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Posts Tagged ‘Boating’

Pete Gross, known to his peers as “Dirtbag” or “Dirt,” is a legendary Colorado River boatman who began his career in the 1970s rowing dories through Grand Canyon. He is now retired and living in Moab, Utah.

Karma handed Pete his nickname; he had a habit of calling everyone “dirtbag,” in the affectionate manner of addressing others as “dude” or “pal.” Eventually, the term ended up affixed to him.

In the boating world, Pete is respected for being not only a skilled professional, but also a sincere, practicing environmentalist. He is known for truly walking the walk.

To get around, Pete rides a bike or takes public transportation. To reach his energy-efficient home in a green community in Moab, you either walk or bike; no cars are allowed.

He doesn’t have a TV set or an internet connection. He goes dumpster-diving at Moab grocery stores on the principle that too much perfectly good food is thrown out. That practice evolved into a local food redistribution program run by Pete’s friends and other volunteers.

Pete lives modestly, with a goal of leaving a responsible footprint on the planet. Yet, he insists he is comfortable and content, and life is good.

In 2009, he was interviewed at length as part of a program designed to preserve the memories and stories of the old-time river guides for posterity. When I came across the transcript, I was struck by his explanation of why he feels so strongly about treading lightly on the earth. He made his case with passion and eloquence.

Here is an excerpt.

————

I remember the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. When I first read about that, my reaction was, “Okay, so it’s made a mess of the whole coastline, but we need the oil.”

But slowly, I came around to the notion that I was basically anti-people, anti-technology. I just chose environmentalism over economics. It was a pretty naive viewpoint, but that was the conscious choice. My attitude was, it was one versus the other.

I’d just chosen that the environment was more important to me, and people and the economy came second. It was a slow realization for me that — whether it was just my misperception, or the powers-that-be fueling the notion that it’s one or the other — it was a big epiphany for me to realize, no! Those are not two mutually exclusive options.

I think there are certain… like, the oil companies and certain powers-that-be have a vested interest in fueling a false… bifurcation? Is that the right word? You have one or the other, you can’t have both.

But really, you can’t have one without the other. Or, you can’t have a healthy economy if you’ve spoiled and ruined your foundation for that, which is the environment.

There’s a book by Amory Lovins — he and some others, Lovins was a co-author — a book called Natural Capitalism that talks about a post-industrial era. What makes the most sense, not just environmentally, but economically, is to realize that there are these natural services that are irreplaceable, yet we place no value on them.

Like our atmosphere, and the biosphere that cycles through nutrients… just the whole cycle of energy, the sun shining on the earth, plants taking the sun, converting through chlorophyll, taking CO2 and making glucose, and then enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which then makes it possible for the plants to grow that make our food, whatever.

There are all these natural services that we can’t replicate, and yet we don’t value them. And so we destroy them in the notion that we’re gonna make a buck. We’re profiting, but we’re destroying our real capital to create this income stream that isn’t sustainable.

That was when I finally had this realization, “Oh, I don’t need to choose that I’m an environmentalist, and therefore I oppose economic development.” I realized you can’t have a healthy economy without a robust, healthy environment.

You know, I look at a forest, and I don’t see board feet. I look at a river, and I don’t see kilowatt hours. But you look at a forest and realize, “Okay, yeah, there’s an economic value to the wood in that tree. Yeah, we could log that tree and mill it and sell it and stuff, and there’s a certain economic value.

But what we ignore is that that tree, standing in place there, is providing wildlife habitat and watershed. It’s helping give us a sustainable clean water source and protecting us from floods, and so on. We cut that tree down, we’re not very good at putting a price tag on how much value it has just in place.

The same thing comes up when you’re looking strictly at river issues, when you talk about dams versus irrigation and water rights.

Well, like we’ve learned with the salmon fisheries. There’s an incredible value to this food source. We have eliminated or almost decimated these salmon populations, which were natural services, provided for free. An incredible food source.

Instead, we put a lot of infrastructure in place, and a lot of irrigation and what-not, to raise cows. Takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, at the price of — we’ve decimated salmon fisheries, for which we didn’t have to do anything. They were there for the harvesting!

————

He had me at “bifurcation.”

