Escapes: Canoe trip on the Rappahannock River makes a good weekend for seven buddies

By Scott Elder
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 23, 2010; WE16

"Rock at one o'clock," I said over my shoulder to Mike. "It looks like the tongue is on the right."

On the river, the "tongue" is a narrow channel of deeper water that snakes between iceberg-like boulders. My job in the front of the canoe was to make sure that Mike knew where the V-shaped tongue was; his, in the back, was to steer us into it.

"Once we pass this rock," Mike said, "we're gonna paddle hard on the right." We slipped into the channel and picked up speed.

"All right, let's power through it," Mike said as we dug into the water.

"Rock dead ahead!" I grunted, too late. "Whoa!" Thud.

Our supply-laden canoe bumped off the barely submerged rock, then pinballed into another long, lazy stretch of Virginia's Rappahannock River.

After that it was paddles down, beer cooler open. "Yuengling or Coors?" Mike asked.

That was how it worked on our three-day, 24-mile float along the river, from the launch at Kelly's Ford in Culpeper County to the pull-out upriver from Fredericksburg. A bit of effort was rewarded by some sweet laziness. A brief paddle merited a cold beer in the sunshine. A quick scrounge for wood entitled you to a seat in a camping chair beside the fire. And a little preparation (a run to the grocery store, a quick pack, an 80-minute drive) earned seven childhood buddies from Reston a weekend trip back to summer vacation.

"These rapids are great," Mike said after spinning us around so we could watch how our pals in the other two canoes handled the rocks. "They're hard enough to be tricky and kind of funny, but not dangerous at all."

The worst that could happen was getting stuck and needing to get out and push or tipping the boat in water shallow enough to stand in. Do either one in front of guys you grew up with, though, and you're in for some ribbing.

"Weren't you two just telling us how awesome you are at canoeing?" I yelled to Britt and Mark, whose boat was pinned on some rocks and taking on water. Britt hollered something back about sacrificing me to "the 'Deliverance' people."

Not much chance of that, thankfully. Judging from the number of people we'd seen on the first day -- three -- we had the Rappahannock pretty much to ourselves. After the initial few hours of paddling, signs of civilization vanished and we felt as though we were in the middle of nowhere. Bald eagles surveyed the river from high branches, wholly unbothered by the humans passing through their turf. The water was greenish but clear, reflecting the sky above and the unbroken leafy trees that line the shores.

During our shuttle ride to the launch, Gene Clore, who runs Clore Bros. Outfitters near Fredericksburg, explained that most of the riverside land had been spared from development because of a dam project that never got off the drawing board. Fredericksburg eventually bought more than 4,200 acres upstream to secure the city's water supply. Superb canoeing country was an afterthought.

"Without a doubt," Clore said, "this is the best section of the Rappahannock." He should know: He has canoed the river from high in the Piedmont all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. About 30 years ago, after dipping his toe in the water by shuttling canoes upriver for beer money, he traded his real estate company in Manassas for the outfitter shop. It does a healthy business, but the flood of paddlers that Clore anticipated the regional population boom would bring never materialized. "Folks don't seem to do the outdoors as much these days," he said.

The fellas in our little squadron don't escape civilization as much as we used to, either. But when the long-planned weekend arrived, everyone was very ready for a break. Sarosh and Dave made the trip even though each could stay for only one night. Britt flew in from suburban Ohio dressed like an Orvis catalogue model and charged with enough pent-up energy to host a survival show on cable. "It'll be on BET," he suggested while fashioning a fishing spear at our first riverfront campsite. "Black vs. Wild With Britt Grylls."

In camp, our voyage did at times resemble a local-access version of "Crocodile Hunter." We were all riveted by a little water snake that sniffed out a small frog, gave chase and then gobbled it down. (Dave provided play-by-play commentary: "He looks left, breaks right. The tongue is out, ladies and gentlemen!") Our old pal Ben brought his fearless dog, Payson, along, and around 5 a.m. we awoke to her loud barking. She'd treed an invading raccoon. Evidently the critter didn't feel safe up there; it soon jumped at least 20 feet to the ground, hitting hard enough for us to feel the thump 10 yards away.

Although we'd packed light and kept things simple, we weren't exactly roughing it. The dinner menu on the second night consisted of T-bones with French blue cheese, baked potatoes and what Mike called a "science-book-sized" slab of bacon, accompanied by a good Australian red.

Our campsite was a sylvan islet 40 yards from the river and a billion miles from alarm clocks and commutes. After nightfall, we circled around the fire with beers -- our perfect spot made better by our sore shoulders and aching backs.

Getting there

Clore Bros. Outfitters is about 45 miles from the Beltway. Take Interstate 95 south to Fredericksburg, then Exit 130-B to Route 3 west. At the third traffic light, turn right onto Bragg Road (Route 639). Continue for just under a mile, then turn left onto River Road (Route 618). Clore Bros. Outfitters is on the right after about 1 1/2 miles.

Playing there

Clore Bros. Outfitters

5927 River Rd., Fredericksburg


Two-day canoe rental with lifejackets, paddles and shuttle to Kelly's Ford $110 per canoe.

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