Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My West Virginia "Stay-cation"

I enjoyed a West Virginia “stay-cation” over an extended Fourth of July holiday weekend (in spite of the derecho storm that knocked out power around the area). I’ve probably done two dozen whitewater trips on various rivers over the years, and rafting is always fun. One of the outfitters (ACE Adventures near Oak Hill) was offering half-price deals on July 4, plus a “Big Air” contest afterwards (more on this later), so I had made reservations.

The hot summer weather had the New River running lower than normal, but we still had a great time. It is hard to beat a day on the river! It is especially beautiful to float down the rapids underneath of the New River Gorge Bridge. Once we got back, our attention switched to the lake at ACE, which has a white sandy beach and lots of floating inflatable devices (trampolines, sliding boards, etc.) and other activities to prolong your fun after the whitewater has ended.

The “Big Air” contest involved “the Blob”—a big partially inflated airbag below a tower. The idea is for one person to sit at the end, while another person jumps off the tower. Upon impact, the airbag bulges out, thus launching the person sitting at the end. The contest was to see who had the best “ejection” from the blob. Given my size, I served as the launcher rather than the launchee. Although we didn’t win, it was a fun thing to try. I have a new respect for stuntmen who routinely use these airbags when falling from buildings and such.

After taking our showers by flashlight (the electricity still had not been restored at ACE), we headed to Fayetteville for a late dinner. Unfortunately, nothing was open yet because of the continuing power problems. This was a big week for many small businesses related to the tourist industry, so it was sad that they were not able to take full advantage of the delicious eateries there because of the storm aftermath. [By the way, check out this story about the Fayetteville storm aftermath by a Pittsburgh journalist--http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/saturday-diary-thank-you-west-by-god-virginia-643641/]

The next afternoon, we set off on another adventure—this time to cross the New River Gorge bridge, via the catwalk underneath. We arrived at the BridgeWalk headquarters near the National Park Service Visitor Center, and put on the necessary safety harness. Soon we were clipped to the safety wire and walking out onto the catwalk, which is only about two and a half feet wide (but with sturdy railings on both sides). A family from Alabama was ahead of us and a husband and wife from Indiana were behind us as we made our way across the 3300 foot span. Our guide provided lots of interesting information about the design and history of the bridge. It was quite a spectacular view! Plus, we even got to see one of the peregrine falcons that make their home under the bridge!

After dinner at Pies & Pints in Fayetteville (a great place, and one of the only Fayetteville restaurants that had reopened as of July 5), we headed out for a little hike to the Long Point overlook. The National Park Service has developed a lot of nice hiking trails around the gorge, and this particular trail takes you to the point of rocks across from the New River Gorge Bridge with a scenic overlook. It is only 1.6 miles from the designated parking area, and the view is stupendous when you finally arrive. We got there as a thick white fog was rising from the New River while the sun was beginning to set in the west. It was an absolutely beautiful vista!

Friday and Saturday were spent kayaking in several locations. Summersville Lake is known for its rock cliffs and clear water. Supposedly, it is one of the best places to scuba dive in the eastern United States. It was great to paddle along the rocky coastline, and gaze into the coke-bottle clear green water. My only complaint is that it was so popular that weekend, with lots of boaters and jet skis enjoying the water. Kayakers must have a good sense of balance with all the boat waves, plus the “echo” waves bouncing back from the rock cliffs.

Another kayaking destination was the area just below Kanawha Falls. There is a small island in the middle of the Kanawha River below the falls, and I had always wanted to explore it. I beached my kayak and walked around—it felt good to be “king” of my own island! Maybe it is a result of watching “Gilligan’s Island” as a kid, but I have always been fascinated with islands. By the way, if you have only viewed Kanawha Falls from the small parking lot off of U.S. Route 60, you really haven’t experienced Kanawha Falls. It is such a wide expanse, and much of it is hidden from view unless you are in a boat or perhaps riding the New River Train (http://www.newrivertrain.com/nrt.html) on the opposite shore (as we did last fall, and were amazed at viewing the falls from this different vantage point).

We also transported our kayaks to a small park in Gauley Bridge between Route 16 and the river. We first headed for the big rocks in the river across from where the Gauley meets the New to form the Kanawha River. One of these rocks has an old bus perched on it that has been converted into a house. The bus house on the rock has captivated me since my childhood days of traveling Route 60 to visit relatives at Norfolk for our annual vacation. I am not the only one captivated by this island home—I also remember that West Virginia Public Television did a story about this local landmark years ago.

Perhaps the biggest surprise while exploring the initial stages of the Kanawha River was the huge carp that we often scared away. They seemed to be well over three feet long, if not approaching four feet. We paddled upstream into the New River, past the Sunoco Station and the campground that has been there for years. The river narrows between two major rock outcroppings near the railroad bridge across from Cathedral Falls. It took some hard paddling to get through the current at that point, but we were able to keep going all the way to the old hydroelectric plant before turning around.

The Gauley River was our final place to explore. The water is exceptionally clear, and it was interesting to see the varying terrain of the river bottom (sometimes quite shallow, only to give way to a deep hole), as well as the number of 1-2 foot smallmouth bass. I was particularly interested in the old cut-stone bridge pier that remains in river, above both the train and the Route 60 bridges. It looks like it might have been around during the Civil War, as a lot of action took place in the Gauley Bridge area. In fact, my thrice-great-grandfather fought for the Union in this area, and he may well have marched over the bridge that this remaining pier supported. I’m sure he had no idea that 150 years later, his great-great-great-grandson would be paddling around in a plastic boat near that bridge pier.

After going as far up the Gauley as we could without getting out to drag the kayaks, we drifted back towards the town of Gauley Bridge. A church bell tolled out that it was 3:00 PM, but then continued with a variety of patriotic tunes. Apparently this Gauley Bridge church has a bell carillon, and was doing a special set of songs for the July 4th weekend. This patriotic salute as we loaded up the kayaks was a great way to end our Independence Day weekend stay-cation in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

The beautiful view from my kayak, looking down the New River towards its confluence with the Gauley River.

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