can hear mine. The wellbeing of this man and his very expensive camera gear rest on my paddle and the strokes I will feed to it.
We watch people launch in front of us, most everyone has a smooth take-off except Todd, he immediately hits a rock head on and nearly capsizes his solo-boat. I feel all kinds of tension as we slide our canoe out into the water. The current moves one end down and the boat is lined up perfectly with the shore. Charles instructs, “Sam, step into the center of the boat.” I am holding the canoe and I feel it shift under Sam’s new weight. I step over the boat into the center and kneel, the boat gently rocking with my body’s addition. I grab my paddle and I say, “Alright Sam, forward.”
I feel the current pull on the boat and then we are floating. Down the river. There are a lot of rocks. I steer us around most of them but we scrape over several. One couple says from their canoe, “That’s the divorce machine!” There are laughs and skeptics. We both smile, we have heard this one before.
We slide over rocks and around trees. The valley is beautiful but I can barely pay attention to anything but the water. We glide for hours, 2, maybe 3.
Our slightly inebriated, self-proclaimed tour guide says we are getting close to “the overlook.” An hour later, we all pull off. Sam steps uneasy out of the boat and pulls myself further into shore. We secure our boat and climb through thick brush and ankle-deep water to a panoramic view of the valley. The white clouds stand strong against the blue sky and go on forever before meeting the ultra-green horizon. We snack on hummus, bean dip, potato chips, and chocolate covered cashews. They taste good in this place with this view. Filling and easy.
Fed and feeling lethargic, we head back to the water. Before we can launch, Josh, my brother and our river scout, yells, “We have to portage, there is a pipeline.” Everyone else goes further down and starts their carry. Sam and I lift the canoe and start heaving from where we are. We trudge through the thick vegetation; my shoes slide around on my feet. They are drenched and filled with silt.
We get to the other side of the pipeline and I slide down in the creek to hold the canoe for Sam. He climbs in and then I step over and we are off.
We paddle a short while, wandering the sinuous turns of the river. The water gets narrower and the alder bush starts to crowd us and we hear a shout from somewhere we cannot see but seems close, “It gets tight here.” We are floating and I try to steer us straight through the middle but the boat gets hung up on some branches that are lurking under the water and the canoe turns hard sideways and we are stuck. Sam is pushing and pulling branches, trying to free us and I am paddling as hard as I can and the same voice from the other side says, “You just need to hit it straight, you will get through.” And my frustration peaks and I snap, “I know what I need to do, I just can’t get it to do that.” I tell Sam to stop holding the branches for a moment. I take a deep breath and I say, “Ok, push really hard on the branches.” And while he is pushing, I backpaddle like my life depends on it and we are nearly free and I hear that voice say, “Just a little bit more! Keep going!” And then our boat straightens and we float through the branches.
I see Josh, the scout. He was the voice. I apologize for my tone with him. We both laugh and paddle down the river. There are trees that require technical skill and luck, we get around them. There is another portage. The water is deeper here. We struggle to get back in our boat but we do well.
The light gets low and golden. The water sparkles and the sun peaks through the trees at us. The breeze is perfect and a comfortable distance grows between us and the other boats and I start to feel the peace of this place. It is quiet except for the sound of the water. The river gains another tributary and becomes wider, more forgiving. I steer us gently through the turns in the river and then we come together again.
The landscape starts to change as we get closer to the edge of the valley. Pine trees line the shore, blooming mountain laurel hides under the branches. The water gets swift as it drops out of the plateau. And then we are at the take-out. We all grab hold of the shore and start pulling boats out. We team lift them up the slick, rocky bank. Piling into vehicles to do the return shuttle, there is an orange and pink and purple sunset showing off as we drive out the dirt road back to food and dry clothes and picnic tables and warm beds.
A good, hard day. Worth it.
As noted in the intro, this trip became possible because of unusually heavy rain in Canaan Valley, which brought the river level up to "runnable" from where we did it. We put on at the Beall Bridge access to the river, on Cortland Road. This trip was strenuous with portages and was technically challenging in terms of multiple trees, rocks, limbs, and other obstacles in the river, and took roughly 10 hours. This trip should only be attempted by people with the appropriate level of skill and fitness, as much of the route would be inaccessible by foot or motor vehicle. Those who use this information do so at their own risk, as noted in our Disclaimer.