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The South River in Rockbridge County, Virginia, has never been on anyone's list of whitewater streams worth running. After Hurricane Camille in 1969 when the river flooded out of its banks and wiped out a couple trailer parks, the Army Corp of Engineers channelized the South. Nobody ever tried to run it after that because it looked like a l5-mile long drainage ditch. Roger Corbett, in his book Virginia Whitewater casually mentions the South River as having been ruined by the channelization, and describes it as a pleasant float with only a few riffles and gravel bars.
The only time there's enough water in the South River is when the Maury River is nearing flood stage at 5 to 7 feet, and it takes several inches of rain to get it cooking that high. Here it is end of season, and plenty of rain last night so all our favorites are running, but we're craving something new, and easy, since it's so cold today. After a bit of discussion we settle on a short trip on the South River just so we can say we've been there.
It was with this knowledge that we four hardy souls set off on a river that looks pretty sedate as we drive upriver and scout from the road.
Lot's of flatwater we assure each other, just a nice fast ride. And of course we have Corbett's guidebook telling us to expect just a channelized, cobble bar ride. Only thing to worry about according to Corbett is the Class III rapid under the bridge at the take out.
Ralph and I scouted that Class III from all angles, climbing up and down the river banks and hanging over the bridge rails. We pretty much decided it is only runnable in a narrow slot across two diagonal ledges, then a 90 degree turn, drop another ledge, and stay away from the log jam and bridge abutment on river right. We finally talk ourselves out of the attempt, and set up a take out point about 200 yards upstream in the only eddy we can find, and believe me, it is a damn poor excuse for an eddy. More likely we'll just slam into the bank and grab a tree root to stop ourselves.
On the way to the put in I knowingly advise everyone that I've read all about channelized rivers and they are much faster than normal rivers. If we come out of our boats it will likely be a long hard swim. Boy did I get that right!
We have Betty and Joe Bob in whitewater kayaks, and Ralph and me in Bell Prodigy X whitewater canoes. Two of us are trained in Swift Water Rescue, and we're all wearing drysuits because of the water temperature and a cold stiff wind. We figure we'll paddle a couple hours to the take out, load our boats and go have pizza. We drive upstream 6 or 8 miles and find a nice little turn out with a gravel bar leading down to the river. Excellent place to put in.
Casually I take note of the ledge drop about 20 yards downstream of the gravel bar, and the wave train that disappears around the bend about a 1/4 mile away, but hey, it don't look that bad.
The first thing I notice upon launching is the sheer strength of the river. Way more force than it looked from the road. It just whisked us away as soon as we pushed off into the current. The wave trains are bigger, too. The real surprise though is the diagonal ledges that set up some wicked holes and standing waves that crash into each other. These are no longer channelized cobble and gravel bars like they were in 1969, these are serious class II-III drops and holes.
After the first rush we eddy out at the first opportunity about a half mile down from our put in and all agree that we need to be on our toes because this river is fast, really fast. So we appoint Ralph as probe and off we go again.
After another half mile, we have our first swimmer who has to self rescue on the off side of the river because we can't get there to help. After that we decide that I'll paddle in the sweep position, and hang back a couple hundred feet so I'll be able to swoop in and help rescue, as if that was really going to be possible. More likely we'd be fishing each other out somewhere near the takeout.
Everything goes well, we have some close calls and near misses, lots of log jams and undercuts to avoid, and the diagonal ledges with their big crashing wave trains continue to keep us off balance. We pull out after a couple hours and take a breather. None of us can remember ever being this whipped after only two hours on a river. We aren't sure where we are in relation to the take out, but we left it well marked with an old Pabst Blue Ribbon 12 pack box so we aren't really concerned we'll miss it. If we do miss it that means we'll have to run the Class III under the bridge. But after what we've just been through the Class III under the bridge is beginning to look like a puppy.
So we enjoy our little break, and we discuss the next hazard coming up; an overhanging tree on river left with a sharp horizon line midstream and the encroaching brush on river right. We can see a mid stream log jam about 20-30 yards below the drop so we know it's not too deep. Looks like we have a good 3 foot wide path right down the center, so Ralph takes off and we get set to follow.
When Ralph gets to the overhanging tree he flips. Now why'd he do that? So I take off after him figuring I can pin his boat in the eddy I can see farther downstream. I get to the overhanging tree and bam, right over a diagonal ledge that sets up a really nasty hole next to the tree.
Just as I hit the ledge and flip, I look down and see Ralph's paddle wedged on the bottom. What an odd place to leave your paddle. Did you plan on coming back for it?
My new Swift Water Rescue PFD with 26.5 pounds of flotation is working very well. My hair isn't even wet and here I am thrashing through the rapids clinging to my boat and paddle. Things are going remarkably well, considering. Then I see the log jam coming up fast and I am about to get pinned on it.
