The winding New River kicks its whitewater heels through sparsely populated hills as tough as the steadfast highlanders and farmers who live there.
Justifiably called by many the Grand Canyon of the East, the New River Gorge has an average width of one mile, and the beauty of its ancient walls makes it one of the East’s most spectacular canyons.
Now the National Park Service owns almost 40,000 acres in the vicinity of Thurmond, and two dozen outfitters work the gorge, while kayakers surf the waves in the rapids along with their whitewater companions.
One travel writer observed recently: “Many oar-strung rafts with their helmeted occupants line up before the rapids like airplanes waiting on a runway for their turn to take off. When ready, they sweep downstream, guides shouting orders to pull right or left, the crews of 20-something hallooing, yelping, and screaming as they plunge into the foam like fraternity parties put to sea in bathtubs.”
There’s evidence that the New River Gorge once provided other services, such as rock shelters for Native Americans some 15,000 years ago.
A contradiction in terms, the New is the oldest river in the western hemisphere.
From its quiet beginnings in North Carolina, it meanders northward, growing in volume and velocity, until it reaches West Virginia and enters the New River Gorge National River.
Set aside by Congress in 1978 to run free forever as the Mountain State’s first national river, the New River is part of the ancient Teays River system which covered the central part of North America during the Mesozoic Era.
The meandering New River Gorge cuts through several geological formations. For two million years, the New River has maintained a nearly unchanged course.
As the New River heads northward, it cuts more deeply into the rising plateau all around it, finally edging through the deep sandstone canyon of the gorge.
Cliffs rise in stratified layers 1,000 feet above the river. Turkey vultures and ravens soar on the thermals. Along the ridge tops, cool temperatures foster a northern forest of pines and oaks in whose deep shadows grow thick stands of rhododendron.
The forest, in turn, provides a haven for black bears and bobcats as well as for the red squirrel, a species native to the spruce and pine forests of Canada.
As rivers go, the New is far from the longest or widest or fastest flowing. But if you happen to be looking for nuances, the river’s subtle spectrum of rough beauties approaches the spectacular.
Walled by high steep banks and sandstone bluffs that curve to the sky, the river spills through forest gorges and meanders through meadow lands and primitive wilderness, winding past hollows swathed in ferns and hung with slender waterfalls.
Where the gorge narrows, sandstone slabs as big as cars dominate the shoreline.
Often it deepens to emerald, green pools before sweeping out past broad gravel and rocky bars and shoals that challenged the rugged river men of the past.
Every year, between April and October, thousands head to the tiny West Virginia towns of Thurmond and Fayetteville and Lansing for the best whitewater rafting east of the Mississippi River.
Outfitters guide trips for more than 75,000 rafters who ride the waters of the New River and the Gauley River.
The whitewater trips vary in length and roughness. The more experienced rafters dive into trips that test rowing skills and teamwork in difficult rapids. The trip for novices or very young rafters emphasizes a slow start and a gradual build-up in risk, usually in calmer, more manageable waters.
On the larger rafts, everybody gets to paddle and works to navigate the rapids instead of just hanging on for the ride while the guide oars away. On the smaller boats, such as inflatable kayaks, rafters are handed a paddle and they are on their own—although a guide usually is nearby.
Breathtaking natural scenery is matched in splendor by world class hotels and cozy bed and breakfasts and inns. There are incredible state parks, adventures awaiting on the whitewater, and hiking and biking on designated rails-to-trails or on the back roads and forests near the gorge.
These ancient mountains along the New River tell the tales of Native American lore; of natural springs which brought early visitors; of colonial settlement and Civil War battles; of timber and coal and railroads, of historic towns and camps.
The National Park Service operates two visitor’s centers on the New River. The Canyon Rim and Hinton visitor’s centers have year-round programs ranging from Sunday conversations with the region’s old-timers to guided walking tours of the Gorge’s historic communities.
The New River is best known for its spectacular white rafting and kayaking. But it also welcomes the less adventurous with gentle family float trips, canoeing on its upper reaches, tour boat cruising, interpretive history walks and excellent smallmouth bass fishing.
Grasses, cardinal flower, jewel weed, and purple-blossomed water willow crop up along the water’s edge—ideal forage for butterflies, songbirds, raccoons, opossums, mink, muskrat, and beavers.
The same terrain provides woody hideaways for herbs.
“Let’s face it,” said Mark Scott, wildlife biologist with the DNR. “No one is going to pay to come here to observe the wildlife.
“Some call it eco-tourism. So be it. It’s what passes for a wilderness experience. It gives local people work, and it helps preserve the river and the mountains.”
Top o’ the morning!