It’s a cool forty-plus degrees as we strap the canoe to the top of the SUV. The thought that we might have waited a little too long to make this trip crosses my mind, but I dismiss it quickly. My son is a busy lawyer and when he at last had a date open, we jumped on it, rain or shine. This trip is one of those things that we’ve been talking about for a long time. You know, one of those things you look forward to and that sometimes never quite come to be.
But here we are in the crisp, early morning, fastening the canoe so tight on the rack that it feels like a part of the car when we test it with a push or pull. The paddles are in, the lunch materials and the life jackets are in and in a moment, we are off, him following me in his own car to the take-out spot at Lock Four where we’ll leave his car for our pullout when the day is through. We take all back-roads from my home in Saint Albans and in about twenty minutes we pull in to the Lock Four Nature Conservancy Park just off of Route 8 in Alum Creek.
This Park is a small and simple affair. Just a long, well-trimmed grassy area, about the size of a football field, overlooking Coal River. There are park benches here and a couple of kiosks that show maps of the rivers and tell a bit about the natural and economic history of the river. It’s not a small story. In fact, the Coal River was one of the first rivers in the United States to be used for industry. As we look at the small, green stream rolling before us, it is hard to imagine that over a hundred years ago this quiet place was bustling with river traffic. Barges carrying coal and timber and steamboats carrying passengers up and down the almost fifty miles between Whitesville and Saint Albans, day after day.
But what is important to us this morning is that there is plenty of free parking here and just a few yards upstream there’s a nice place to pull the canoe out of the river. The parking lot would accommodate at least eight vehicles and this morning, we’re the only takers. And we leave his car here and drive on less than a mile south on Route 8 where we hit the Corridor – Route 119 – and take a left and head north for a few miles where we take a right onto Brounland Road and start our journey, almost due south, into Boone County.
Driving the Brounland Road is a bit of an adventure in and of itself. The road is wide enough for two cars to pass, but barely. The few cars we meet seem to be familiar with the road and we both slow to a crawl as we approach each other. While we are more or less following the Big Coal River valley, we are in no time at all surrounded by steep mountains and the houses are fewer and farther between as we advance deeper until we approach the town of Emmons, West Virginia. I tell my son, who is too young to remember such things, that this tiny hamlet is where Jay Rockefeller began his political career in West Virginia. He actually lived here, I say. One of the richest men in the world. A moment later we drive past the Senator Jay Rockefeller Park.
Only a few more miles and twists and turns in the road and we are approaching Dartmont, a place that most maps don’t even mark anymore but that holds an almost mythical importance in our family. My dad was raised there, when the place was a company camp, owned by the Orlandi Coal Company, for which my grandfather worked. Dad lived there from about 1935 to about 1944 while his dad drilled and blasted and loaded coal and the C&O Railway ran mile-long trains loaded to the top out of the Coal River valley and into the great, wide, national economy, day after day after day.
I grew up hearing stories about the hometown baseball team and the Dartmont school, but most of all about the river; about gigging frogs in the night, catching “goggle-eyes,” and red-tail suckers and, once in a while, the rare “willow bass.” I remember Dad showing me flint arrowheads that he’d found in the fields and on the creek banks. We’d find them anywhere, he’d say.
Dad took me to Dartmont for the first time when I was just a lad. It was probably in the late 1950s, and my memory of that trip is vague. I do recall seeing the lines of company houses – shacks, really. He pointed out where he had lived. And I remember my dad wading in the stream and drawing a mussel from a shallow and prying it open to show me the bright inside.
I came to Dartmont again as an adult. Once again with my dad, not to fish this time, but just survey the old place. He was old then himself and the place had changed, but not beyond recognition. He again showed me Bull Creek, where he used to gig frogs, and the place where he and his friend, Almon Giles, stole watermelons out of a neighbor’s garden.
I’ve been back a couple of times since, but today as we approach the place, I see that all has changed. Only the church remains, and the level bottom, where the company houses once stood, is now a park. And a very well-maintained park. We are the only moving car in sight, and it’s early morning on a weekday in mid-October, but the park gate has been unlocked and opened and we glide along the gravel road to the old baseball field where we park and prepare to embark. I’ve been thinking that I sure could use some facilities right now and I am pleasantly surprised to find this park, empty as it is, has clean, well-maintained facilities that are now open to us.
Just like at Lock Four downstream, we’re the only customers here this morning, although the place would park fifteen vehicles easily. In moments we are off. I step into the canoe and push away from the bank and listen to the silence as the boat enters the current. Only about an hour and a half has passed since we left the house in Saint Albans. As we start out, we talk to each other about which way to paddle as we navigate the first series of shoals. Trying to remember how the boat reacts as we steer. The river is narrow and shallow here and we comment that we are glad that we had rain only a few days ago that no doubt raised the river just enough to allow us to pass in several spots.