I let go of the boat and swim like hell to miss the log jam, and luckily I catch a limb as I go by and do a perfect body roll into the eddy downstream of the log jam. From my new perspective I can look up to the head of the pile of logs and see that my canoe is pinned on its side and diagonal to the current.
Downstream, I see Ralph wading his canoe ashore on river left. That's a relief. Upstream I see Joe Bob and Betty have gone ashore and are crashing through the brush on river left with a throw rope. Maybe we'll have to z-drag my canoe, I hope not.
I pull myself up on the log jam being careful of snakes. I've heard those stories about flood victims being stranded in log jams with snakes all around (probably one of those funky old stories that grownups use to scare the hell out of their kids). If I can use this big limb to pry my boat loose and back into the current I can grab the painter as it goes by and swing the canoe into the eddy below the logs. Good plan, and it works.
Only problem is I never fully appreciated how much a swamped canoe weighs. Probably in the tons, or so it seems as I feel the rope burning my hand and me being pulled off the log jamb. I let go of the rope to save myself and hope one of the others can catch my canoe as it sweeps past.
Downstream I can see Ralph dumping his canoe and I am relieved to know we have at least one safety boat back in play. Now I have to figure out how to get off the log jamb and back to shore so I can run down and find my boat. I look back upstream and can't see Betty or Joe Bob. They are somewhere in a briar thicket and I can't see or hear them and I'm not sure how far away they are, or if they've missed me and plowed on by.
I look back downstream and see that Ralph is still pretty busy where he is, so it's up to me to get off this log island before a snake comes along. I decide the only thing I can do is fling my paddle to the left bank then jump off the logs and swim like hell towards a tiny eddy below a tree root on river left.
Yep, that worked. I scramble up the river bank and run back upstream to retrieve my paddle then hurry on down to help Ralph. By this time he has his canoe empty and he and I begin an earnest discussion on how best to utilize the one paddle and one canoe we have left.
Just then Joe Bob paddles into the eddy near us. Oh good, now we have another safety boat. I holler for him to hurry on downstream and try to catch my boat. He nods his understanding, taps "I'm okay" on his helmet, peels out of the eddy and smacks straight into a boulder at the lip of the next ledge drop and over he goes.
Dang, we're running out of safety boats again.
Ralph yells at me to take my paddle and his canoe and go rescue Joe Bob. So off I go, through the first ledge drop, then the stern clips a boulder and I drop off the next ledge sideways and flip in the boil.
This is really getting tiresome. I push the canoe hard towards river right and swim like hell to get away from the next ledge. The canoe and I arrive in the eddy at the same moment, and I am pleasantly surprised to see Joe Bob's kayak just bobbing around gracefully circling in the eddy. But there's no sign of Joe Bob. He must have flushed on through and hopefully he's okay somewhere downstream.
The only way out of the river for me is across another log jam on river right at the edge of the eddy. Oh boy, now I've gotta look for the damn snakes again. I'm able to get the kayak emptied of water and pushed up on a ledge above the current, then empty the canoe and scoot it up on the log jam, then I carefully pull myself onto the ledge keeping a sharp eye for timber rattlers and copperheads. I've always heard this is their preferred habitat. I've also heard they usually hang out in pairs, often with one in front of you and the other behind.
In this latest wreck I've lost my paddle and my spare is lodged in my canoe which is God knows where as fast as it went out of sight, hopefully still in Rockbridge County.
So here I am on the wrong side of a bad ass river, up against a sheer ledge bluff with no way to climb out, and with two boats and no paddle. "Up the creek without a paddle" suddenly becomes very real. I always thought it was just a joke.
By and by I see first Ralph, then Betty then Joe Bob scrambling up river on the far shore. That's a relief, everybody is ambulatory. They all have concerned looks on their faces when they see my predicament. We shout back and forth for a while, not understanding a damn thing anybody was saying. Finally through a series of pantomimes and arm pointing and making like I was pushing a boat into the river then swimming after it they seemed to get my idea that if they went downstream and set up in the calm water they could catch me and the boats as we floated by. Pretty weak, I know, but it was the only idea we could come up with so we went with it. They seem to understand and take off downstream and around the bend.
They are out of sight so I can only hope they understand my scheme and are busily getting set up in the calm water to rescue first the boats and then me.
I wait a good five minutes then launch the kayak out into mid stream and watch it merrily bobbing along running the ledge drops just fine on its own. After it goes out of sight around the bend I wait another 5 minutes, then get ready to launch the canoe. That's when I discover my paddle washed into a micro-eddy just below me and wedged under a tree root. Okay, it's all good now. Just grasp the paddle, hop in the canoe, ferry across the river, meet the gang, gather up my canoe, load the trucks and head for the pizza joint. Man a beer is going to really taste good tonight.
I make the ferry across the river flawlessly, grab a tree root and pull myself ashore and get Ralph's canoe up on dry ground. By this time Ralph is back and breathlessly explains there ain't no stinkin' calm water downstream, and none of them had a chance to grab the kayak as it flew by.
