“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Shenandoah River

We floated the Shenandoah River last month and it had everything we expected of a mountain stream: gin clear water, sparkling riffles, broad valleys backing up to looming Appalachian peaks. What we didn’t expect was all of this to be within an easy half-day drive of the bustling metropolitan crush of our nation’s capital. The Shenandoah Valley is less than 200 miles from downtown Washington but those miles transport you into a whole other world.

Leave the chaos and stress of the capital and head west on Interstate 66 through the sprawling suburbs of Alexandria and Arlington, past Annandale and Manassas with thousands of scurrying bureaucrats and office workers commuting around like ants. West of Manassas, the endless mess of roads and subdivisions, McMansions and Stepford lawns, gas stations and strip malls perceptibly diminishes and is replaced by a few tiny towns scattered among farms and fields, dreadfully awaiting the inevitable invasion of Progress From The East.

We drove into Front Royal, a no nonsense working class town that only grudgingly accepts tourists and the encroachment coming over the horizon. Folks here do as they damn well please, cursing the DC refugees starting to buy houses in town or the tourists passing through on their way to see the White House and the Smithsonian. Front Royal’s don’t care attitude is the perfect complement to its role as the gateway to the Shenandoah River.

The Shenandoah flows south to north, a contrarian river that matches the attitude of the area. The river supports a number of outfitters that provide canoes and kayaks and services for river runners. We picked up a shuttle at Front Royal Canoe Company and an hour later were pushing off from a narrow gravel bar into the briskly flowing waters of the Shenandoah.

We planned three leisurely days of paddling from our put-in point back to Front Royal, 41 miles. From the get go the river was a delight; shallow, quick current, transparent water. The river flows through a wide valley, carving through its heart with expansive open fields on either side. This is working farm country and cattle eyed us balefully as we floated past. Corn, wheat and soybeans carpet acres of rich earth with vivid greens and golds and bluish mist-wreathed mountains frame the scene. Wow.

We’ve floated the wild and raw waters of the West—the Little Missouri River in North Dakota, the Green River in Utah, the Colorado, the Snake—churning, challenging, punishing. This was different--mellow, welcoming, calming. I felt my body shifting into low gear as the river pushed us along.

I flipped a lure into a swirling eddy behind a small boulder and it was immediately tugged underwater. A smallmouth bass, maybe ten inches, put up a surprisingly lively fight to stay out of the canoe. Fun fishing, smallmouth, mighty fighters for their size. This first fish was one of dozens we hooked during our trip. As we floated north, the smallmouth increased in size and by day three we were pulling hefty three- to four-pounders from the river. The fish ebbed and flowed in an inexplicable pattern, some sections of river alive with fish, others desolate. When we got into an active area, we pulled the canoe behind an eddy or near the riverbank and fish till our arms grow tired. Catch and release. Take a picture, let it go.

As dusk gathered on the evening of our first day we crunched our bow against a gravel bar on the downstream edge of the confluence of a small creek flowing into the Shenandoah and made camp. Raccoon poop festooned the gravel and we listened to a beaver slap his tail on the water in the darkness, waiting for the campfire to fade to embers.

The morning cloaked the riffles in fog. It created an odd effect, the water clearer than the air. The rocky river bottom flashed under our canoe in a muted runway of russet and tan with green streamers of algae waving to us in passing.

This is not an isolated river and there is almost always a house or river cabin perched within view on the bank. The only respites from civilization are the stretches of national forest land that border the river. In these stretches hardwoods crowd to the very edge of the water, their welcoming branches shading the water from the hot summer sun. The trees teem with birds. We saw osprey, bald eagles, great horned owls, belted kingfishers, barn swallows, red-tailed hawks, and dozens of species of smaller birds flitting through the vegetation. We watched an adult bald eagle catch fish in her talons and fly up to feed her two immature offspring squawking impatiently on the bare limb of a dead tree. White tailed deer, mink and groundhogs watched us from the banks and blue winged teal and mallards lurked in the shadows under overhanging branches.

Easy paddling with a steady current makes for lazy days and we had plenty of time to fish and just lay back and enjoy the passing scenery. Long stretches of swift water with lively riffles were interspersed with deep sluggish pools. This is Class I floating, the easiest of rivers. Only a handful of rapids could conceivably be considered Class II, the next level of difficulty. Combined with the generally shallow water it is hard to get in trouble here.

Day two drew to a close as we made camp on a small open area on an island in the middle of the river. We were awakened the next morning by the sound of an indignant deer snorting next to our tent and peered out to see a doe and her fawn staring at us thirty feet away. We had barely broken camp when the day darkened and a slow rain fell. Around noon the sky opened up. The fish were still biting and we hooked ever larger fish, culminating in a five-pound largemouth bass, the only largemouth of the trip. The rain was unrelenting, a gray curtain that pocked the river surface. Nevertheless, we took it easy, not eager to leave the Shenandoah until we arrived at the take out and ended our time on the river.

Three days of easy paddling on a river that can legitimately be described as idyllic. Enjoy it before Progress steals it away.