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Paddle Me Back

Comfortably, that is, until I hit the first rapids. I'd done fine until then, sliding over the manageable Class I riffles. That was the "wheee!" section. But the waters around Snake Castle Rock were a class higher. The Walkers advised taking the half-mile-long rapids on the left-hand side of the river, but they came up too fast and I found myself playing bumper boats with a couple of startled tween-age girls in a canoe. Pinned against a rock with the river popping around me, I thought for sure I was going to bail. Trying to recall the pre-launch instructions – something about leaning toward a rock to avoid swamping your boat – I muscled through without flipping over.

But then the real fun began: I went stern-first toward the little falls, my head craning around as my paddle and I finally manhandled the boat right-ways. I emerged slightly sore and spent, but the important fact was this: I made it. (So, eventually, did the canoeing girls.) To be sure, the river was higher than normal, thanks to the storm. But the experience left me wondering what Class III, IV and V rapids are like.

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

This was the wrong trip for those, thank goodness. After the low drama of Snake Castle Rock I was grateful for the mile and a half of flat water that followed.

But more rapids lay between me and the campground. I whimpered a bit when I saw them coming, but my experience back upstream had taught me important lessons. Rocks in the water are inevitable on river trips like this, and it takes getting used to the jostling and wrestling with the rapids. My rule became this: bump and grind. I'd hit a rock and paddle and scrape over or around it. As I drifted toward the pickup point, I felt victorious, if tired. Here was another kind of "whoa!" ("Whoa! I did that!")

Safely back at the campground, I decided I'd had enough of the salami and cheese I'd packed and headed to Pelham's Pub for dinner. I also paid a visit to the site of Stonewall Jackson's wounding at nearby Chancellorsville. A marker stands with his last words: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."

Which is what I did after dinner. Crawling into my tent, I read a few pages of my book by lantern, then slept like road kill until morning.

Travel always involves uncertainty, so it was a good thing the Walkers were prepared for it. On Sunday morning, I, along with the Gonzo Guys from Richmond, was going to do the 13-mile trip from the camp to Mott's Run, but too-high water ruled it out. Which is how, after one of my new buddies suggested it, six of us wound up going 12 miles, starting out on the Rapidan but still ending up at Mott's Run.

"It's like being in another world," said one of the Guys, a gregarious fellow named Brian Jacks. He was right. Out on the Rapidan, with few houses or landlubbers in sight, we had the water and banks to ourselves as we made for the first big bend. One could imagine Stonewall himself tromping out of the woods on his way to the next skirmish. The scenery was timeless. And the away-from-it-all vibe was unbeatable. A black-and-yellow butterfly flirted with my paddle, its wings catching the resurgent sunlight.

By the time I came up on the confluence of the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, with its attendant rapids, I'd had enough psychic charging to attack the rougher stuff with gusto. I felt like the kid I had heard yelling "Ra-PID! Ra-PID!" as his boat neared the white water. I slipped confidently between the rocks before coasting toward the bank and lunch.

Later, with the fear factor gone, I let go of some of my discretion and belted out a "Ha-HA!" for all to hear.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: The Rappahannock River Campground in Richardsville, Va., is roughly 70 miles from Washington. From I-95, take Exit 130-B at Fredericksburg, which is Route 3 west. Go seven miles and turn right on Route 610. Proceed nine miles and turn right on Route 619. Then go 2.7 miles and take a left at Route 683. Drive 1.4 miles and turn left into the camp.

PADDLING AND STAYING THERE: Rappahannock River Campground camping fees are between $6 and $8 per night for individuals and $19 to $25 per night for families. Canoe or kayak rentals cost $24 to $65 per person. Info: 800-784-7235, www.canoecamp.com.

EATING THERE: Pelham's Pub is the casual, downstairs counterpart to the upscale dining room at the Inn at Kelly's Ford (16589 Edwards Shop Rd.) in Remington, Va. The Inn offers entrees like trout stuffed with crayfish and lobster sauce for $22.50, while the pub features such homey fare as ham and turkey sandwiches for $7.25.

OTHER OUTFITTERS: Fredericksburg-based Clore Bros. Outfitters (540-786-7749, www.clorebros.com) offers a 10-hour, 24-mile odyssey for canoe enthusiasts. The Virginia Outdoor Center (540-371-5085, www.playva.com) also features multi-day boating trips.

INFO: Fredericksburg Area Tourism, 800-654-4118, www.fredericksburgvirginia.net.

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