Gene Clore was at a family gathering last week when we came down to paddle his favorite stretch of the Rappahannock, so he had his hired hand take us up the dirt road to a put-in only a native could find.

At road's end, Scott McClung pulled two Clore Brothers rental canoes off the truck and loaded them with sleeping bags, camp stove, tents and mess kit. We threw in our food, water, dishes and fishing tackle. The river was low and clear and the sky was ominously dark. The air was hot. We humped the loaded canoes down a steep bank.

McClung stayed on the hilltop. "It's seven miles to the cabin," he shouted. "You should look for a campsite close by here for tonight. See you tomorrow. Good luck. You're on your own."

As he turned, leaving me alone with my wife and two small kids, I felt a tiny pinch of the dread folks must feel when the float plane takes off, leaving them in some arctic wasteland where grizzlies and polar bears may lurk around the next bend.

What if a gully washer came down and the river flooded? What if the kids got sick? What if a rabid raccoon attacked? What if this river, which none of us had paddled before, was not the placid stream we were told to expect?

If these seem like silly concerns on a gentle river 50 miles from Washington and 10 miles from sleepy Fredericksburg, consider the fact that for the stretch 20 miles upstream of Fredericksburg, there is no civilization on the Rappahannock or its main tributary, the Rapidan. No people, no houses, no roads, no bridges, no phones, no hospitals, nothing. When you're on your own on the Rappahannock, you're on your own.

Well, the rain came and the river did come up a foot or two, but it was so low to start with all the increase did was cool things off and help us over the rocks. There were no raccoons, and no one got sick. We found a good campsite and spent a blissful, dry night in the tents, listening to the river burbling over the rocks at Pipe Dam Run. We even caught a few fish.

It was, as wilderness experiences go, about as close to the real thing as you get hereabouts, particularly with a 4- and 5-year-old in tow, and it all came about as the result of a happy twist of history dating back to the turn of the century.

The Rappahannock above Fredericksburg is wild today because more than 80 years ago the Fredericksburg Power Co. pieced together a narrow strip of land along the river with the intent of building a high dam to generate electric power. The land was to accommodate flooding, but the dam never was built.

The land sat, forgotten, until 1969, when the city bought the 4,800-acre strip from the power company's successor, Vepco, for $400,000. "That," said Fredericksburg City Councilor Gordon Shelton, "was a bargain."

Now the city owns a piece of unspoiled real estate that money could never again buy, a buffer for a beautiful river, and officials are showing the good sense to protect it. People come forth occasionally seeking to buy a chunk of riverfront land, Shelton said, but the City Council always says no.

"This is one of the last unspoiled, pristine rivers around," said City Engineer Mike Naggs. "The council wants to keep it that way."

A benefactor of this civic good judgment is Clore, who owns one of the only private inholdings left on the river. Seven years ago, weary with his business and wanting only to spend more time paddling the waters he grew up on, he sold Clore Realty and bought the old Mott's Landing, 2 1/2 acres on the river at the foot of the wilderness stretch, three miles off I-95 and an hour's drive from Washington.

On the little tract, he built a log house and, with the help of four brothers, started Clore Brothers canoe livery, which now numbers 50 canoes. "We don't make much money," said Clore, 45, "but since I sold the real estate business, I haven't taken a single Valium. I must be doing something right."

Clore Brothers offers outfitted trips down the Rappahannock ranging from our seven-mile foray to a 37-mile, four-day adventure. The overnight trips, complete with tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear, are $99; three days or more is $110.

Most of the water is suitable for novice paddlers, Clore said, as long as they have a healthy respect for moving water and are able to swim. The seven-mile stretch is the only run he recommends for families with small children, which seemed right.

Since the Rappahannock is slow moving, it is more appropriate for fishermen and campers than for whitewater thrill-seekers. The fishing this summer for smallmouth bass and sunfish has been excellent, according to the experts at Chesley's Tackle Shop. I found it spotty, but sometimes fishing rising water can be that way.

In addition to Clore Brothers, Rappahannock Canoes in Fredericksburg offers rental canoes and paddling classes on the river, and even rents inner tubes for one-day tubing trips, which sounds like a chuckle.