The kayak has bobbed on through the Class III under the bridge, just fine on it's own, and I was briefly pleased to hear it had selected the same line Ralph and I had decided on earlier. Betty was set up in the eddy below the bridge and almost had the kayak but it got away. Now she and Joe Bob are in his Lexus driving alongside the river chasing the kayak which is heading for Buena Vista at a fairly brisk pace.
In the meantime Ralph has found my canoe lodged on a tiny island on the...can you see it coming?....wrong side of the river! This is now starting to look like a Keystone Kops episode and I'm flat out exhausted from all this excitement.
We quickly decide the only way to get me back to my canoe is for Ralph to fasten his throw rope to my PFD tow tether and belay me as I wade back across the river. So inch by inch, using my paddle as a staff, I began working my way across the river.
I manage to get out about 20 feet by which time I am chest deep in rushing water and I can't see the bottom anymore. I pause to rest and become very impressed, fascinated actually, by the classic little eddy that is setting up downstream of my torso. There is even a little standing wave and I can imagine a tiny person in a tiny boat surfing it. Then I lose my footing and Ralph belays me back to shore.
On to Plan B. You got to always have a Plan B. We decide to hike down to the bridge, cross the river and climb the bluff on the other side, then somehow lower ourselves down to river level near my canoe, then figure out a way to get to it and get it loose and emptied so I can ferry it back across the river or failing that I'll run the damn class III under the bridge and find a take out somewhere below.
After about 20 minutes of climbing from the bridge up the bluff we get to the top and look way down. Wow, it didn't seem this high from the river. We both realize that if we get down there it will be impossible to get back up, so the only way out would be the river and there's only one solo canoe down there for two of us to use. Ralph's a really big guy, and I'm not so skinny myself. No way we'll both fit in that little Prodigy X.
After much head scratching and hesitation Ralph suggests he can be most useful by going back down to the bridge and cross back over the river to where we were earlier and set up to throw me a line if I fall in or whatever. Okay, good plan, so he takes off back over the bluff to the bridge.
I start inching my way down the cliff face using shrubs and tree roots as handholds and within moments, predictably, I lose my footing and do a free slide down the face of the bluff and whomp to a stop just inches short of the river. Funny what you think about at a time like this.
During the descent I have presence of mind to hold my paddle high so I won't break it, and during the slide I am painstakingly careful to not put weight on the leg that is bent back under me. A quick inventory of body parts and functions turns out well, just the wind knocked out of me. Whew, that's a relief!
I still can't see my canoe, so I start bushwhacking upriver. My drysuit is starting to look like a pin cushion with all the briars and burrs. After a couple more bull briar thickets and another ledge or two I finally get to where my canoe is snagged on a uprooted stump about 20 feet out in the river. I'm in luck. I can tie a rope to this tree and wade out to chest deep, then reach the tee grip of my paddle way out and catch the painter. Then all I have to do is jerk the canoe off the snag and hold on tight as the river swings the canoe into shore below me.
This time I'm not taking any chances with a swamped canoe pulling the rope out of my hand so I tie the painter to the throw rope that is anchored to the tree on shore. Works like a charm, and the canoe swings gracefully into shore where I can get it emptied and then plan my next move, which as it turns out is very simple. I just climb in, peel out bow upstream and ferry across to join Ralph on the other side.
We gather up our gear and load the two canoes on Ralph's truck, give each other a sort of "is this really happening" look and set off upstream to see if we can retrieve his paddle. After bushwhacking our way in to what will forevermore be known as Ralph's Lost Paddle Rapid we can't see the paddle at all. Either it has washed out and floated downstream, or the angle of the sun on the water is preventing us from seeing it. Best bet is to wait a few days till the river recedes then go back for another look.
We get back in the truck and head off downstream to see if Joe Bob and Betty have had any luck catching the runaway kayak. We drive all the way to the Buena Vista take out on the Maury River and don't see them anywhere. Then we head back upstream, and meet them coming back, still no luck.
At this point a passer by stops and asks if we are looking for a blue kayak. He just saw one floating near the confluence of the South and Maury. Off we go again, but can't find a trace of it anywhere and it's getting dark, so we call off the search and all head home.
The next afternoon Joe Bob and I meet at the confluence of the Maury and South and paddle down to Ben Salem Wayside, then on down to the Buena Vista take out.
We were hoping to find his kayak beached somewhere as the river was receding, but no luck. We all feel badly for losing a kayak; me because I actually had it under control for a few minutes and foolishly let it go, and Joe Bob, because it was his kayak.
Some lessons learned:
Author's Note: Check the online gauges for the Maury River at Buena Vista. If the gauge is at 5 to 7 feet you will have a heck of a good ride on a class II-III section of the South River. Any higher than that is not safe except for advanced boaters, and below 5 feet on the gauge is too low.