The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afloat on a tranquil river, paddlers dip into a different kind of current events

Canoeists enjoy a tranquil outing just a few miles upstream from the Potomac River’s fall line in Washington. (Walter Nicklin for The Washington Post)

What better way to while away pandemic time than floating down a river? In most canoes, the distance between the bow seat and the one in the stern measures the socially correct six feet. And the distance between the tranquility of a canoe/kayak trip (even one with rapids) and the world of cable news and social media is immeasurable.

So it is that two old friends and I are now peering over a narrow bridge on a country road about 60 miles west of the nation’s capital. We see many rocks and not much water: more like a creek than a river, despite its cartographical appellation. But for a recent rainfall, few would dare call it navigable. That makes it the perfect pandemic escape: no crowds, not even another person in sight.

But would our float down the small river actually be fun, worth all the time-consuming trouble? The lifting and unloading of the boats on top of our cars, the tying and untying of the ropes used to secure the boats, then shuttling cars between put-in and takeout spots and back again? Yes, at the moment, it seems definitely worth it — to be outside, on an outdoors adventure, no longer stuck in our respective houses, and (needless to say) grateful for our health.

Jim especially has been virus-vigilant, given that his daughter has a compromised immune system. After many months of sheltering in place, this canoe trip with Ann and me is his first “social gathering.” We’re all leaving our spouses at home in a welcome break from constant, coronavirus-imposed togetherness.

This stretch of the Rappahannock River is just a few miles from its headwaters as they spill off the Blue Ridge, near Front Royal, Va. After flowing downslope through the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont, the 185-mile-long river becomes tidal and then joins the Chesapeake Bay. It is one of the bay’s major tributaries, along with the Susquehanna, Potomac, York and James rivers. Altogether, the Chesapeake watershed covers more than 64,000 square miles and encompasses D.C. and parts of six states — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

As we take the boats off the cars, the ambient birdsong is disrupted by our grunts and groans. Slipping and sliding on the mud bank under the bridge, we skid the 17-foot canoe and the 10-foot, single-seated river kayak into the swift current. Into the canoe step Ann in the bow and Jim in the stern, as I contort my lower body into the kayak seat. We remove our masks — no longer pristine white, but mud-splattered — and dip our paddles into the water.

And we’re off.

Against a backdrop of soaring small boat sales, a solo kayak trip in Vermont


It will be an estimated four hours of leisurely floating downstream until we reach the next bridge, the takeout place. There will be occasional rapids, we understand, but nothing that we can’t handle. The worst that can happen is getting so stuck on a rock that you must step out of the boat into the shallow waters and push off — so we think, and the very first rapids we navigate perfectly.

The biggest obstacles turn out to be fallen trees and logjams from recent flooding that require some resourcefulness in gliding around and under. But most of our attention is captured by the splendid scenery, with not another soul in sight, from rolling farmland to hemlock-studded cliffs. When we resist the temptation to chat, our boats sneak up on kingfishers and other fowl, grazing deer and sunning turtles, plus an unidentified creature we can’t really see but can hear its startled splashing.

Over 150 years ago, this river served as the dividing line between Yankees and rebels for most of the Civil War. Some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles were waged in the Rappahannock watershed: Brandy Station, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness. This history is of little note when cocooned in a car zooming across the river’s Fredericksburg bridge on I-95 (the country’s most traveled interstate, according to the Federal Highway Administration).

Instead of highway traffic, the presence of ghosts becomes palpable when slowly and quietly paddling the Rappahannock. Here time, unlike gravity-
ordained water, flows not just one way; past and present can mix in still pools and eddies. On this or just about any river, you can float back to the way the world once was until being carved up by street grids and political jurisdictions.

Long before highways and railroads, rivers were the way to go, the only way to go, certainly the most efficient way to travel. So is it that many East Coast cities are located on the fall line of rivers, as far upstream as the settlers’ oceangoing ships could sail: Richmond on the James, Washington on the Potomac, Philadelphia at the Schuylkill falls on the Delaware.

