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Paddle Me Back

Old Virginia Rivers, New Wave Fun

By Robert Schroeder
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 4, 2004; Page C02

As a thirty-something adult, I'd figured that the word "whee!" was long gone from my vocabulary. But on my recent kayak trips down the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, there it was, very much still with me, along with its grown-up cousin "whoa!"

Being a discreet kind of guy, I didn't say it too loud. But almost every time I found myself heading for the rapids on either of these scenic Virginia waterways, I'd grip my paddle, ready my body and shoot as best as I could through the foamy churn. Then came one exclamation or the other, depending on the fear (whoa!) or fun (whee!) factor.


Rappahannock River Campground, in Richardsville, Va. (Courtesy Of Rappahannock River Campground)

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I couldn't help myself. As I found out by camping two nights beside the Rappahannock and spending my days paddling, sections of both rivers are most "whee!" and "whoa" worthy – and not just because of the Class I and II rapids.

Like nature? Paddle past the sycamores, box elders, river birches and red maples, all the while inspecting Canada geese, ducks and great big herons. Want to wade? Both rivers rise mostly to levels between an adult's knees and waist. History? Float past Civil War landmarks. If fishing is your thing, reel in some smallmouth bass, bream or pickerel.

Or how about just plain paddling? That's what I did, through the good offices of the Rappahannock River Campground in Richardsville, Va., just northwest of Fredericksburg. Owners Steve and Katy Walker, friendly and knowledgeable sorts, rent canoes, kayaks and tubes to groups and individuals, and set patrons on do-it-yourself courses.

On a recent rainy Saturday, with Gore-Tex jacket ready and quick-drying pants on, I stepped from the campground's shuttle van and walked with sandaled feet onto the muddy bank of the Rappahannock. From Kelly's Ford, I would paddle 11 miles back to the campground.

Mist came down as if from a Safeway produce sprayer. The river was tinted tea-brown, the current at a healthy, thunderstorm-tossed clip. This was to be no leisurely glide past the Kennedy Center. But trips go rain or shine – as long as the river isn't higher than five feet or lower than three. It wasn't. I went.

I was soon happy I did. The relief had to do with the immediate feeling of one of the cardinal pleasures of a Rappahannock kayak trip: isolation. Not from people – indeed, I paddled for much of my outings with a gonzo group of guys from Richmond – but from civilization. For long stretches, the only sights were trees, rocks and the damp sky; the only sounds were the birds above and the water below.

The first 5 1/2 miles of the Kelly's Ford trip featured gentle water, perfect for any paddler and a good way to get used to the figure-eight style of the kayak stroke. My "recreational" kayak had a wider, more stable bottom than other river boats and didn't require sealing myself in with a spray skirt.

I steered along in utter contentment, watching herons flap in their prehistoric splendor. Blue and tan swallows dove at the river like kamikaze pilots with second thoughts, pulling up at the last second before hitting the water. A bald eagle put in an appearance. The river helped me along, flowing swiftly but comfortably.


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