Almost Winter, West Virginia: Canoeing the Greenbrier River

DSC_0871(State #12/50) I was outpacing summer. Sure, I accomplished my goal of clearing the Deep South before it got too damn hot and bug-ridden. But, heading north into the mountains of West Virginia with my cousin Wesley, the 5th of May felt more like the 5th of March. As we drove over the Allegheny Mountains, the day turned sunny and cool. However, in 24 hours I’d be in my ski jacket and Wesley would be dead… or dead tired of the rain. I don’t know, one of the two.

DSC_0873Wesley and I geared up the canoe along the Greenbrier River in the town of Marlington. It was 1 p.m. on a Friday and the atmosphere buzzed. One group of locals had already declared it the weekend. They sat out on their porch with Bud Light’s in hand and country music blaring. Young children ran about in the green lawn below the porch. Within 45 minutes more people had showed up and the party spilled out onto the yard. A game of corn hole started up as “Red Solo Cup” filled the air. “A few more beers and we’re gonna start getting cat called.” I told Wesley.

Though we knew weather was coming, we decided to camp 2 nights and canoe 33 miles. It was Wesley’s first time in West Virginia and he had taken off work to meet me. We also required ample time to involve ourselves in a family feud or, at the very least, stumble upon a moonshine still and drink ourselves blind. So we committed to the river — rain and shine.

DSC_0907We got on the river at 2 o’clock, floating upon the green water of the Greenbriar for a quarter mile. Then a large tributary poured in and turned the whole affair brown. With the extra boost, we made great time downstream, riding over the swollen riffles and small rapids, too high to hit rocks. With the river up several feet, brown water lapped against high grass and poison ivy thickets above submerged banks; there were few good options to land the canoe.


Wes loved this little guy

We found one gravel bar of washed out rock from a clear flowing stream and landed Rider. Following the lead of the locals, we busted out the moonshine (though because alcohol consumption is forbidden on the Greenbrier river, we just admired the bottle for a few minutes before packing it away… wink… wait, did I write wink or just think it?). I popped my shirt off and we both put on sunscreen. It was summer dammit. Back on the water and feeling jolly, Wes and I sang Country Roads, by John Denver.

DSC_0915We overshot the campsite a local recommended to us by a few hundred feet. Against the swift muddy current, we labored back upstream, paddling with all our might to make 2 inches progress per stroke. At one point, we were moving backwards (clearly, we hadn’t had enough of the shine). It took 5 minutes to canoe 100 feet. We paddled into a slow swirling eddy near a steep, narrow path flanked with poison ivy. It ran from the well-maintained campground directly into the high water; it was less like a trail and more like someone had cleared a path for a waterslide. Getting out was tricky. But, with care, we unloaded and dragged the canoe up the turning path.


Armed with wood

The weather forecasters said the rain was coming at 6. This gave us 2 hours to put up the tent, rig up a tarp shelter and gather firewood. We completed these tasks in a jolly haste, with a drink in one hand — it was Cinco de Mayo, after all (a holiday created to commemorate the tradition of white people drinking margaritas and wearing sombreros in an earnest attempt to celebrate Mexican culture, or so I gather).

Our camp was set up by early evening and, lo, the sun still shone upon the valley. “We’re on borrowed time now!” Wes exclaimed. Drinks still in hand, we strolled along a section of the 78 mile Greenbrier River Trail behind our camp. We crossed over the roaring Beaver Creek on a 100-year-old railroad steel bridge (the entire path used to be a train track).  Wes and I found rock outcrops and we climbed up on top of large flat stones. There, we sat on the cool moss and looked off into the green mid story of the dell.DSC_1075

After dark we continued our festivities around the campfire. We fried up quesadillas with avocado and salsa (thankfully, made in Texas). Finally, the sprinkles came at 11 p.m. and we headed to bed.

Wes&MeColdWe awoke to a cold and drizzly morning. Hesitant, we emerged wearing jackets and shemaghs. The water was muddier than the day before and up by several feet. We cooked up breakfast tacos and boiled rainwater for coffee/hot coco. We were in no rush to be on the river and didn’t put in until 1 p.m.

We paddled over swift brown water, under dreary, misting skies. Trying to counter the cold gloomy weather, I had over-caffeinated. Feeling strange and jittery didn’t help when cutting through standing waves of 3 feet. They lapped over the gunwales of the boat, soaking Wesley’s lower half. We sought the most conservative path. “Oh man, that looks big,” we’d say. “Let’s stay left and then cut to the middle.” Wes and I shouted back and forth in these sections, knowing the freezing consequences of a wrong move. I struggled to keep the boat strait in the mixing currents, trying not to get broadsided and turn over in the surging Greenbrier.

DSC_0010Knowing we should have donned wetsuits, Wesley and I had discussed protocol for flipping. “Check each other first, then canoe/gear and then swim it all to a bank to get out,” I said, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Once out of the water, we’d have to strip, dry off and put on our, hopefully, still dry clothing. We’d likely need to make a fire to warm up, or do the ultimate Boy Scout anti-hypothermia measure — get naked in a sleeping bag together. As close as Wesley and I are, we wanted to the avoid a skin-on-skin manchilada.