Lachs / Wanderung / Kanada

 

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Sometimes, you just have to relax and enjoy the humor in things.

A couple of months ago, I bought a jet ski trailer. Not the jet ski, just the trailer. I purchased it to haul my kayak.

This is the trailer when I brought it home.

Trailer-1

This is the trailer modified to carry the kayak. Piece of cake.

Trailer-2

All well and good. But, as you can see, the trailer is a tiny thing. When I was on the road, I couldn’t see it in the rear-view mirror. Nor could I see it while backing up. It was a problem that demanded a solution.

No worries. I bought a fiberglass pole with a safety flag and mounted it on the back corner of the trailer. The pole sticks up about three feet so you can see what’s back there.

But still, there was a problem. The orange flag was dreadfully tacky, and it was noisy in the wind. I simply couldn’t abide it. I decided to ditch the flag and replace it with an antenna topper.

Hmmm, what kind of antenna topper should I get? Smiley face? Grinning skull? Flaming eyeball? Daffy Duck?

In the end, I settled on a Styrofoam eight ball, like this one:

Eight ball

I found it on Amazon.com. The price was about $3.00 plus a couple of bucks for shipping. Fair enough.

A week or so later, an oversized envelope arrived in the mail from the 温 馨 公 司
company (not their real name) in Hong Kong. The packaging didn’t seem appropriate for a Styrofoam eight ball, but I wasn’t expecting anything else at the time. I opened the envelope.

What it contained was a 3’x5′ nylon replica of the Confederate battle flag.

The paperwork in the envelope stated that it was an eight ball antenna topper, but I’m here to tell ya, it wasn’t.

My first inclination was to return it. In truth, the flag is worth a good bit more than a Styrofoam antenna topper, but I have no use for a flag.

(Where I live, flying it would be perfectly acceptable, but it’s too big for the little fiberglass pole on the trailer.)

Anyway, I figured it was silly to return a five-dollar order, and antenna toppers are easy to find. I decided to keep the flag and chalk it up to experience.

A few days later, back on Amazon.com, I ordered another antenna topper — this one:

Larry

I bought it from a company in, of all places, Hong Kong. This time, the order was fulfilled satisfactorily.

I find it quite amusing to make eye contact in the rearview mirror with the incomparable Larry Fine.

When I told my kids about the saga of the eight ball and the flag, my son Dustin pointed out the obvious.

Somewhere, there is a dude who ordered a Confederate battle flag and is trying to decide what to do with an eight ball antenna topper.

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Before I get to the post, a brief note…

I started Mr. Write’s Page on February 3, 2009, nearly six years ago. My first post was a story about pet goats wreaking havoc in my neighborhood.

Back then, I had no idea how long I would keep the blog going, or would want to. But so far, I still feel compelled to speak up about stuff, and I have no problem finding material. Plus, I enjoy the hell out of it.

Okay, fine. But, why, in December 2014, do I harken back to the beginning of this blog? Because the nice folks at WordPress keep precise statistics, and you are reading my 1,000th post on Mr. Write’s Page.

Pretty cool.

And now, on with the blog story.

——————

A few weeks ago, the polar vortex discharged an arctic blast in this direction, and the weather forecast for where I live was grim: lows in the 20s, highs about 40.

Okay, that isn’t horribly terrible, but I wasn’t ready for it. In Georgia, winter isn’t supposed to arrive for real until the first of the year. I was still in the frame of mind for shorts and sandals. I wanted none of it.

So, I packed a bag, checked Paco into the doggie spa, strapped my kayak to the roof of the car, and drove to Florida.

I had been thinking about going south for a kayak trip anyway. North and Central Florida are loaded with rivers and springs that are great places to paddle, at any time of the year.

Last March, for example, I went kayaking at Crystal River, where the manatee herds congregate. The weather was perfect, the trip sublime.

So anyhoo, with the arctic blast on my heels, I drove south on I-75 with a goal of outrunning the cold weather and enjoying a couple of balmy days on the water.

As it happened, I didn’t outrun it. The cold front followed me deep into Florida. When I stopped for the night in Ocala, the news media and the citrus industry were freaking out about the cold.

