Given that one harrowing moment of last spring's canoe trip down West Virginia's New River, it was not altogether surprising to learn later that Indians had named the waterway "river of death."
An avid fisherman, I sought out the New River in the remote, rugged mountains of southern West Virginia for its reportedly excellent smallmouth bass fishing. Learning there are parts of the New that can be navigated safely without a guide, a Parisian friend and I -- both of us rookie canoeists, at best -- scheduled a trip of three days and two nights down a 30-mile section between the towns of Hinton and Thurmond.
The New is rated as one of the oldest rivers in North America by the National Park Service, which staffs the New River Gorge National River Visitors Center at Oak Hill and is just beginning to research the area's geological history. It is one of the few rivers on Earth that flow north rather than south, and was called "new" by the early settlers because it was the first river they encountered with this characteristic. It also contains some of the most concentrated stretches of white water in the East.
The grim name the Conoy and Mohican Indians gave the river was no exaggeration -- a lesson I was to learn the hard way. Let me put it this way: If you decide to make the trip, resist the temptation to achieve a perfect tan and keep your life jacket on at all times.
At the outfitter's shop in Hinton, Claire and I load our gear into an ancient truck, strap the canoe -- a red monster 17 feet long, "built to take white water," according to its owner -- to the roof and make friends with Elvin, our driver. Elvin, a barefoot local with the beginnings of a peach-fuzz beard on his tobacco-stuffed cheek, slaps a rock tape into the vehicle's stereo and off we fly to the put-in point. Over the electric thunder of ZZ Top, I ask if there are any water moccasins in the river. "Moccasins?" he muses, running a hand over his chin. "Naw, never heard of 'em in this part of the New. Gotta watch out for the copperheads, though. Rattlers too."
We plunge off the dirt road and down a steep path, bracing our feet against the dashboard as branches grab at us through the windows. Suddenly we are at the water's edge. In two minutes the canoe is loaded and we are pushing off. Elvin waves as we slip away into the current's pull, cups his hands and calls nonchalantly, "Y'all bring a first-aid kit?"
The blare of electric music dissolves behind us as we enter a world in which the muffled gush of our strokes and the wind brushing the trees are the only sounds. The green mountains -- hills, really -- rise sharply to either side, looking as primitive as the day they were made. After the hubbub of last-minute tasks and the long drive down, we are not simply relaxed to be here -- we are stunnedby the solitude.
The sun beats down and gradually our paddling falls into a rhythm. The water is clear and cool, with a greenish, sometimes brownish stain. Beneath it are rounded rocks and weeds rippling endlessly like the hair of drowned women. The current is not so much fast as it is sure of itself. It seems to know exactly what it is about and will not be tempted to digress from its purpose. I tell myself that is to be expected. After all, we have only been here a few hours; it has been running in the same path for perhaps 70 million years.
We encounter several small series of rapids and our success in running them gives us confidence. A vigorous sweep stroke at the right time, a judiciously applied rudder is enough to keep us in the "V" of calm water between rocks. Each success brings a whoop of exhilaration and a feeling of mastery or good fortune, depending on how close we come to swamping.
In the oxygen-rich pools below white water I fish for smallmouth bass. The current is their cafeteria, and a quiet eddy near the flow is the best seat in the house. The bass love crayfish, salamanders and other river-borne protein. Most of the fish I catch and release are small, less than 12 inches, though smallmouths of up to five pounds are regularly pulled from the river. Many anglers say that pound for pound the smallmouth is the fighting-est of freshwater fish, and even a small one seems outraged that I would presume to swindle it with a hook. On the ultralight tackle I'm using, the connection to the fish is almost electric.
Shortly before stopping for the night we pass the pilings of what was once a bridge. The effect is eerie: six concrete monoliths standing sentinel across the river in the middle of nowhere, worn smooth and shaped by the water into a kind of Stonehenge. The forest has done its work in the steep hills on either side; there is no trace of any work of man here other than these ruins.
We pass on in the fading light, camping a mile downstream on a sandy beach at the head of a long pool. For dinner there are two steaks bought that morning at a supermarket. They are a treat, as the rest of our food will be canned.