In decades past, that little bit of rain would have ruined things for days on end. In the old days the river would run muddy for a week after a substantial rain. We are the beneficiaries of decades of work by the Coal River Group and the several groups and institutions they have worked with over the years to improve the watershed and the river itself. Right now, the water is sparkling. Where the light is right, we can see schools of minnows flashing in a shallow or a line of red-tailed suckers gliding upstream along the river bottom. As we round turns in the river we see ducks take flight and vanish around the next bend.
Although we are less than 20 miles from home, this place is a different world. We’re only about 200 feet higher here on the river than we were at home, but we are surrounded by real mountains here, not just hills. The wildlife and vegetation are different. I see on the ground the hull of a buckeye that some squirrel has opened and as we start our paddle, we are almost immediately entunnelled beneath the tall, overhanging sycamore and birch that line both banks and lean waterward to meet in the middle. Now and then we hear the trill of a belted kingfisher, then watch the ragged-looking bird, strange to our suburban eyes, sail over the river’s surface, looking for a meal.
As we drift in a long pool, I hear the distant moaning of a train horn. This rail line, which is cut from the mountainside on our right, was begun in the mid-nineteenth century. Several companies went bankrupt trying to complete it, but when it was finally done it became one of the most lucrative businesses in the world. Now I hear the thunder of the locomotive and in no time it is upon us and we hear the rhythmic clatter of the wheels over the rails, take em back, take em back, take em back.…
This gigantic snake seems to go on forever, but we are approaching another shoal and must concentrate on our navigation and when we are through this trouble the train has vanished and we float on, hearing now only the echo of its rattle.
The first hour and a half is for the most part a pretty placid journey. Every now and then we navigate through a shoal, turning this way and that to find a channel deep enough for the boat. In one spot, where the stream divides in two, we beach the boat and survey the situation to decide which way to go. We carry the boat past one narrow sluice covered over with an overhanging tree and we are back in business. In another half hour we see a rocky flat on the right that looks like a comfortable place for lunch. We slide the canoe up onto the flat and open up the victuals and rest. Once out of the boat we notice a little branch that feeds into the river here and hear it gurgle as it drops over the riverbank into a clear pool.
It turns out that the place we’ve chosen is actually the remnant of an old lock. There were several of them along this stream, all of them built before the Civil War, and we can see clearly the beams in the riverbed, still at the perfect right-angles that the engineers drew in the blueprints in 1840-something.
In the moments we stand on this lonely spot I study the grid of beams spanning the riverbed and try to imagine what this place might have looked like 180 years ago. A working lock that staunched the flow of this river and lifted steamboats and barges to allow them to pass. That is no small undertaking, physically or mechanically. What did it look like? Surely there were gates and hinges and ropes and pulleys and turning gears. Was there a steam engine that powered it all? A team of mules or oxen? Was there a station here? A shelter of some sort where someone – maybe more than one – reported to work every morning to find boats waiting on both sides for the lock to be opened? Were fees charged and records kept? The kiosks say that the system of locks was damaged during the Civil War. Were there soldiers here on this very bank with cannon and rifles and torches? If so, were their colors blue or grey?
The second half of our float is a bit of a different story. No one would ever mistake this little stream for the New or Gauley Rivers, but from lunchtime on, we had to stay diligent at our paddles. The river was much bigger here than where we started. The trickles and creeks that had been filtering in as we passed had made quite a difference. We were really moving now, and around almost every bend there was another set of shoals – I might even call one or two of them “rapids” – that we had to shoot. We were calling “left” and “right” and swirling and backing the canoe, dodging rocks and looking for the bottom of the “Vee” that would keep us in water deep enough to pass. It was great. And it kept coming for a good two hours.
By about three-thirty we reached the forks of the Coal, where the Big Coal and Little Coal Rivers meet to form the Coal River. We knew that our take-out was less than a mile away and we paddled on, pulling out and returning to Dartmont for my car and making it home, tired and happy, by five o’clock.
It was a beautiful, sunny day on this reborn and wild-again river. We saw several Great Blue Herons, four deer, lots of ducks and fish – one of which, my son contends, was “as big as a shark.” I’m in the rear of the canoe and didn’t see this fish, but I do not suspect this is any exaggeration. There are gar and muskellunge in this river that are four feet long and carp and catfish that weigh over 40 pounds.
We did this all in a day. We didn’t have to buy a ticket or pay for parking anywhere. We didn’t have to wait in any lines. We were on the river for at least eleven miles on what must have been one of the most ideal days of the year.
In other times and places, sport like this, freedom like this, unfettered access to such a broad range of the gorgeous countryside like we had today was restricted to the aristocracy – those who owned estates or had special licenses or held titles. Here and now it is available to anyone who can paddle a canoe. Yet we did not see another person on the river. Not a single other canoe or kayak, not a soul wading or fishing from the bank, although this river now supports a healthy smallmouth bass population.
I’ve got to believe that what we did last Monday is the kind of thing that lots of city dwellers dream about and would pay big money to experience. It’s exciting and challenging without being white-knuckle dangerous. It’s accessible to almost anyone. Somebody should start talking about it.