The next morning, I was pretty alarmed, too. I walked outside to find overcast skies, a brisk wind, and a temp of 28 degrees. That, plus the car and the kayak were covered with a thin, but very real layer of ice.

Suwannee-1

At that moment, a day of paddling didn’t sound too appealing.

But it was okay. The cold spell was spent. Afternoon highs would be back in the 60s. All I had to do was wait.

By mid-morning, I arrived at my destination, Manatee Springs State Park, ready to do my thing.

The park is located in north-central Florida, where the Panhandle meets the Peninsula, not far inland from the Gulf of Mexico. That region, where the coast curves and turns south, is sometimes called “the armpit of Florida.” You can draw your own conclusion about that.

Manatee Springs is a “first-magnitude” (high-flow) spring. The water emerges at a constant 72 degrees and flows into the Suwanee River, which passes a few hundred yards from the spring. 30 miles downstream, the river meets the Gulf at Cedar Key.

The park gets its name from the manatees that, in the colder months, swim upriver to bask in the warm water flowing from the spring.

In the warmer months, Manatee Springs is a teeming mass of humanity. Hoards of tourists gather there to swim and paddle in the crystal clear water. Frequently, the parking lots fill up and the gates are closed. When someone leaves, the next carload of visitors is allowed to enter.

But in the off-season, such as November after a spell of cold weather, you can count the tourists in the park on one hand. The day I was there, I was the only kayaker.

That was fine with me. When it comes to non-whitewater kayaking, silence and solitude are the big attractions. That day, it was just me, the shorebirds, and the manatees.

And I’m here to tell ya, the place is incredibly clean, serene, and beautiful.

From the put-in at the spring, I slowly paddled down the run to the Suwannee River. For the next few hours, I explored both sides of the river, upstream and down.

Along the banks were a scattering of homes, some new and opulent, some old and modest, and several boat docks, but I saw not a single soul.

The only other vessel on the river was a small motorboat with two local fishermen, trying their luck along the east bank.

As predicted, the day was sunny, calm, and 65-plus degrees. I drifted, paddled, and drifted some more. I tied the kayak to a cypress knee while I ate a ham sandwich for lunch. It was idyllic. Blissful. Restorative.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

At the mouth of the spring run was a group of manatees — two large adults, two juveniles, and two four-foot babies. As long as I drifted quietly, they tolerated me just fine.

This video tells the story.

I was, of course, taking photos constantly, using my camera and my cell phone, both of which I kept in easy reach.

The cell phone was in front of me inside the open deck bag. The camera (a small Canon Powershot) was at my feet, on the floor of the kayak, on a folded golf towel.

On the water, kayaks drift in unwanted directions as soon as you stop paddling. So, I would pick up the camera, take a photo or video, and quickly drop the camera onto the towel so I could get back to paddling.

Although I didn’t know it until I got home and reviewed the photos and videos, it appears that on two occasions, I dropped the camera onto the towel from too great a height, causing the shutter release to fire accidentally.

The first time, the camera took a photo straight up from the floor of the kayak, with me as the subject:

Suwannee-8

Remarkably, the shot is in focus and relatively well composed. The ivory-colored curly thing is my paddle leash.

Wait. There’s more.

A few minutes later, as I was paddling back toward the take-out point near the spring, I dropped the camera onto the towel — and again accidentally triggered the shutter release. And this time, the camera was in video mode.

The accidental video shows me paddling for a few seconds, then reaching down for the camera, then holding it in up and composing a shot of the spring, then pressing the shutter release — which, of course, stopped the recording.

Wait. There’s more.

Back at the take-out, I beached the kayak and secured my gear. I put the paddle in its holder on the side of the deck, zipped up the deck bag, and prepared to get out.

Then — oops — I remembered the camera on the floor of the boat. I picked it up, placed it in the left pocket of my paddling jacket, and proceeded to disembark.

As I leaned over to do that, I felt the camera slip from my pocket. I heard the kerplunk as it hit the water.

Wide-eyed, I looked over the left side of the boat, down through eight inches of crystal-clear spring water, and saw the camera at rest on the sandy bottom. Tiny bubbles of air were rising from the housing.

Then my left hand flashed down, seized the camera, and brought it dripping to the surface.