The next day is clear and sunny. About noon, disaster strikes. As we approach a set of rapids no more difficult than others we have run, it is only because of Claire's nagging that I disrupt my developing suntan with a life jacket. The best passage appears to be on the left side first and then back across to the right. But paddling cross-current after the initial white water, we realize too late that I've underestimated the current's power. It catches us broadside and in an instant we become its toy. Washed into a rock, we hit, scrape and begin to pivot. The boat endures one long second of indecision before an avalanche of water slams into it, pinning it against the rock.
We decide to abandon ship about the time we are washed out of the canoe and grab what gear we can on the way. Adrenaline flooding my blood, each arm wrapped around a big plastic bag of our stuff, I am swept downstream by an indifferent New River. My mind is calmly racing. Get clear of the boat; if it bursts free it will hit with all the force of the current. Get turned around feet first to fend off unseen rocks. Find Claire, make sure she's all right. Last and least, salvage what gear possible.
Almost immediately I find myself in calmer water and realize the worst is over. Thank God for her making me wear my jacket! I never would have managed to hold onto the bags under the weight of shoes and clothing. Claire appears in the water downstream. She has grabbed another bag and the paddles and appears to be fine. She waves gamely. We make our way into an eddy and then slowly ashore, both unhurt. We have not yet had time to be scared, and only now does it begin to dawn on us that we've been lucky. We are both joyful and shaken, though the mind's immediate reaction is to deny the severity of danger once it has passed. A truer measure of the gravity of the situation is that we now regard the canoe, a red shape smothered under surging water 75 yards upstream, almost as an afterthought, the equivalent of an umbrella left behind at a restaurant. We sit down on a rock and try, logically and calmly, to figure out what to do next. We are a long way from anywhere. Perhaps the canoe is important after all.
Using two heavy sticks for support, I negotiate my way out to a rock close to where the boat is trapped and misshapen by the water pressure. Perhaps it could be freed, but I fear any attempt will end in it shooting up violently or rolling over on top of me. I decide it's too risky.
At that moment, timing its appearance like the U.S. Cavalry in an old western, a yellow raft comes around the bend. In it are three young men, tanned, fit and competent at handling their boat. They beach the raft on a rock just above our canoe, and two swim toward it while the other stays in the raft. One of the youths wrestles a small boulder near the canoe, changing the force of the water against it. The other puts his shoulder to the submerged boat, which rolls over, pops back to its original shape and begins to float downstream. They swim the canoe to shore and rejoin their companion, who by now has pushed off to pick them up. With a casual, all-in-a-day's-work-ma'am sort of wave, they disappear around the next bend almost before we've found our voices to shout thanks.
Claire and I look at each other. The trip, newly terminated, seems to be on again. I know I'm about to get a lecture and decide to preempt. "From now on," I say, shaking a judicious finger at her, "I insist you wear your life vest in all white-water situations."
Our trouble, we decide after an hour's rest as we push off into flat water, has come from being too fancy, from trying to execute maneuvers beyond our reach. You have only so much control in white water; once you have chosen one side or another of a rapid, it's best to stay there and try to ride it out. We walk the canoe through the next couple of rapids, holding onto it from shore with lines fore and aft. We are quite prepared to simply let it go if danger arises.
Several miles downstream we make camp on a beach as the light fails. There is little more than an apron of sand between the water and where the hills start, and we are hard pressed to find enough flat ground to pitch the tent. Emotionally drained, physically exhausted and ravenously hungry, we heat two cans of spaghetti over a smoky fire of green wood and wash it down with Tang laced liberally with bourbon. We are safe, dry and warm. And this night's canned spaghetti, seasoned by our gratitude, tastes far better than last night's steaks.
Carrying the dishes to the river to scrub them with sand, we find dozens of pairs of red-orange points glowing in the shallows. Crayfish have emerged under cover of darkness, and their eyes reflect our flashlight beams. I stretch my hand toward one under the water and it brandishes its tiny claws, shooting away backward under a rock. Squatting down with our flashlights in our mouths, we learn that the trick is to occupy their attention with one hand and make them scoot backward into the other.
Soon half an hour has passed, a can is full of crayfish, and our jaws ache from holding the flashlights. We turn the captives loose, turn out our lights and stand up in the dark. The river murmurs all around us. Far away is the sound of a rapid we are going to run first thing in the morning on our way to the take-out point in the afternoon. Overhead a three-quarters moon has risen.
Claire reaches for my hand. "This is life," she says quietly. I start automatically to correct her. I am about to tell her she means the idiom, "This is the life," when I decide she has said exactly what she means. And needs no correction.