By Ben Curnett
We agree to meet right on Route 60, Greg, Peyton, and myself, where you turn off and go for three miles to Nallen, which is the take-out for the upper, which I have never seen. The rain has been coming down for quite some time now and on my way to that turn off two things are readily apparent: 1) No amount of rubber/fleece will keep me warm today, and 2) the songs on the mix tape my old ex-girlfriend made me, which is mostly Jewel, are not sufficient paddling music. My windshield is completely frosted except for the small periscope hole I have rubbed in it with the bottom of my fist. Jewel is singing about unicorns and I pull off the road at the turnout; Peyton is already there.
Peyton is wearing cutoff sweatpants and a T-shirt and is shivering uncontrollably while finishing a cigarette. "It's cooooold," he says as I step out of the truck, "BRRR!". I start to mumble agreement through my neck-gaiter, but all that comes out is the steam of heat escaping my body through my breath. I've never paddled with Peyton, so we talk about paddling as we wait for Greg, who is late, and it becomes readily apparent that Peyton is a much better paddler than I am, which does not bother me, as most everybody is. I'm relaxed enough to accept this. Suck=no pressure. I ask Peyton what the level was when he last checked, and he says Greg told him it was 2900 and rising. I say, "Really..." as inconspicuously as possible, which is easy to do under a balaclava, and I begin to hope that Greg is sick and not coming.
As I am dreaming up combinations of ailments with which Greg might be afflicted he pulls into the turn out and skids to a stop. The engine cuts off but the Iron Maiden on the stereo remains, because, he explains, he forbids himself to turn off Iron Maiden in the middle of a song. Greg is also a better paddler than I am. We pile in, load up, and drive.
Actually, Greg is a better paddler than almost everybody, which I only partly attribute to the fact that he carries a gun in his drybag ("I've got a concealed weapon permit- I'm usin' it," Greg says) and anyone that intense is driven by desire or a higher calling or in Greg's case, both. He's got some first descents around here including a 20 foot drop that he once showed me a picture of. The photo looks like a torrent of brown water dropping over a lip into a hole that God forgot about, and as I looked at this picture, Greg says, "The coolest part is that when you go over the drop, you paddle directly through this rainbow that you can't see at all from scouting it." I say that I wasn't aware the entrance to hell had a rainbow. We drive along and I wonder if I'll be able to recognize it later today if needed. "Why don't we go to the Top Gauley?" I shout, hoping to entice everyone into changing to tamer plans by dangling a playspot in front of them. "You know that one hole? Near the end on the lef..."
"Fuck if I'm doing that! I'm ready to paddle something," Greg says and punches my shoulder, hard.
"Hell yeah.......," Peyton says, ".....either of y'all got a drytop?"
"Man, I got a bunch of shit, Peyton," Greg says, "and there's a bunch of fuckin' water, and I don't think I've ever seen it this high."
"Really...," I say again.
"How high do you think it is?
"Must be 3000."
Maiden blares. I pick up the guidebook that's lying on the floorboard of Greg's truck and open it to the page for the upper Meadow and it says the cutoff is 2000.
"The book says the cutoff is 2000!" I shout.
Greg looks at me. He looks at me for a while, just staring, really, and I realize that he is no longer looking at the road. We are looking at each other. "Ben, the guys that wrote that book are pussies." We look at each other some more.
Peyton laughs. Now I have to go.
We cannot find the put in. We have been driving for an hour and we stop to ask directions from a seventy-three year old man who wears a hunting cap with earflaps. We eagerly await the end of his answer. Coal roads are not real roads, we decide, seeing as how they don't go anywhere, and within a half an hour we pass the old man again and we are going the other way. We decide that if we go to Rainelle, we can get onto the river and the flatwater will eventually turn into whitewater, six or seven or eight miles downstream. This proves true. I have to get out of my boat twice before there is any discernible gradient to stretch and pray. By the time we reach the trestle where the rapids start I'm ready to call it a day. What waits below is a four and a half mile section that the guidebook describes as "the rapid". We drop in.