That night at my motel, upon further inspection, I sadly concluded that the camera was, in fact, officially kaput. Toast. History.

The battery, being a sealed unit, was fine. So was the SD card. I may have lost a perfectly good camera, but at least the day’s photos and videos survived unscathed.

And, optimist that I am, I chose to look on the bright side: I was free to go out and buy a replacement camera (the latest and most advanced Powershot) with a clear conscience.

 

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My previous post was about a boat tour I took earlier this month into the beautiful and fascinating Atchafalaya Basin, a sprawling wetland in southern Louisiana. The trip was a mere two hours long, but it was enough to give me the flavor of the place and make me resolve to go back another time and explore further.

My tour guide that day was Captain Don, a jovial Cajun fellow who regaled us passengers with (1) fascinating facts about the history and inhabitants of the Atchafalaya and (2) Cajun jokes.

Specifically, Captain Don introduced us to Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, the central characters of much Cajun humor. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are a disreputable, but lovable duo whose antics get them into constant trouble.

The jokes, of course, are universal. But, when told by a Cajun about Cajuns, they have an undeniable panache.

Every time Captain Don reeled off a joke, I quietly made a note, so I could reconstruct the tale later. As it turned out, he told quite a few. That’s why I felt obliged to make this report a two-parter.

Here are the jokes Captain Don told us…

AB-6

Boudreau is drivin’ in da city one day, all in a sweat. He got a very important meetin’, and he can’t find a parking place.

Lookin’ up to Heaven he says, “Lord, take pity on me! If you find me a parkin’ place, ah will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of ma life, and ah’ll never take another drink as long as ah live!”

Like a miracle, a parkin’ place appears around de next corner.

Boudreau looks up at Heaven again and says, “Never mind, Lord, ah found one.”

AB-7

Thibodeaux is layin’ on his deathbed with only a few days to live. He calls his wife Clotile to his side and says, “Make me a promise, Clotile. Swear to me dat after ah’m dead and gone, you will marry Boudreaux.”

“Boudreaux?” she exclaims. “You always say you hate Boudreaux, ’cause he’s low down and no good, and you wish nuttin’ but BAD on him!”

Thibodeaux says, “Yeah, ah do.”

AB-8

One day, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux fly north to Yankee country on vacation. As dey come in for a landin’, Boudreaux yells at Thibodeaux, “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway!”

So Thibodeaux pulls up and goes around for another try. As he attempts another landin’, Boudreaux yells at him again. “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway already!”

Thibodeaux pulls back on da stick and goes around again. As he comes in for a third try, he says to Boudreaux, “You know, dese Yankees is pretty stupid! Dey made dis runway way too short, but look at how wide it is!”

AB-9

Pierre is drinkin’ at de bar, when Thibodeaux comes in. “Pierre, you heard the news?” says Thibodeaux. “Boudreaux is dead!”

“That’s terrible!” says Pierre. “What happened to him?”

“Well, Boudreaux was on his way over to my house the other day, and when he arrived, his foot missed da brake pedal, and BOOM — he hit da curb! He crash troo da windshield, go flying troo de air, and smash troo my upstairs bedroom window!”

“What a horrible way to die!” says Pierre.

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he’s lyin’ on the floor, all covered in broken glass, and he tries to pull hisself up on dat big old antique chifferrobe we got, and BANG — da chifferrobe comes crashing down on top of him!”

“Mais, that’s terrible!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he gets de chifferrobe off him, and he crawls out onto da landin’, and he tries to pull hisself up on de han’rail! But de han’rail breaks, and BAM — Boudreaux fall down da stairs to da first floor!”

“Dat’s sure an awful way to go!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! Boudreaux, he even survived dat!

“So, he’s downstairs, and he crawls into de kitchen and tries to pull hisself up on de stove! But he tips over a big pot of hot gumbo, and whoosh — da whole thing come down on him and burn him real bad!”

“Thibodeaux, dat’s an awful way to die!”

“No no, he survived dat too!”

“Wait — hold on now! Just how did Boudreaux die?”

“Ah shot him!”

“You shot him? Why you shoot him?”

“Mais, he was wreckin’ mah house!”

