The weather forecast called for rain overnight, but ending mid-morning. Not enough to warrant canceling the trip, we thought, after all with seven families all set to head out to the river, there would have been much disappointment. We all woke in the pre-dawn hours, sleepy children were loaded into the cars, still in pajamas. Dad had the canoe trailer hitched up and we pulled out of the driveway en route to the James River for an overnight paddling trip. Half of the people, if not more, had never been white-water canoeing before and this was our chance to share a favorite family activity with our neighborhood friends. The gear consisted of our personal canoes and several rented for the weekend. Dad mapped out the route, one we knew well, and the caravan followed behind us, driving for hours through rain.
We arrived at the James, as the rain continued to fall. The river looked a bit high and the group decided to pursue Plan B instead. This entailed driving a bit further and paddling the Rockfish River, in hopes that the water would not be as high or fast. Excited to get on the water, the drivers fell in line as we pulled back onto the highway. Arriving at the put-in for the Rockfish the rain finally moved out and the river looked manageable for our inexperienced and motley crew. Canoes were carried to the waters edge, overnight supplies were put into large black trash bags and duct-taped to the thwarts (bars across the canoe between the seats); life jackets were tossed into the vessels, in case they were needed at some point along the route. People paired off, assigning stern positions to anyone who had any experience, as much as possible. A pair of drivers ran a car down to the take-out for shuttling the next day after camping. Once everyone was all set we shoved off the river bank and began the 8 mile or so journey downriver.
This was around 1983-84, and as such, we did not have any way to access gage data to determine river levels or to check rainfall amounts farther up the drainage…both of which would have alerted us to the high flows to come. Off we went, ignorant and blissful in our good luck that the rain had ended and the day was our to enjoy! As anyone who has done much paddling can attest, a river changes and takes on vastly different characteristics during different flow events. Riffles during low flow become raging rapids during high flow, and swift water allows for little time to make adjustments and corrections. I can still hear the sound of the Grumman aluminum canoes we rented scraping along the rocks as our group attempted to maneuver through the fast, rising waters. One rapid in particular claimed victim after victim as the inexperienced paddlers caught boulders broadside and were swamped, and some took on water from the waves. My older sister Dawn and I, stuck on a rock in the middle of the river, had a good laugh at two brothers who went quickly by, still paddling, even though their canoe was completely submerged! My dad, the most experienced paddler in the group, tried to assist others after placing my mom and younger sister (6-7 years old at the time) on the river bank to walk to the bottom of the rapid. Eventually we all made it through and continued on, river rising all the while, hoping to reach our take-out before it all became too much.
Nearing the end of the route, we saw a railroad bridge crossing. Two or three concrete piers were used to support the bridge over the water. Being about 10-11 years old at the time, I wasn’t aware of the processes occurring at these piers as the river was now flowing at flood stage.
When we launched the canoes at the put-in, Dad had made a point of telling my sister, Dawn (then around 18-19 years old), and I not to get out of his sight on the river. For most of the trip, we had been able to stay close to his canoe. At the rock garden where everything fell apart, we continued on as he stayed back to help those with swamped boats. The water was moving so quickly that we ended up with way too much distance between us. Approaching the bridge, this became an issue. If you know much about canoeing, then you know the steering comes from the rear, but working in concert is critical. What you may not know, and what my sister and I definitely did not know, is that your ability or opportunity to make any adjustments in direction during floodstage, as you approach an obstruction (i.e. bridge pier) is essentially nil. Nearing the bridge we tried to make a last minute change regarding which side of the pier we were going to take. I remember what happened next as if it was yesterday, and it felt as though it was all happening in slow-motion. The bow of the canoe, just slightly out of line with the stern, was pulled to the left (or port) side, and the water swiftly moved the stern around to the right (or starboard) side and we touched the pier broadside. Instantly the canoe began to buckle. By the grace of God and shear luck combined, Dawn and I were able to throw ourselves out of the canoe into the rushing water. As we were trying to get away from the flooding vessel, it was sucked underwater and wrapped around the pier like a piece of ribbon. Not really understanding the magnitude of what could have just happened to one or both of us, we laughed and floating downstream (luckily wearing our life-jackets). Another canoe threw us a line, it was not secured to anything and proved useless, so we made our way to the bank and grabbed a branch, pulling ourselves out of the river. We were only a few hundred meters from the take-out and made it there safely.
As we thanked our friends for helping us to get out and recounted the harrowing ordeal, we were unaware of our parents, in their canoe, approaching the bridge. They accounted to us later, once on shore, the terrifying moment when they got close enough to see the canoe, just barely submerged around the bridge pier, and knew it was ours. What they didn’t know was whether or not we were trapped in it. It gives me chills just recalling the story 35 years later. Assured by other boats that we were safe and accounted for, they proceeded to the take-out as well. A much-deserved tongue lashing was delivered and then hugs all around. So much relief that everyone was alright and that the canoe trip from hell was over! Needless to say, the liquor flowed freely among the adults that night and the trains that rolled by in the wee hours disturbed few. I think I remember hearing my uncle and a family friend singing old Navy songs from days gone by, or maybe I dreamed it.
We were lucky enough to have many wonderful experiences on rivers throughout my youth. I am so thankful for that and for learning how to navigate a variety of waters over the years. Even in good conditions, we always learned something. The one lesson that was burned on my brain that day and has proved itself time and time again to me over the years, is that indeed, the river will win.