Yesterday’s rains were solid. Today they are scattered.
By evening I was sick of it. Apparently it was going to keep going all night. It’s been heavy for an hour, all I can manage is the collecting and dumping of water from my canopy tarp roof.
When I found a newly built floating dock, roped off well, I figured it’d be as good as place as any to camp for the night while on a flooding river…
This dock was only 8’x8′. My tent barley fit, and with my raft secured to it, I crawled inside soaking wet and sat on the empty floor of my tent, while streams turned to puddles around me. Fortunately my backpack is mostly dry.
Subtly bobbing in the center of the small dock, I begin to manage the situation with lots of soaking and wringing into the vestibule area under my rainfly.
Upon waking, my estimation of the river height overnight was way off. I should of visually marked something on the shore better. Between August 3-4 it rose 3ft. That’s a really significant amount for any body of water, and it was going to go another 2ft.
That evening I made it to Harpers Ferry at long last, on the tide of a significant discharge spike. I’ve watched it rise, learned a great deal of control, and I’ve researched the area ahead as best I can.
I’m going for it, this will not be my first class III run, but it may be my first IV…
Eighteen days on the river, 200 miles mostly rowed, 5 dams (one of them damn “impassable”), porting at least half a dozen downed trees, low water bridges, numerous illegal campings, living on the boat, sleeping under bridges, bears, bugs, sun, storms, unending patience in patching and waiting for cure times… there is no damn way I’m not riding this into town!
The normally class III rapids take on characteristic of class IV in the 5-8 foot range. The river reached 7.65 feet that night, up just over 5 feet from when I started.
I’m making the run from Bulls Falls, down the Staircase and through The Roller Coaster, right into Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Landing at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers at the West Virginia and Maryland borders. I reached the beginning of the first set of rapids around 5pm.
At this level, I have to assume everything has jumped a class and is now III/IV. I scrambled to secure gear and did my last roll maneuver to the back of the boat to give it a final firming up with the hand pump. I wish I had GoPro for this.
I also really had to pee, thankfully. I surveyed the area. There was one boat way off behind me. I decide to hold back and get some intel, (hopefully from a local that’s run this before at these levels) let them pass, pee off the back, then follow their lead.
It was a good plan. He was the main guide for the local outfitter, out with just that boat today. The other guy running solo was a guide in training.
At the end of one of the sets, I got stuck in a large tail, white water above my head, down in a swell all the way around it felt. I wrenched the oars, and heard a crack, it didn’t break but something is about to give. Its enough to register concern. It’s a really long 10-12 seconds when I realize in a moment of rising panic that these boats are to flexible for this dramatic situation.
She’s been a good boat. I’ve put this Intex Excursion in places and situations it wasn’t meant for. The middle of the raft bends just low enough to begin to take on water at a quickly increasing rate, water pooling around my feet, gear sliding to the center. This is bad.
At this point I’ve done a 180 inside this surf and am facing upstream. I grab the outside line around the boat, where the water is cresting in on the right side, grip down and throw my weight back and left, grabbing the paddle with my other hand as I bounced back on the port side. I wrenched down and pulled like hell, both line and oar, and was rewarded by shooting out the side of it with my weight now off balance, half outside the boat.
I surprised myself with that last move. It was an unthinking act of desperation. I was lucky it worked out. I bailed the boat with my cook pot as quickly as possible, trying to slow my roll at the same time. It was super awkward, but more rapids are just ahead. The guide ahead is trying to go slow to shout some tips off to me.
I’m almost certain I found the exact spot in this guys video where I got stuck!
It was outrageous and I made it through all of them in good form after that. That incident was my only big hangup. The guide ahead of me was obviously concerned. He did a good job trying to communicate through the chaos and loud rapids. At the end he gave me one hell of a congratulations with paddles upraised and cheers that roared above the sound of the raging falls just behind us. I responded in kind with my own victorious shout.
I landed at the sight of the old bridge on the point. The afternoon storm rolling through has zero impact on me. In fact it’s perfect.
I can’t really express how epic the ending of this was for me. It shouldn’t end any other way, than by the rain stopping as I arrive to the falls and pouring again the moment I’m past them.
I feel blessed and even actively protected. I feel in tune. My 18 day Mark Twain experience leaves me elated and a bit overcharged with emotion that I choose to suppress multiple times.
I pulled the boat up to shore, sorted through the remaining gear, packed my bag and left her behind for the night. I’ll post a Craigslist ad and a “free to a good home” note on it tomorrow. River magic…
I’m going to walk a couple miles up the hill of this historic town to the Tea Horse Hostel, feeling incredible, and take a shower.
I’ll have to explore this place tomorrow.