AB-10

Boudreaux is workin’ on his cabane, which is what we call a cabin in dese parts, when his little grandson runs in.

“Papaw,” says da boy, “How far away is California? How far is California, Papaw?”

Boudreaux answers, “Boy, ah don’t know! Go away, now, ’cause ah’m busy!”

A few minutes later, here comes de boy again. “Papaw! Make a noise like a frog! Make a noise like a frog, Papaw!”

Boudreaux yells, “Boy can’t you see ah’m workin’? Get on outta here, like ah tol‘ ya!”

Da boy goes outside, but he stays near de door, lookin’ in at Boudreaux.

Finally, Boudreaux stops what he’s doin’ and says, “Boy, why you wanna know all dat?”

Da boy says, “‘Cause Mamaw told us — when Papaw finally croaks, we goin’ to California!”

AB-11

One mornin’, Boudreaux goes fishin’, and he’s doin’ real fine until da game warden pops up. Da game warden been watchin’ from the bushes, and he waits ’till Boudreaux catches a mess of fish. Den he steps out and says, “Ok, boy, lemme see dat fishin’ license!”

Well, Boudreaux, he ain’t GOT no fishin’ license, so da game warden arrest him and take him to court.

Da judge looks at da charges, and says, “Boudreaux, you got a clean record, son. You ain’t never been in dis court before.”

“Das right, Judge,” Boudreaux says. “Ah ain’t never been caught till now.”

“How ’bout dis?” says the judge. “If you promise to get a fishin’ license and not break the law no more, ah’ll let you go.”

Da game warden lets out a howl of protest. “Dat ain’t fair, Judge!” he yells. “Boudreaux, he do dis all da time, but he always get away! I finally catch him, and you lettin’ him go?”

“Well,” says da judge, “Maybe he done learned his lesson. Have ya, Boudreaux?”

“You bet ah have, Judge,” says Boudreaux.

So da judge slams down his gavel and tells Boudreaux he’s free to go. Da game warden turns to de judge and says, “Judge, what about dis? One time, ah came up on Boudreaux in de swamp, and he done cooked and eat a brown pelican, da Louisiana state bird!”

“Is dat true, Boudreaux?” says da judge.

Boudreaux stops at de courtroom door and turns back and says, “Yes, Judge, ah done what he said, but de bird was already dead, and ah hated to see de meat go to waste!”

Da judge thought for a minute and den says, “Ah’m curious, Boudreaux. What do brown pelican taste like?”

“Funny thing, Judge,” says Boudreaux. “It taste a lot like bald eagle!”

AB-12

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Earlier this month, on the way home from my ill-fated trip to Grand Canyon, I took the southern route, along the Gulf coast. When I stopped for the night in Lafayette, Louisiana, I went online, found an outfit that runs boat tours into the Atchafalaya swamp, and made a reservation for the following day.

You probably know that much of southern Louisiana is swamp and wetland, created most famously by the Mississippi River and its delta. But there is another river there, and another delta, that is nearly equal to the Mississippi in regional impact: the Atchafalaya.

Just below Natchez, the Atchafalaya River peels off from the Mississippi and flows south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya delta is 50 miles or so west of New Orleans.

AB-1

The river corridor and its associated wetland is known as the Atchafalaya Basin. It constitutes the largest river swamp in the United States — about 20 miles wide and 150 miles long.

The Basin is largely unpopulated. The few roads there follow the tops of levees, which were built over the years to corral the river and minimize flooding in adjacent areas.

AB-2

Interstate 10 crosses the Basin on a massive, 18-mile-long bridge, the 2nd longest in the United States. The longest is its neighbor, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway north of New Orleans, which is 46 miles long.

AB-3

The Atchafalaya Basin is a rich combination of marshes, bayous, islands, and forests. Its waters range from fresh in the north to brackish closer to the coast. It is prime habitat for numerous species of waterfowl, fish, crawfish, shrimp, and crab.

It is home to deer, black bear, alligators, beaver, mink, otter, nutria, and foxes. Not to mention turtles, snakes, raccoons, armadillos, and opossums. It is incredibly beautiful and serene. Which is why I was shopping for a boat tour.

