A recent trip to the U.S.A gave me the opportunity of looking up ex-VUCCer Tricia and her partner John (who had paddled on a VUCC trip when he'd visited Tricia during her NZ stay). I arrived at Harrisburg (yeah, I thought ``Where?'' too) Airport at 8:30pm on Friday evening hoping like hell that the emailed arrangements I'd made with Tricia and John had got through and that they'ed be there to meet me. Bugger - and not because I'd just had an accident in a Toyota Ute - there was no sign of them. I'd probably told them the wrong day, or worse, perhaps I'd said Pittsburg rather than Harrisburg... The various possibilities were still flashing through my mind when I saw Tricia's smiling face coming towards me.
As she led me to their car she said ``Lucky you don't have much baggage with you - we're off to DC to do the Potomac and the car's pretty full''. I'd hoped to do some paddling with them but was stunned that they had turned up at the airport with boats, paddling and camping gear and all set to go. ``You don't mind do you?'' Tricia asked. Of course I didn't, though I was glad that I was travelling lightly so that with a bit of rearranging we could squeeze everything in (John did say they could have tied one of the packs onto the top of the boats if necessary). So with the car bursting at the seams we hit the road. John reckoned that we'd get to DC around midnight - this was feeling just like a VUCC trip already.
First stop was for gas (see - I was learning their language already) and some food. I'd eaten on the plane so wasn't hungry, but got a hot chocolate from a self-serve machine. I waited at the counter while the woman behind it ignored me. After about five minutes she finally asked if she could help and when I said I just wanted to pay for the drink, which by now was a luke-warm chocolate, I was told I had to do that at a counter at the other end of the shop. Their language I can cope with - some of the ways they do things are a bit harder to figure out.
Plan ``A'' was to find somewhere to camp, but it was the middle of winter and starting to rain. So John suggested plan ``B'' which was to call an old school friends ``mom'' who lived on the outskirts of DC to see if we could crash in her basement. She was happy with that, and so were we, especially when the basement turned out to be luxuriously furnished.
The next morning we headed for the Potomac River. As we only had the one vehicle I was wondering whether we would jog the shuttle or try to get a lift with someone. ``Neither.'' said John, ``We paddle up river, play a little, then turn round and come back down.'' Although doubts about John's sanity started to creep in at this point I figured it was his river so I'd just do as I was told.
As we were unloading the boats I realised the treat I was in for. The boat they had borrowed for me to use was a flash Wave Sports Kinetic - identical colours (oops - colors) to VUCC paddler Bolke's. I briefly considered feeling guilty about the fact that when John had visited us in NZ we had put him in a old QK Turbo but instead just figured that I had got the better of the deal.
The paddle up river ended up not being that bad after all. It was low so it was easy to paddle up on the flat bits. And with a bit of effort it was possible to paddle up some of the smaller rapids. I learnt a new kayaking term here - some Americans call this ``attaining'' a rapid. Apparently this comes from slalom paddling, but since I don't do slalom, and I'm not going to be crazy enough to paddle up a river again, I doubt I'll have much use for it. John was more sucessful at ``attaining'' than Tricia or me - it must have been his boat!
We eventually reached Great Falls. They were impressive - not a single large drop, but a number of smaller (still mean looking) ones. Any thoughts I'd had of paddling the Falls (not that I'd seriously had any - I doubted my travel insurance company would be sympathetic to a claim resulting from a white-water paddling accident) were put firmly out of my mind. This was especially the case when John told me that an experienced paddler had died here the previous month. Neither John nor Tricia were keen to have a go either so instead we played around for a while in a nice hole, before the cold water started to get too much and then we headed back down the way we had come.
The next stop was the Cheat River in West Virginia (you know - ``Country roads, Take me home, To the place I belong ...'' - never mind, its a crap song anyway). Despite the efforts of that (deceased) singer (or perhaps because of them) West Virginia is apparently mostly only known for it's wilderness and it's rivers, with the Cheat considered to be one of it's classic runs. The conventional wisdom is that it needs to be running at about 3ft but word was out that it was still pretty good fun at about 1ft (which was the expected flow that weekend). This information had come from the Internet via Brian, a paddling friend of Tricia and John's from State College. Even better - Brian had been in touch with another paddler via the net (whom he had never met in person) and found that there was a Cheat River trip planned for that Sunday. So John, Tricia and I were going to drive to a pre-arranged meeting place and find somewhere to spend the night. And the next morning we would meet up with Brian and whoever else was turning up to paddle the river.
Again, it was late at night when we arrived, and so we went to the first motel we found. If I was looking forward to a night in a typical rundown backcountry motel as depicted by Hollywood I was going to be disapointed - this was more like a luxury hotel room. However it wasn't up to the normal VUCC standards of accomodation since it did only have one bed (a double). Figuring that John and Tricia could stake a better claim to it than me I graciously got out my sleeping bag and therm-o-rest and slept on the floor.
The next morning we woke early in order to meet the others by 8am at a nearby diner. Our paddling gear was still wet from the day before and we figured that since we'd paid for the room until 10am we might as well get full use out of it. We strung some ropes between convenient objects (light fittings, chairs, curtain rails, etc), hung our gear up, turned the heating up as high as it would go, and went to breakfast.
Gradually, while we were eating, other paddlers started to arrive from all over the place - some had driven several hours that morning to get there. Eventually there were twelve of us. When we had eaten Tricia and I headed back to the room to pack up our gear. An hour or so of the heater running on full had made the room unbearably hot and and with a disgusting smell of warm damp polyprop. But we weren't going to be there for long, and we did now have partially dry gear to wear so I thought it was worth it. We made a quick getaway hoping that the manager also think so (or wouldn't go into the room until the heat and smell were less obvious).
We arrived at the Cheat, changed and did the shuttle - I was relieved to discover that they didn't always paddle up river. In this case that was just as well because this section was about 12 miles long - that's nearly 20km in real measurements. (For comparison - those of you who think the Access 10 section on the Tongariro is long - this would be nearly half as long again).
There were lots of rapids on the Cheat, but at that flow nothing that required more than boat scouting - most would have been grade 2+ to 3- with one or two perhaps pushing grade 3+. There were also several superb play spots but the size of the group, length of the run and the temperature of the water meant that we didn't stop for long at them. Even so, we were on the water for over five hours, and it was definitely good to get off as dusk was approaching (yep - definitely all the hallmarks of a VUCC trip) and get into warm clothes again.
After dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, we parted from the others and headed back to State College. Rather than drive all the way that night (and arrive back well after midnight) we decided to stay the night at John's parent's ski lodge at a place called Blue Knob. I didn't see the knob in question so I can't say whether or not it was blue.
And the next morning we arrived back at Tricia and John's home in State College. There had been some talk of paddling a local river as well, but by that time I was totally paddled out and I figured it was time to switch back into tourist mode for my last days in the U.S. We visited a cool local rock climbing spot, Tricia showed me around State College, and I did the last of my Christmas shopping.
Then on the Wednesday morning, Tricia drove me back to Harrisburg Airport. Unfortunately, on the way, I made the fatal mistake of saying to Tricia how well my whole trip had gone with no hitches in transport, meeting up with people, accomodation, etc. This of course made it a dead cert that something would go wrong. The story of how I missed my plane in Harrisburg, got separated from my luggage, was delayed for an hour in Chicago when a women collapsed on the plane as we were taxiing to take off and eventually arrived back home at 5:30am on Christmas morning without any presents for my family is not one that belongs in a paddling newsletter. In case you're interested though, the luggage did eventually turn up safe and sound!
[ Back to VUCC Home page | More trip reports ]