Cold with a Chance of Snakes and a Shotgun: Canoeing the Cowpasture River, Virginia

(State #13/50) The river was well named — it was a dale flanked by pasturelands of mooing cows, farmhouses and forest covered mountains. Pinewoods and sheer rock cliffs existed where there weren’t fields. The Indians named it Walatoola originally, meaning ’winding waters,’ which also works well describing all the bends in the river. But, the British settlers didn’t have time or willingness to learn what that word meant, so Cowpasture it became. DSC_0099

DSC_0048I didn’t start floating until 7 p.m. The water was clear and the sky was even clear. Orange light lit the sides of the forested valley, but I canoed mostly in the shadows of the Bullpasture mountains. A beaver surfaced, dove and then swam by the canoe a foot below the transparent water. I hoped to see more animals as it was late evening and I appeared to be the only human around. Then I disturbed a single Canada Goose. The bird proceeded to float downstream, a hundred yards in front of me, honking at one second intervals, as if announcing man was in the forest to the whole damn river. This went on for a quarter mile at least. I blame the goose for not seeing a bear.

DSC_0065One side of the river was the George Washington National Forest and the other side was all private farmland. Most of the best spots for camping were on the flat sides and had posted signs. I canoed until after sundown before finding a gravel island. I made camp on a little flat, grassy, prominence above the gravel bar. A 100 foot limestone cliff (with a curious flat slab, which jutted out like a pirate’s plank) rose up from across the river. A rolling green field, dotted with black cattle lay on the other side. A small set of rapids provided the dominant background noise.

DSC_0090I made a fire on the gravel bar and cooked canned soup over it and never took off my lifejacket the entire night; it was cooling down fast and it did well to keep me warm. I had s’more fixings leftover from West Virginia, so I made them for desert. There is something inherently social in making a s’more over a fire, so it felt strange to roast them alone. However, I did make a big life decision in the process — I’m switching back to 1 mallow per cracker. For years I have done two  and decided the ratio is askew.

DSC_0081 (1)I woke up at 3 a.m. A bright moon hung over a pasture, filled with mooing cows. I was cold and should have bundled up with my coat and a towel, but I was too lazy to make myself comfortable. Hours later, I awoke at first sunlight and lay there, unrested and awaiting the warmth. Finally, I fell back asleep and had a dream I met Tommy Lee Jones. I was proud of myself for not gushing and we had a good conversation; about what, I can’t recall. Then I woke up…

It was still sunny when I got on the water at 11 o’clock. A doe swam across a wide, slow section of river 200 yards downstream. When I canoed close to the brush where she disappeared, the deer coughed and thudded off into the woods. I saw 4 more over the last hour of the morning, wandering along the bank or between the copious amounts of still-shuddered summer homes along the river.

DSC_0066The sun was still shinning at noon and it nearly got warm, but didn’t. High clouds undercut the sun, followed by low gray clouds from the south. Then darker gray clouds replaced those. For the remainder of the afternoon, the sky looked perpetually on the verge of rain.

DSC_0112A few downed trees across the main channel forced me to take a bad run against a cut bank. The current swept Rider and I under a large downed branch of a sycamore. I avoided getting tossed out or losing my hat, but the branch coated me in wet, decaying leaves all across my shoulder and right side. A few miles down I went into the biggest stretch of whitewater I had seen. Lowering my center of gravity, I got down on my knees in the brace potion. I hit the center of the V in the river and watched the bow point skyward as I rocked over 3-foot standing waves. I came down heavy on one rock, but made it through without taking on water.

I passed under many high suspended pedestrian bridges (a fun manmade feature of the Cowpasture) before coming to a low bridge, which looked dangerous to pass under in a canoe. I walked out to the road and saw it was private property. Walking back to the canoe a guy in a truck passed me on the road. The man, who was about my age, ignored me entirely, leaving his feeling open to interpretation. I moved on.