The Basin is in the heart of Cajun Country, and most of the fish camps, marinas, and tour companies around its edges are Cajun-run. As you soon discover, the natives are a naturally exuberant, energetic, and entertaining folk.

For the record, Cajuns are the descendants of French-speaking people from the Acadia region of Eastern Canada. They settled in Louisiana in the late 1700s after being booted from their homeland by the British. The Louisiana Cajuns have developed a rich and unique culture, with its own dialect, traditions, music, and food.

The next morning at the levee in Henderson, Louisiana, I boarded the Katherine Grace, a flat-bottom tour boat under the command of Captain Don, a friendly fellow of the Cajun persuasion who knows the swamp as thoroughly as do the herons and the gators.

AB-4

Captain Don.

That day, I was one of a dozen-plus tourists aboard. Captain Don took us on a leisurely cruise into a small corner of the Basin, pointing out the flora and fauna and informing us about the history of the place. But as soon as we left the dock, Captain Don took us passengers to Cajun school.

“First of all,” he said, “Y’all gotta learn to say da name of dis place proper! Dis is de Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh! Now y’all say it.”

“Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh,” we repeated in unison.

“Das real good,” he said. “And, man, we got us a beautiful day here in de Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh!”

And it was, indeed, a beautiful day — mild, calm, and sunny. For the next two hours, we cruised slowly among the islands. Captain Don showed us the remains of old bridge pilings and abandoned oil platforms. He told us which plants were native and which were invasive.

He pointed out the numerous shorebirds and informed us that the Great White Egret has black legs and black feet, whereas a Snowy Egret has black legs and yellow feet.

Captain Don would inch the boat slowly around a bend so we could get a quick look at a massive alligator sunning on the bank before the gator got spooked and slipped away into the water.

And, in addition to dishing up factual information, he told us Cajun jokes.

I knew at the time that I would write about my swamp tour with Captain Don. So, resourceful fellow that I am, I made notes so I could reconstruct his jokes when I got home.

More about which in my next post.

AB-5

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As you may know, the Gauley River in the mountains of West Virginia is home to some of the most challenging whitewater rafting and kayaking in the country.

During “Gauley Season” in early fall, when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summerville Dam, the river attracts thrill-seekers by the thousands.

And the thrills are memorable. On the 10-mile Upper Gauley are dozens of rapids, including five rapids rated Class V — the top of the scale.

In southern West Virginia, notable whitewater is found on the Upper Gauley, the Lower Gauley, and the New River. Over the years, I’ve rafted those three a dozen times.

I’ve written twice about the experience on this blog. One story was about my first day on the Gauley. The other story recounted an incident on the bus ride after a day of rafting.

For years, in addition to the aforementioned hair-raising rapids, the Upper Gauley was famous for something else: the put-in at the base of Summersville Dam was itself legendary.

In the old days, the put-in was within a stone’s throw of three massive overflow tubes spewing 21,000 gallons of water per second into the river.

The Upper Gauley put-in, September 1997.

The Upper Gauley put-in, September 1997.

After carrying their rafts down a long gravel path from the parking lot, the rafters would lower their boats into a narrow eddie, climb aboard, and brace themselves.

Their senses would be under constant assault — from the deafening roar of the water tunnels, the random blasts of artificial wind, and river water blowing in all directions at once.

Straining to hear as their guide shouted instructions, the rafters would paddle forward furiously, slamming into solid waves of whitewater three and four feet high, trying to break through the eddie wall* and catch the main current.

If they were lucky, they generated enough momentum to penetrate the wall and enter the mainstream.

If not, the raft would be rejected and spun to the right, back into the eddie. The fatigued crew would have to start all over again.

Rafters waiting to challenge the eddie wall, September 1997.

Rafters waiting to challenge the eddie wall, September 1997.

Naturally, there’s a video on YouTube that documents it all.  

That scenario — a put-in almost as impressive as a major rapid — ended in 1999, when a new hydroelectric plant was constructed on the site. One of the overflow tunnels was re-routed to power the plant. The other tubes are still functional, but are rarely used.

A new put-in was created for the boaters 300 yards downstream, around the first bend, on a peaceful shelf. The roar and the challenge are gone.

