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Paddle Me Back
Old Virginia Rivers, New Wave Fun

The Washington Post
August 4, 2004

As a thirty-something adult, I'd figured that the word "whee!" was long gone from my vocabulary. But on my recent kayak trips down the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, there it was, very much still with me, along with its grown-up cousin "whoa!"

Being a discreet kind of guy, I didn't say it too loud. But almost every time I found myself heading for the rapids on either of these scenic Virginia waterways, I'd grip my paddle, ready my body and shoot as best as I could through the foamy churn. Then came one exclamation or the other, depending on the fear (whoa!) or fun (whee!) factor.

I couldn't help myself. As I found out by camping two nights beside the Rappahannock and spending my days paddling, sections of both rivers are most "whee!" and "whoa" worthy — and not just because of the Class I and II rapids.

Like nature? Paddle past the sycamores, box elders, river birches and red maples, all the while inspecting Canada geese, ducks and great big herons. Want to wade? Both rivers rise mostly to levels between an adult's knees and waist. History? Float past Civil War landmarks. If fishing is your thing, reel in some smallmouth bass, bream or pickerel.

Or how about just plain paddling? That's what I did, through the good offices of the Rappahannock River Campground in Richardsville, Va., just northwest of Fredericksburg. Owners Steve and Katy Walker, friendly and knowledgeable sorts, rent canoes, kayaks and tubes to groups and individuals, and set patrons on do-it-yourself courses.

On a recent rainy Saturday, with Gore-Tex jacket ready and quick-drying pants on, I stepped from the campground's shuttle van and walked with sandaled feet onto the muddy bank of the Rappahannock. From Kelly's Ford, I would paddle 11 miles back to the campground.

Mist came down as if from a Safeway produce sprayer. The river was tinted tea-brown, the current at a healthy, thunderstorm-tossed clip. This was to be no leisurely glide past the Kennedy Center. But trips go rain or shine — as long as the river isn't higher than five feet or lower than three. It wasn't. I went.

I was soon happy I did. The relief had to do with the immediate feeling of one of the cardinal pleasures of a Rappahannock kayak trip: isolation. Not from people — indeed, I paddled for much of my outings with a gonzo group of guys from Richmond — but from civilization. For long stretches, the only sights were trees, rocks and the damp sky; the only sounds were the birds above and the water below.

The first 5 1/2 miles of the Kelly's Ford trip featured gentle water, perfect for any paddler and a good way to get used to the figure-eight style of the kayak stroke. My "recreational" kayak had a wider, more stable bottom than other river boats and didn't require sealing myself in with a spray skirt.

I steered along in utter contentment, watching herons flap in their prehistoric splendor. Blue and tan swallows dove at the river like kamikaze pilots with second thoughts, pulling up at the last second before hitting the water. A bald eagle put in an appearance. The river helped me along, flowing swiftly but comfortably.

Comfortably, that is, until I hit the first rapids. I'd done fine until then, sliding over the manageable Class I riffles. That was the "wheee!" section. But the waters around Snake Castle Rock were a class higher. The Walkers advised taking the half-mile-long rapids on the left-hand side of the river, but they came up too fast and I found myself playing bumper boats with a couple of startled tween-age girls in a canoe. Pinned against a rock with the river popping around me, I thought for sure I was going to bail. Trying to recall the pre-launch instructions — something about leaning toward a rock to avoid swamping your boat — I muscled through without flipping over.

But then the real fun began: I went stern-first toward the little falls, my head craning around as my paddle and I finally manhandled the boat right-ways. I emerged slightly sore and spent, but the important fact was this: I made it. (So, eventually, did the canoeing girls.) To be sure, the river was higher than normal, thanks to the storm. But the experience left me wondering what Class III, IV and V rapids are like.

This was the wrong trip for those, thank goodness. After the low drama of Snake Castle Rock I was grateful for the mile and a half of flat water that followed.

But more rapids lay between me and the campground. I whimpered a bit when I saw them coming, but my experience back upstream had taught me important lessons. Rocks in the water are inevitable on river trips like this, and it takes getting used to the jostling and wrestling with the rapids. My rule became this: bump and grind. I'd hit a rock and paddle and scrape over or around it. As I drifted toward the pickup point, I felt victorious, if tired. Here was another kind of "whoa!" ("Whoa! I did that!")

Safely back at the campground, I decided I'd had enough of the salami and cheese I'd packed and headed to Pelham's Pub for dinner. I also paid a visit to the site of Stonewall Jackson's wounding at nearby Chancellorsville. A marker stands with his last words: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."

Which is what I did after dinner. Crawling into my tent, I read a few pages of my book by lantern, then slept like road kill until morning.

Travel always involves uncertainty, so it was a good thing the Walkers were prepared for it. On Sunday morning, I, along with the Gonzo Guys from Richmond, was going to do the 13-mile trip from the camp to Mott's Run, but too-high water ruled it out. Which is how, after one of my new buddies suggested it, six of us wound up going 12 miles, starting out on the Rapidan but still ending up at Mott's Run.

"It's like being in another world," said one of the Guys, a gregarious fellow named Brian Jacks. He was right. Out on the Rapidan, with few houses or landlubbers in sight, we had the water and banks to ourselves as we made for the first big bend. One could imagine Stonewall himself tromping out of the woods on his way to the next skirmish. The scenery was timeless. And the away-from-it-all vibe was unbeatable. A black-and-yellow butterfly flirted with my paddle, its wings catching the resurgent sunlight.

By the time I came up on the confluence of the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, with its attendant rapids, I'd had enough psychic charging to attack the rougher stuff with gusto. I felt like the kid I had heard yelling "Ra-PID! Ra-PID!" as his boat neared the white water. I slipped confidently between the rocks before coasting toward the bank and lunch.

Later, with the fear factor gone, I let go of some of my discretion and belted out a "Ha-HA!" for all to hear.

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