The night before I was watching the weather radar every hour. Long lines of green crawling up from the south; bad news for us. We wanted to float the Big Coal River in the morning. My son and I communicated through the evening, telling each other that it might just be alright, that we might get a break in the showers long enough to make our run. I continued to get the canoe ready and to prepare enough food for the day we hoped we’d have.
I watched the so-called “river gauge” too. Bill Curry, the grand-daddy of the Coal River Group, showed me how to find the readings on line and warned me not to try the trip if the reading went “above five.” He also gave me a map of the Coal River system, showing access spots and giving approximate distances for the stretches between those spots. From what I could tell, normal pool for the river at Ashford – where the gauge was located – is somewhere around 2.5. The river had been at that level for some days, but this evening, after some light but long-lasting showers, the line on the graph had started to rise, approaching, then passing, 3.0. I went to bed, still hopeful, but not at all sure that we would make our trip.
When I woke up the rain had stopped. The sky was still overcast and rain was still dripping from the leaves when the wind blew, but we decided to give it a try and loaded the canoe and started out for Dartmont.
We leave Saint Albans at 8:15 and take back roads south to State Route214 and then to Corridor G at the Childress Road entrance. We continue south from there to the next exit – Brounland Road. We exit left there and proceed almost due south to the Emmons Road which follows the Big Coal River into Dartmont. We make it to Dartmont by 9:15 and leave my son’s car there at Dartmont Park. We have no qualms about that. The park is a well-maintained and tended place, made for river-trippers like us, and we park the car in a gravel lot beside a picnic shelter. While there we meet a man hitting golf balls. He’s the only person in the park at this early hour. We tell him of our intention to run the river from Racine and he comments that with the river running high as it is, we should expect to be back in Dartmont in about three hours. That’s not too far off from estimates I’d heard elsewhere, so we hop back into my car and continue south, over Lens Creek Mountain and down into the little settlement of Racine. This leg of the journey is different from the others. We aren’t following the river now, and Lens Creek Mountain is a real mountain, not like the hills surrounding the Kanawha Valley that we are used to. We’re on the road for just over 15 minutes when we start to see the outskirts of Racine. A few houses clustered together, a church here and there.
I’ve never been here before; never put the canoe in this far upstream. I don’t know what to expect. Racine is a small – population 245 at the last census – settlement – but as we see immediately, the facilities here for boaters leave nothing to be desired. There is plenty of parking, all of it free and all of it near enough to the river to make carrying the boat to the water not too much of a task. There are restroom facilities right there by the launch, clean and well-maintained.
I have put my canoe into a few rivers in a lot of different spots and you always worry that you are going to have to wade through twenty yards of waist-high weeds, hoping that you don’t anger any copperheads along the way, and then deal with laboring to get the boat down a long, steep embankment, and then sliding the boat into the water and getting yourself aboard without getting soaked.
No such worries in Racine. The launch/pullout is paved, connected to the lot where we’ve parked the car, and slopes gently down into the river. Access easy. Loading easy. By 9:45 we are in the river, paddling. And here is one of the endearing points of the story. In an hour and a half, we have gone from suburbia to a beautiful and wild canoe ride. I imagine that people in cities all over the country travel for days and pay big money for an experience like this, and for us it’s only 90 minutes away.
In only moments we realize that the ride is going to be wilder than we thought. We had imagined a leisurely, day-long float down this little river, but the hours of rain had intervened and right from the start we are at a pace much faster than we had planned for. It seemed like no time at all before we hit the first white water. That’s a term of art, I guess, and there are those with more canoeing and kayaking experience than me who might object to its use to describe what we experienced. What we hit – and we hit it again and again – was not like the white-knuckle surging of the New or Gauley Rivers. But the water we passed through, time and again, was white, and rushing, and the drops were pretty steep. We were never really threatened, but we were bounced around a bit, took on a little water, and had to paddle constantly to find the right channel to pass through the rapids and to keep the boat straight in the current.
The downside of our day, I guess, is that, given the swollen river, now milky with runoff, we can’t see the riverbottom, can’t see the fish that we know swim in the long pools between the rapids. I notice the absence of Great Blue Herons, a majestic wading bird that is common on these rivers and that are usually very much in evidence during a long float like ours. I wonder if the water level or the increased speed of the current has kept them away from the water today.
But the day itself is beautiful. The sun breaks through almost as we enter the stream, as if it had saved itself for us. And the river, even though milky-green now with the rain, is also beautiful. It’s impossible to capture the sight and the feeling in words, but here on the upper Big Coal, the arching birches and gigantic, overhanging sycamores on both banks almost meet overtop the river like entwined fingers so that in some stretches you are completely entunnelled in a shaded green cathedral.
And what we miss in wildlife observation we more than make up for in sheer excitement. We don’t stay in any of the pools for very long. At every turn in the river – and there are lots of turns in this stretch – we see rapids ahead and start trying to make decisions about where to begin the navigation. Do we go left or right around that island? Where is the deepest channel? Where must we paddle furiously to keep the boat under control?
I’ve taken lots of canoe trips in my day. Many on other stretches of this or the Little Coal River. Some on the Greenbrier. Some on the New River. But what I notice today is something different than I have seen on any other trip. As we look ahead to the horizon, I can see the drop in the river. It’s more obvious in some places than others, but it almost looks like we are sailing downhill and not on a level surface. That’s true, strictly speaking, but it’s always true when you are canoeing down a river, but it has never been so visible to me as it is this day. I wonder if that has to do with the high water.
At around 11:30 I sneak a look at my watch and start to think about where will will stop for lunch. I think it will be more of a challenge than usual, since the normal beaches and landings are all under water now. I start to pay closer attention to both banks, thinking that we should break soon and do our third hour of paddling after eating. In only moments, though, we round another bend in the river and my son says “Is that my car?”
And it is. This is Dartmont. We hustle to bring the boat to the right bank, grab some weeds and pull ourselves out of the river. It would have been very easy just to sail right by our pullout. We were moving fast and certainly were not expecting to see it for some time. If we had passed it by I hate to think of what a task it would have been to try and fight the current to get back there.
And so, we open our lunchbox at Dartmont park and eat under one of the shelters. It’s overcast again now, and the wind carries with it the hint of more coming rain. So, we leave the canoe on a level above the river there and head back to Racine to pick up my car – the one with the canoe rack. In less than an hour we have the canoe reloaded and we are headed back to Corridor G and the Kanawha Valley, tired and happy.
West Virginia really is a place of well-kept secrets, and the upper Big Coal River is certainly one of them.