One morning in the fall of 1998, before heading home to Georgia, I walked out onto the top of Summersville Dam and stood gazing at the put-in below. I was there to take photos for posterity.

In previous years, I had taken plenty of shots of the put-in. But all my photos were taken at long distance with compact and single-use cameras. I wanted serious, close-up, action shots. That day in 1998, I was ready with a real camera: a big Nikon with a zoom lens.

That was the era of film cameras, and my Nikon was loaded with 35mm slide film. For half an hour, I wandered around the top of the dam taking pictures of the rafting action below. In all, I shot three rolls of film, 36 exposures each. I just knew some of those shots would be terrific.

Satisfied, I dropped the three rolls of exposed film into my daypack and put a fresh roll in the camera. I wanted to make one last stop before starting the drive home.

That stop was the scenic overlook at the north end of the New River Gorge Bridge. The overlook is near the visitor center, halfway down the gorge, at the bottom of a steep wooden staircase. 

Staircase

From that spot, you get a spectacular view of the massive bridge.

New River Gorge Bridge

I took a series of photos, packed up, and started driving south on U.S. 19 in the direction of home.

But soon, I realized that my daypack wasn’t next to me on the passenger seat.

I knew immediately what happened: I had left the pack at the scenic overlook. I remembered taking it off and placing it on a bench while I took photos. Maybe, with luck, it was still there.

I turned around, drove the 15 minutes back to the bridge, and scampered down the staircase.

When I arrived at the overlook, no one was there. Neither was my backpack.

I checked at the visitor center. The pack had not been turned in. I left my contact information there, but never heard anything. My precious film simply was gone forever.

Fifteen years later, and I’m still smarting from it.

Many times, I’ve kicked myself for not driving back to the dam that day to take new photos. At most, it would have added a few hours to the trip. I didn’t do it, and that was a bad decision.

As for the black-hearted villain who stole my daypack, I’ve often wondered if he (or she, or they) had been curious enough to develop my film.

If so, I hope they got as much enjoyment from the photos as I surely would have.

Actually, no — I don’t wish that at all.

The hydroelectric plant that screwed up the put-in.

The hydroelectric plant that screwed up the put-in.

 

The present put-in for the Upper Gauley, located well downstream. Yawn.

The present put-in for the Upper Gauley, located well downstream. Yawn.

* On my first Gauley trip in 1994, when the videographer interviewed the rafters, my friend Chris grinned into the camera and said, “Hi! I’m Eddie Wall!”

 

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Money Shot

In September 2011, on a lake near the small town of Inlet, New York, the Central Adirondack Paddlers Society sponsored an attempt to break the Guinness record for the “World’s Largest Floating Raft.”

“Largest Floating Raft” in this case was a gathering of canoes and kayaks, held together only by hands, floating freely for at least 30 seconds.

At the time, the world record was 1,619 boats, set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010. The New York team easily set a new record with 1,902 boats.

The Inlet event was known as One Square Mile of Hope, and it raised $80,000 for the Komen foundation for breast cancer research.

So — 2,000 paddlers had a memorable day, and a chunk of money was raised for medical research.

Also notable about the event was the awesome photography.

At ground level, the largest floating raft looked like this:

The most eye-popping photos were taken by Lake Placid photographer Nancie Battaglia. Her amazing aerial shots earned two-page spreads in Sports Illustrated, Canoe & Kayak, and National Geographic.

Here is a bird’s-eye view.

And here is the money shot, a beautiful mosaic.

The population of Inlet, New York, is about 400. They like to point out that they bested mighty Pittsburgh, population 350,000.

It was, in addition, a revenge thing. Inlet had won the championship in 2008 (1,104 boats), only to lose to Pittsburgh in 2010. I assume Pittsburgh has plans to retaliate.

Meanwhile, to celebrate Inlet’s victory, you can go to OneSquareMileofHope.com and choose your memento:

— A 16″ x 20″, 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of Nancie Battaglia’s money shot, $25.00

— A 22″ x 28″ poster of the same photo, $15.00

— A nifty pink One Square Mile of Hope commemorative cap, $15.00

All profits will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

All in all, it’s a pleasant, uplifting story that has no bad guys.

Not counting Pittsburgh, of course.

 

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