My buddy from DC called me in August and told me he was going to be heading West (3 hours car ride was "Heading West" in his mind) and wanted to know if I wanted to meet up to try out some camping gear and maybe get in some rafting. It would be a 9 hour drive down from Detroit but I convinced my brother to also head in from Philly and we had ourselves a tribe.
I checked the calendar and our selected weekend fell on "Bridge Day" in WV. You know, another one of those hallmark generated holidays where people raft down rivers in late October and base jump off bridges by the hundreds.
The plan was to head down on a Thursday night, meet at the trail head and camp for the night. The following day we would knock out the 20 mile hike and then spend another night under the stars before hurrying over to rafting base camp to catch the Lower New rafting trip Saturday morning. Sunday, we raft the "Beast of the East", the Upper Gauley and head home relaxed and rested....right.
Thursday came and I left Detroit about noon, Joe was going to make trail head about 5pm, and I figured I would arrive a few hours later in time to warm up next to the fire he created before settling to my tent.
Well, around Pittsburgh I hit construction which delayed me until 10pm. This would not be a problem except Joe had no cell phone coverage at the trail head, and it was pouring buckets down there, so I figured he would be sitting in his jeep for 5 hours cursing me up and down sure that I bailed on the trip. As he sat there with his survival knife contemplating his next move (sleep in the car, set up camp in rain/dark, or head 1 hour east to closest hotel), I hit the home stretch and thought there is no way in hell I am setting up camp in this mess. The problem being that by this time I was deep into the Monongahela National Forest and not too many Embassy Suites around.
The Monongahela National Forest
As luck would have it I stumbled upon a lodge (only thing indicating advanced civilization for 40 miles) and turns out they had 1 room left for one night only. Even better, the room had 2 beds and I had cash (No credit cards allowed) so we would not have trade to my Casio for a 1 bed lovefest (Those aren't pillows!)
Four Seasons Lodge
Proud of my achievement, I drove the last 30 minutes to trail head, and found Joe huddled in his jeep (as I knew I would). As I was taking this shot, he uttered that I had about 30 more minutes before he drove a stake through our friendship and headed home. I told him I found a room, and we headed back the way I came. Before hitting the road, he said something about camping that night. I told him I already paid for the room. As we drove back, I was wondering if I was just being a sissy and Joe was tougher than I thought, but by the time we got to the lodge, Joe confessed that he had not a clue why he made that statement.
After a good night's rest we set up base camp and cooked some breakfast.
Time to hit the trail. I learned my lesson in July about over packing and carrying 50lbs of crap. We decided to pack light and turn the 20 miles in a day so we could get back to base camp that same evening. I printed out some topographical maps and some trial descriptions and we were off.
There was still a slight rain and mountains of fog. It was a well groomed trail that started pretty flat. we started about 9am and stopped after about an hour to stretch and crack some bones, pretending we know how to prepare for the gauntlet that lay before us. It was beautiful scenery as sections encassed in the fog were covered in moss and surrounded by 5 ft pine tress. I felt like a giant walking through the forest, but then came the rude awakening.
I looked down at something Joe saw. It was a mound of scat, feces, pooh to the layperson. It was much bigger than something a squirrel would produce, hell it was much bigger than anything I could produce. This caused us a bit of concern as it led to only one conclusion...Black Bear.
It became a bit more disturbing as we saw about 50 of these piles over the next 2 hours. The paranoia peaked when A bird flew out of the bushes and looking back I saw Joe 30 ft back up the trail.
After gaining our composure we descended to the stream and had no problem crossing the raging Cranberry River. I was told to call in advance as there were times when the river was impassable. As you can see this was not one of those times (Joe fell twice as he wadded through the raging white caps).
After the river we found a shelter and had lunch. It was a fairly cool day, but body temperature took a nose dive once we stopped moving and the sweat began to turn ice cold. For lunch it was a combination of GORP and couscous with chicken burritos.
After lunch we took a fire road for 7 miles, which was a nice break but a bit tough on the psyche. It is always tougher to hike these roads for me as my mind has nothing to focus on, like tree roots, rocks and streams. For the last 6 miles in between telling old stories we voiced our concerns about the 2 miles we had left to hike back up the mountain to get to base camp. Well, we finally hit the trail and it was tough, but not impossible, especially with only a 15 lb pack. Below are some shots of Joe struggling to the finish line...I emphasize the word struggling here. We ended up doing the trail in around 8-9 hours and averaging around 2.4 mph (don't ask me how I came up with this number, just accept it and move on).
Back at camp we cooked up some dinner and set to making a fire. I thought we would have a tougher time because of all the rain, but breaking open some soaked trees provided great tinder and along with the cardboard beer case and bag of Frito's, we were in business in no time. My brother strolled in around 7 pm in time for beers and beans.
We had to get up by 6am to get on the road to make the river shuttle by 9am. Joe is someone who needs his ice coffee in the morning and if he does not get it he will be as pissy as a kid on Halloween with a bag full of pretzels and raisins. We were about 5 miles away and it was 8:55. I pulled the caravan off at the McDonald's so Joe could get his fix, assuming that 9:00am start really meant 10:00. You can see where this is going. We pulled into base camp at 9:30am and I saw the buses. I looked a little closer and the buses were all fogged up. Something registered in me (that is not right) as I began to notice that the buses were full and they were heading out.
