There were 13 of us in seven canoes, on a former moonshiners' river in West Virginia, and the rain was coming down in windblown sheets. After 12 miles of hard rocks and white water, one canoe had pulled to shore in surrender. Another was crinkled like a french fry but still afloat. Bodies were bruised and a few spirits nearly broken.
"I've paid dues on this river so long I should be collecting dividends," said Dennis Diamond, a construction contractor from Silver Spring who had been tossed around the back of his canoe by so many unplanned meetings with rocks his legs looked like a psychedelic nightmare.
The seventh, almost annual, Memorial Day Canoe Meltdown was on the river and right on schedule. Every year, from the first trip on Virginia's Rappahannock in 1974 to last year's assault on the Trinity River in California, there have been calamities to cope with and weather to endure. Canoes spring leaks. Canoeists get lost. And the concept of pleasure is reexamined.
"The trips never go as planned and they are always better than expected," said John Wilson, a native Washingtonian who flew from California to play the role of trail boss for the trip. Others came from Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The McEnrue brothers, one a doctor in New York City, the other a Washington cab driver, spent the weekend paddling the river and sitting around the campfire in prescription sunglasses. They were immediately dubbed the Blues Brothers.
The river is the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, four hours and half a century from the concrete of downtown Washington. It is a narrow, foam-white river that cuts through canyons and steep, wooded hillsides. Canoeing it in high water can be a battle. But the river has always been a place of war.
In the 17th Century, local Indians lost the river to European settlers after years of bloody fighting. During the Civil War, Confederates boiled saltpeter in iron kettles along its shores. And during Prohibition, moonshiners and revenue agents played deadly games of hide and seek in the thick woods beside it.
This weekend the river was low. From Seneca Rocks to the Smoke Hole Canyon 15 miles north, there were drops and crests, sharp turns and fast chutes. But there was also enough exposed rock to walk from one side to the other in many of the rapids.
"Another six inches of water and this would be fantastic," said Jim Thresher, a photographer with a $700 whitewater canoe and the skill to handle it. After two hours of teaching the rookies on the trip how to hold their paddles and which end of the canoe was front, Thresher had a change in perspective. "It's a good thing there isn't more water."
Getting to the water was more of a chore than expected. At 1 a.m. Saturday, after a month of planning, a visit to a few airports, and a four-hour drive, there were 10 people in four cars lost on a West Virginia road in the rain. The bad directions were my fault. Fortunately, it had been raining hard enough that no one was really looking forward to getting to a soggy campsite.
When the tents finally were pitched, the stories began. That has always been a specialty of Kelly Coleman, a salesman from Philadelphia. Every year he tells of past trips, wild rivers and individual courage with admirable exaggeration.
The combination of Coleman's stories and a reading from a guide book that described in detail the dangers of our upcoming trip left the first-timers in the group in a state somewhere between apprehension and panic.
"I don't like water," admitted Jerry Ainsfield, who teaches public school in the District and never before had sat in a canoe. "I don't even like taking baths."
In the morning, we woke to find Seneca Rocks towering above us. They were soon overshadowed by Dick Harper, a round-faced, mischievous man who owns the general store in Mouth of Seneca and the campground where we were sleeping. He drove from site to site, collecting a dollar from each camper and offering his West Virginia handshake. If you meet Dick Harper, wave to him from afar.
The canoes were put in just above a fast, narrow chute of water. For the rookies, it was a wet initiation. For the veterans, it was a sweet time to wonder about the river. When a river is too slow and rocky, as it was our first year on the Rappahannock, the trip can resemble a whitewater hike more than a canoe ride. When it is too fast and steep, like a portion of the Trinity River we paddled into last year, it can leave you with a mouthful of fear.
"We handled the Trinity like it was a little stream," Coleman said this weekend, a full year away from the day we were so scared we carried our canoes 300 feet up a 75-degree grade to escape a river we had been foolish not to thoroughly scout.
The Potomac was between the two extremes. Two sets of wild, deep water rapids would be followed by two sets studded with a breed of rocks that seemed to rise out of the water and snag canoes. Boats were tipped and canoeists tossed. Arms not used to fighting rivers grew weary. And bare knees became scarred from kneeling on hard plastic where control was best.
"I have found soft spots on a slab of marble but I cannot find a comfortable place in my canoe," said Pat McMahon, a former altar boy who now teaches school in Takoma Park.
After 10 miles on the river, the exhaustion felt fine. But there was still a cold rainstorm to endure and the five most challenging miles of rapids.
"When does this river end?" asked one rookie who just two hours earlier had been chirping about the joys of fast water and freedom. "This is no longer a pleasure."
"If you want pleasure, go to a movie," said Trail Boss. And the caravan of canoes continued down the river in the rain.