Greg is leading and Peyton is next and I am last and, at first, things go well. I tend to hang on a right brace for most of my life and today is no different, every once in a while dipping the left blade in the water to make sure it's there. Powerful waves and holes exist but the moves are easy and there is space between sections to prepare for the next sections. This lasts for a minute. Somewhere in the fifty-seconds range, the sections all become one and the waves and holes get very large. I am using my left blade a lot now. I'm slow to react and I fight to stay on line and I start to miss my ferries, and soon I see what appears to be a big horizon line that Greg and Peyton are safely below and to the right of. It is clear to all of us that I will not make it to where they are and that my fate lies within a hole that we will later name "Mexican Root Canal". I know that this is the funniest thing Greg and Peyton have ever seen because I can hear them in the brief moments that my head surfaces, and it sound like this: BASHPUMMELCHUNDER/ "Whoooohoooo!!!!"/ FROTHYSUCKINGDEATH/ "Whooooohooooo!!!!!!" I get spit out and I paddle for my life to an eddy on river right. I rest and wait for a warm memory to surface and take me to my happy place, but none comes. I am rewarded with laughter and thanks from the boys for not swimming. Peyton tells me I did a loop.
We peel out. Waves and holes round the corner and disappear out of sight. I am getting more and more tired, and I start to just follow everybody. This is a pet peeve of mine, and something I usually never do. I try always to go where I can read the river, looking for the water that's going where I want to be, which makes the experience more my own n' shit. This is not to say that I'm against other people who want to probe. I am for that. 100%. This is what I'm thinking about while I'm trying to stay upright and I watch Peyton ahead of me go for a boof that's not really a boof. He backenders and comes up. Then he goes for another and drops out of sight and then is back in sight, and then he drops over an enormous pourover, which I try to avoid but don't. I tip over. I roll up. I am out of breath and very scared. I think to myself "GOTTA CATCH AN EDDY!", and I immediately realize that I didn't just think that but actually screamed it out loud right at Peyton, like it's his fault there are no eddies, and he looks at me and says, "..okay."
We sit on what appears to be the only rock not underwater and I try to act calm. Peyton remarks that the river is full of playspots and he wishes we had more time. He confesses to being mostly a park-n-play boater which I realize explains the lines he was taking by way of only being able to recognize holes while looking upstream at them. It doesn't really matter at this point because Peyton is doing better in the holes than he does in the current and I am convinced that if he had gone into Mexican Root Canal he could have done loops, too. The boy is solid. Greg is talking about hunting. The roar of the river drowns most of it out and I try not to change the subject but I do anyway by saying, "Hey Greg, how much is left, do you think?"
"I really couldn't say, Ben."
"How much, though, do you think?"
I climb back into my boat, which the numbness in my extremities has rendered painless, much to my detriment due to the fact that I consider foot pain to be integral to my boating style. Each brace I throw is now accompanied by a loud grunt, which no one takes as a good sign. I'm saved temporarily by a scout for a drop that I end up walking around, which I know to be safer than paddling. Greg and Peyton have no problems. We all regroup and are back in the current, but only for a short time before I realize that I am over and done with. I cannot physically move my arms to paddle anymore, and I tell them as much when we hit the next eddy. "Look," I say, "I don't mean to freak you guys out, but I really can't paddle anymore and I have to get out of here. Sorry."
"....well,..." Peyton says, ".....I mean, you know how you feel...you know."
"Exactly my point," I say, "Look, there's the railroad tracks, and these wool socks will protect my feet, I think."
"Ben, you see that eddy over there. Waaaaay down there on the right? You can make that. You gotta get your head in the game."
"No. I need floaties."
"Man, get yourself together and come on!" and I think that Greg smiles right at me as he peels out, and Peyton wheels out, and I grit my teeth and push with every fiber of my being to make what is essentially a class III ferry, and I'm doing so well that I blow the eddy because I'm too tired to stop again, looking over at the boys with what I'm sure will be remembered as a satisfactory grin, a smile that says " I just got my ass handed to me- I'll take it from here, thanks" and on around the bend where the river abruptly flattened out into a baptismal swimming hole, resplendent in its lack of gradient. I asked Greg later what he thought of the run and he said that he guesses it was a pretty good work out. Peyton said he'd never been on anything like it. We went back the next week and did it again when it was lower, and we went to the right put in, and there was no Mexican Root Canal, and there were a bunch of rocks where the waves were. And I was glad to be there.