DSC_0123I made it to the village of Griffith at 2 p.m and locked my canoe to a sign, stashed my gear and loaded my backpack with valuables. I ran most of the 8.5 miles back to my car along a shoulder-less country highway. I didn’t hold out my thumb and no one stopped. The clouds looked unfriendly and it was cold, but the rain held off. I ran past country homes and people working in quarter acre garden plots. Dogs and people alike watched me with various degrees of curiosity and/or suspicion.

It took me 2 hours to make it to my car and I was delighted to find it un-smashed and in working order. I drove up to my locked canoe and a red truck pulled up next to me. A large camo-clad man got out of the driver seat with a 12-gauge. “A little evening turkey hunt?” I asked. He said yes and asked about my canoe. I told him my plan to do all 50 states. “And how many so far?” he asked. “Virginia is number 13,” I told him. “Thirteen is my lucky number! If I were to ever win a million dollars it’d be with 13,” he said. “Well, I kept waiting for something unlucky to happen because of it, so maybe that offsets it,” I said. Then I held out my hand to introduce myself, bracing for the strong grip I knew would come. His said his name was Roger.

DSC_0120 (1)I spoke with Rodger for half an hour and wish I had it all recorded. He stood around 6’4 and wore jeans, a brown cotton shirt and a camouflage vest with two large ammo pouches. Roger had a farm-weathered face, thick neck, a gray beard and a golfball-sized wad of tobacco in his right cheek, which he occasionally deposited on the gravel at our feet. Though he was twice my age, Roger could whoop my ass 6 days till Sunday. There was no question. He said ‘barr’ for bear and ‘warr’ for wire and told me old stories about the flood of ’85 and the time he held a man’s head underwater for having words with his father. “Right over there by that suspension bridge,” he told me, pointing. “He never did come back.” Yes, Roger was a character through and through, by speech and appearance.

Roger asked what I did before my canoe trip and I told him environmental consulting. He nodded and said, “Well, I ain’t no tree-hugger but I like nature.” Roger explained how he wanted to leave the place good for his kids and grandkids. He said how the water in this part of the Cowpasture River was clean, but further down, it was polluted with chemicals from paper mills. “Someone put oil in my well once. I never did find out who.” I said that was awful. We spoke about hunting and him wanting to visit Texas to hunt for mule deer someday. The daylight began to fade. “Well, we could talk all day, I’ll let you get out of here,” Roger said and we shook hands. We really could, I thought.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Cowpasture River, Virginia
  • Weather: Ranged from sunny in the upper 60s to cloudy with lows in the 30’s.
  • Miles canoed: 12
  • Launch Point: 37.950026, -079.705832 (Walton Track, 631 off the highway, go a half mile down the road and then stay left at fork and follow signs, took me a while to locate
  • Campsite: ? Somewhere in the middle
  • Takeout Point: 37.866826, -079.733711 (right past suspension bridge near village of Griffith
  • Song Sung on River: Shape of you, Ed Sheeran (I’m sorry, world)
  • Thanks to the George Washington Forest Service for advice on canoeing
  • Delicious local restaurant: BG’s 2 in Goshen, VA.  Thanks to Kayla and Nancy for a tender pulled pork sandwich and endless coffee! Warmed my bones!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Wood ducks, merganser, Canada Geese, pileated woodpecker, belted kingfisher, little green heron, crow, chickadee, hawk
  • Reptiles: Black snake (rat snake?) on hike back and turtles in the morningDSC_0127 (1)
  • Mammals: 1 beaver, 4 white tail deer
  • Noted Species: Eastern Hellbender (giant salamander!)
  • Dominant Trees: Sycamore, American Elms, Hickory, Cedar and Virginia Pines
  • Ecoregion: Ridge and Valley, (67h) Sandstone Ridges
  • Current Threats: Sedimentation, Agriculture/cattle ranching runoff
  • Trash collected: plastic bottles and beer cans
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