DSC_1129Further along, we landed the canoe near the bridge in unincorporated Seebert. The drizzle subsided, but the chill remained. Looking around, we didn’t see a soul, much less the little store we sought. I knocked on the door of a small inn and no one answered. A single car drove across the bridge. I held up my hand, thinking they would stop, but the vehicle just zoomed past. We wandered along the empty main street, looking for any sign of life. True, the weather was less than spectacular, but it was also Saturday afternoon. There was no one working in their yard or even smoke coming from a chimney in this ghost town. I studied the well-kept homes as we walked by, half expecting to see a single vague figure, peering from behind a curtain in an upstairs window. Wesley and I began to wonder aloud if we had camped through the start of the zombie apocalypse when another car stopped and pointed us towards the store. There, we found undead humans and bought s’more fixings and beer.

The sun came out in stints that afternoon, though dark clouds were never far off. We continued downstream, averaging 4-5 miles per hour without effort. When the sun did shine, it turned to spring again. Wildflowers and dogwood trees bloomed along the banks and the hillsides. Deciduous trees, decked in bright green, grew strait and towered above the river. Virginia Creeper, ferns, mosses and grass grew in the understory amid dead leaves and decaying logs, coated in mushrooms.DSC_0917

DSC_1164By the time we found our campsite, the sun lit the whole valley. Even the brown river pleased the eyes as sunlight glinted off the surface. We set up camp at another great site; this one had a tent platform, table, fire ring, outhouse and a shelter. Wesley and I celebrated the already glorious evening by opening beers. After a cold soggy day of canoeing through high water, soaking in sunshine and drinking a beer named “Almost Heaven” felt right. John Denver would have approved.

The next morning was cool, but sunny. Again, we took our time drinking coffee, eating breakfast and breaking camp. The river was down and had returned to its typical green hue and the big water we scouted along the trail the night before was no longer flowing at a sprinters pace. We launched and enjoyed our canoe down above friendly waters and below mostly sunny skies.

DSC_1150We arrived at the town of Renick mid-afternoon and discovered my car wasn’t there, but that is a whole other story (see ‘thanks to’ below). Despite the bouts of cold and rain, Wesley and I  avoided hypothermia and had a magnificent float along the Greenbrier. We took advantage of the sunshine when present and took advantage of the moonshine when there was no sunshine. Over the span of 3 days and 33 miles, we never saw another boat on the water. I guess that’s the good thing about outpacing summer —  you outpace the tourists, too.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Greenbrier River, West Virginia
  • Weather: Ranged from sunny in the upper 60s to rainy, cloudy with lows in the 30’s.
  • Miles canoed: 33
  • Launch Point: Marlington, near city park 38.225203, -080.095104
  • Campsite #1: 38.1579, -080.141109 (developed free site with restroom, platform table and fire ring)
  • Campsite #2: 38.036998,-080.24822 (developed free site with restroom, platform, fire ring, table and shelter)
  • Takeout Point: 37.989738,-080.353797 (better takeout a little further down, just passed bridge on river right)
  • Song Sung on River: Country Roads, John Denver
  • Huge Thanks to Chuck with Appalachian Sport (304) 799-4050): We arranged for the owner of the outfitter to shuttle our car down from Marlington to Renick. When we arrived in Renick 2 days later we couldn’t find the car. Wesley found the owner in his truck, he had been waiting for us since 8 in the morning (thinking we’d get off early because the weather). He had tried to move my car down on Saturday morning but the damn car alarm went off and locked the ignition. It sounded like he spent the better part of the weekend trying to get it started. He tried jumping it, turning off the alarm, etc. (likely cursing the car and me all the while). On top of that he was worried about us canoeing down in the high water and half expected us to canoe it all on Saturday. On Sunday, he was about an hour away of sending the local firefighters in a boat after us. “Well, they need to do water rescue training anyways.” I felt terrible for the guy (who was still nice to us and drove me back to my car) and knew the whole ordeal must have zapped any built up Karma I had in this universe. Though he’ll never have his weekend back, I’ve decided I’m sending him a care package, which may or may not include a small replica of my Focus for him to destroy in a cathartic manner.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Canada Geese, pileated woodpecker, cardinal, plovers, ducks, kingfisher.
  • Reptiles: one tiny turtle
  • Mammals: 2 beavers, 1 white tail deer and a gray squirrel
  • Noted Species: Two endemic species of salamander at the headwaters — WV Spring Salamander at Fox Springs and the Cheat Mountain Salamander, which resides lives in the mountains.
  • Dominant Trees: Butternut, Hawthorn, Oak, Hickory, White Ash, Sugar Maple, various pines and cedar
  • Ecoregion: Central Appalachian, (69c) Greenbrier Karst
  • Current Threats: Non point source pollution, sedimentation from logging and flooding (exacerbated by development and erosion increased from logging), fecal coliform, algae blooms (often from nutrient runoff associated with fertilizer, farming, etc.)
  • Trash collected: A few bottles and trash along driftwood. For the most part, we didn’t see too much and current was too swift to nab it when we did.
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