And situated on the Rappahannock fall line is Fredericksburg, about 50 miles downstream from where Ann, Jim and I launch our small boats. We would take out near Waterloo Landing, the terminus of a 19th-century canal connecting Fredericksburg with the Piedmont and Blue Ridge uplands.

In pre-pandemic times, the three of us (with spouses) spent 10 days rafting the roaring Colorado River’s Grand Canyon rapids — each of which had daunting names like Sheer Wall, Lava Falls and Upset. The only rapids we now encounter on the upper Rappahannock are considered Class I, the very easiest in the six-tiered white-water classification system. Class I means fast-moving water characterized by riffles and small waves, with few obstructions and little risk — certainly rapids not worth naming. Or so we think.

At South Carolina’s only national park, paddle through some of the country’s oldest trees

A pandemic revelation: You don’t need to go to an iconic destination such as the Grand Canyon to “travel.” Boating in your own backyard watershed, you can discover a newfound intimacy with your surroundings that makes the familiar seem as foreign as the Colorado. What’s the source of that neighborhood wet-weather creek, and where does it go? Have you ever wondered? Looking for answers in the lay of the land can make for a good hike. You don’t need a boat.

There’s a literary term called “defamiliarization,” wherein what we think we know is perceived afresh as if for the first time — recapturing a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity. Like a good bedtime story, floating down a river is full of narrative twists and turns, propelled forward by the suspense of always wanting to know what’s around the next bend.

The polar opposite of a cruise ship, a canoe or kayak means you’re not a passive tourist but instead an adventuring explorer with a truly immersive (pun intended) connection with the world around you. The landscape has been carved, contoured and created by water destined to go downhill. Even the nearest, smallest stream beckons for exploration.

Sights and sounds

While the upper Rappahannock certainly has no cruise-ship-like crowds, we are not alone among the record-breaking numbers pursuing outdoor recreation as an antidote to virus-induced, indoor isolation. Ask any outfitter: From bikes to boats, just about everything is on back order. Particularly popular purchases have been inflatable kayaks — for people who don’t want the hassle of transporting cumbersome canoes. As for rentals, you might have to get on a waiting list for paddleboards, windsurfers, sailboats, canoes or kayaks.

For a picnic lunch featuring an eclectic, easy-to-carry mix of healthy snacks and junk food, we slide our boats onto a sandbar nestled against a riverbank. It must be a favorite spot for other creatures, for plenty of fresh tracks imprint the sand. The hoof prints of deer are easy to identify, but all the rest? Raccoon? Groundhog? Fox? Muskrat? Black bear? Skunk? Opossum? We should have brought along a field guide. Instead we try to guess. The temptation is to linger, to soak in the sights and sounds.

In high water, this sandbar would be invisible, as would many of the small rapids. But without recent rainfall, the river is especially low — turning the rapids into obstacle courses of exposed ledges and countless small rocks. Sometimes our boats scrape bottom, but my lighter kayak slips off more easily than the canoe. When stuck, we use our paddles as poles to push the boats downstream.

Just about a mile from our takeout, the otherwise uneventful trip turns into a story to be later told. As Ann and Jim’s canoe becomes wedged broadside between two rocks, it tilts upstream and instantly fills with water. Now weighed down with the full force of the river’s flow, the canoe becomes ever more wedged and virtually impossible to empty.

Already around the river’s next bend, I’m unaware of what’s happening and thus of absolutely no help. But through the ingenious use of a plastic grocery bag, Jim and Ann bail out the canoe to lighten it enough to free it. After then tilting the canoe to drain the remaining water, they hop back in. The canoe may be now reasonably dry, but they are soaking wet.

At the takeout place, as we pull the boats up the bank, Ann and Jim are shivering — candidates for hypothermia. But once they change into dry clothes, exhilaration is the mood, and we start making plans for our next river trip. On this trip at least one small rapid perhaps deserves a moniker after all, something playful like “Corona Cascade.”

Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia. Find him on Twitter at: @RoadTripRedux.

More from Travel:

Want to explore your local river or lake? Take a trip by kayak or canoe.

Rediscovering Washington, D.C. — on a stand-up paddleboard

Family celebrates birthday by kayaking over Great Falls amid fog, autumn foliage