Without thinking too clearly, which my brother and Joe would remind me, I rushed out of the car and flagged them down. The guide, a friend of mine, told use to get our bleeping clothes together and we could meet the group down at the river. He told me that if we were 5 more minutes late, we would have missed the bus. My brother and Joe looked at me as we stood there in shorts in 35 degree temperatures and mulled over the different things we could have done to make ourselves 5 minutes later that morning (take a piss at McDonald's, stopped at a traffic light, etc)
Everyone had wet suits and splash jackets, except us of course. We got it the raft and to our surprise the water temperature was in the upper 60s. Unfortunately we were not going to be riding this river under water and the breeze did not help. The New river was low that day as it was the last week of the season. It became a much more technical ride and we kept looking for the New River Bridge around every corner (finish line). 5 damn minutes I would chuckle under my breath every time I got wet or stood frozen next to the raft eating lunch.
At the bottom of the river we sat and watched base jumpers plummet off the 800 ft bridge. It was pretty crazy as the difference between life and death was holding the chute an extra second or two. We saw some pretty adventurous/insane people throw their chute with just enough time to open and have them strike the river with some extra force.
Back at base we got out or tents and changed into dry clothes ASAP. I set up my new tarp tent, which took 10 times as long to set up as everyone else's tent, but that was not the point. The point was that I made it and I was proud of it and I was going to use it. I would regret that decision. We sat around the fire drinking moonshine and headed out to the bars. Joe drove us home after attending a few classic WV watering holes. Joe should not have drove home.
The next morning came early. I awoke to the sound of my brother packing up his tent. I looked out under my tarp to see him head to his car and back to Philly. I guess he was opting out of rafting for today. I kinda knew this as he whispered to Joe and I on the river yesterday, "See if you can guess what I am not doing tomorrow, it is real simple."
The temperature was a balmy 25 degrees. My car was frozen as you can see below sitting next to Crazy Joe. Joe said he was not going and I told him he was as he had not run the Upper Gauley and I did not want him going home without the experience. Of course in my own mind I was telling myself that I already ran the Upper Gauley and there was no logical reason why I needed to go.
The day before the rafting company said that they would try to squeeze us in on the Upper Gauley but they may be full...say it ain't so. When we walked into the main building we were still hanging onto that glimmer of hope. Again we were running late regardless of the fact that we slept 10 feet from the building last night. I really should not say I slept. I actually laid down and froze to the Earth, much like Han Solo froze to carbonate in the end of Star Wars II. Anyway, back to the story. We walked into the building and the guide said to me, "Darren, take this wetsuit, Joe grab your rain pants." I did not want to look over at Joe as I knew this would not sit well. I just spent the last 20 minutes giving my best half time locker room speech only to have the team doctor come in and say that the star quarterback has a broken arm.
Joe ended up finding some ratty old wet suit and we were off. I still kept laughing as it was freezing cold and we ere headed towards the river. What is wrong with these people. Peer pressure in its essence. We got on the boats and it turned out to be a beautiful day, may have even hit 70 degrees by lunch. Our guide was Eddie Jones. He was a "lifer", been guiding for nearly 30 years. He was hilarious as every little thing set him off to swearing. Whether it was trying to get into his dry suit, out of his dry suit, the economy, stupid customers, etc. I had sense of what the day was like when one of the customer's 14 year old kid in the boat announced to Eddie that we were on a rock. Eddie diplomatically replied, "I don't need you to tell me we are on a goddamn rock!, I know that!" I was next.
We came to the last class V rapid of the day and we had no involuntary swimmers and everything was smooth as silk. At the top of the rapid, Eddie announced that if we run this one clean, it would be a near flawless run...exactly.
Almost as soon as we started in, we were lost. Everyone got tossed except me and the 14 year old boy. Oh, I almost forgot, Eddie kinda was hanging on by his left foot, or to be more precise I was hanging onto Eddie's left foot. Eventually my motherly instinct let the bird fly from the nest (his expletives to let him go helped) and I grabbed a paddle and got to the guide position. I feverishly started steering the raft like I knew what was going on. There were a hundred people cheering, not at me, but rather at the yard sale we had just littered the river with. The video camera has great footage from about 5 feet away. I will post below once I get my hands on.
Anyway, we met up with Eddie and got him and the other guys back in. He was a little pissed. He kept saying something about "Whoever had a hold of my leg almost drowned me." This was a crossroad. I had another 3 hours in the boat with this guy. Was I going to tell him it was me or hope his memory failed. I muttered something like, "Eddie I am not sure in all that craziness, but there is a very slim chance I may have brushed against your leg on your way out." Then I said, "Actually I am pretty sure I was the one trying to kill you." To that Eddie replied "All back goddammit, all forward goddammit." He just kept making us work the boat regardless of which direction we would go. It felt like hazing for college crew team or something.
Well we made it back to base camp, said or good byes and I rolled into Detroit around 3am Monday morning. I just spent 2 hours composing this blog and I am not sure why? Anyway, goodbye for now to all my faithful readers (Mom and Dad).
All the best,