The forecast for Virginia during Christmas week called for clear sunny skies with highs in the 50 and 60s so I emailed my brothers and made plans to haul my boats down when I visited for Christmas. John drove down from Philly with three boats and wet suits, I showed up with 2 packrafts and one dry-suit and Charlie, ever the procrastinator, showed up with nothing.
We spent Christmas day and the day after with family eating, running around the farm with the kids and going for hikes at Sugar Hollow. Come Wednesday night my oldest brother John, my youngest brother Charlie and two of John's sons - Matthew (20 and fresh out of boot-camp) and JC a 14-year old kid who discovered kayaking this summer and has perfected his roll and is tackling Class IV rivers - sat around discussing our options and checking flows and forecast. Charlie was a bit apprehensive. He had some long johns and a rain jacket but didn't want to sit in the river knowing that it would be cold should he take a swim. However Charlie is someone you can always cajole into doing something stupid be it tackle 250 lb calves, ski in June, or boat in December; so it took little prodding to get him to agree to join us.
We made plans to get up early and drive to Lynchburg to run Balcony Falls on the James River. River levels were low - around 3 feet - but it was the only river with rapids running within a few hours drive and the forecast was calling for temps in the 50s.
The next morning we were driving a little after 9 and by 11 we were running the shuttle and rigging the boats. Charlie and I opted to take packrafts - this being Charlie's first time ever climbing into one (his usual boat of choice is a whitewater canoe) and his first time ever using a kayak paddle (which he promptly cursed at for 10 minutes straight before figuring it out). John, Matt and JC were all in kayaks.
We put in at the Maury confluence and paddled out into the flat water to get a feel. JC, who is 14 years old and has only been kayaking since the summer, promptly began practicing his roll - regardless of the fact the water hovered in the high 40s. The rest of us stuck our hands in the water and declared that we would not swim!
After splashing around a bit we set out. The run begins with a class II drop called Confluence. John and JC took a sneak to the left but Charlie and Matt both dropped through it without a hitch. I sat up on some rocks taking photos and then put in below the first rapid. We then floated out into the James and played around on some rapids before turning and heading downstream.
After playing around at the first river wide rapid (First Ledge - Class I) we continued on and pulled over at White Rocks (II). JC immediately paddled over the ledge system far river right and began playing in the wave. He managed to get into the hole and held his own for a bit - but then the wave promptly flipped him! The river was quite low and the current moderate so we weren't too alarmed, especially having seen JC roll a few minutes before. However this time he was having some trouble. He pulled himself partially up once, only to get thrown back down. He then tried again - only to get thrown back down again! By now all of us were getting a tad worried thinking that at any minute he'd pull out and go for a swim. But instead JC calmly tucked himself and let the current push his boat slightly, then he promptly rolled back up without a care in the world.
He paddled over, shook himself out and a minute later jumped back into yet another surf wave and began playing! I was impressed - this kid has been paddling for less than a year and seems to have his role perfected. Apparently he has only taken one swim in the past and every other time managed to roll back up!
After playing around a few more minutes we once again headed downstream, stopping briefly to get out and scout the crux rapid - Balcony Falls (II+ / III). After picking our line we dropped Big Cove Ledges (II) via a nice wave train then ferried all the way across the river to the falls.
In scouting the rapid we had built up a little apprehension but in actuality the rapid was quite straightforward and we all ran it without problems. Essentially it's just a big wave train so all you have to do is hit it straight on and make sure you power through the waves. Once through we all pulled to the side and took turns pushing ourselves out into the rapid trying to surf.
One really interesting feature of this rapid is that you paddle beneath a huge rock wall that is situated above the river. The railroad sits on top of this wall now - but it was originally built around 1800 and housed the Kanawha Canal. This canal project was originally envisioned by George Washington and construction started in 1785. Construction lasted through the Revolutionary war and the War of 1812. By 1851 the canal was 196 miles long and ran from Richmond to Buchanan, Virginia. Unfortunately the canal was severely damaged during the Civil War and after the war the State of Virginia could no loner finance it. It was never fully repaired and by the late 1800's it was obvious that railroads were more efficient for transportation and in 1878 the canal was sold to Richmond and Allegheny Railroad company, which built tracks along the towpaths. For more information, check out the Wikipedia article "James River and Kanawha Canal."
And so we continued to play around in the shadow of the Kanawha Canal. Charlie, John and JC each kept getting a little bolder each time they paddled back to the head of the rapid. I stuck the side taking photos and Matt was being conservative and watching from a distance on the other side of the river. We kept playing - then suddenly we looked up to see Matt's boat upside down - and Matt struggling in the water next to it. "MATT'S SWIMMING!" Charlie yelled. John spun around just in time to see Charlie begin ferrying across river right through the wave train of Balcony Falls.
Usually Charlie paddles a white-water canoe and he has no troubles powering through Class IV water and rolling, however he was in pack raft and attempted to ferry across waves perpendicular to the trough. He made it three power strokes and promptly flipped!
And so within 20 seconds we went from a casual afternoon to two swimmers in the middle of the James River in late December - and one of those swimmers was wearing only poly-pro!
Charlie floated down river for a second and then we saw him roll up on the side and grab a gasp of air and then disappear underwater again. A few seconds later he popped up safely out of the spray skirt. The boat floated away and he immediately began swimming hard trying to catch it. I looked at Charlie and then looked at Matt. Matt had his arms wrapped around his kayak and was in water that was chest deep. He could stand up but was letting the current push him to shore. Plus he was wearing a wet suit. "And he just went through boot-camp," I reminded myself. "He can handle it." I then set off towards Charlie. John got to Charlie first and positioned his kayak so Charlie could grab on. He was obviously very chilled and borderline hypothermic so he was glad to hang on. I took off after the boat; grabbed it, threw it across my bow and then paddled to shore. John by now had ferried Charlie to shore. I passed by him and he shouted, "You take care of Charlie and JC - I'll go get Matt!"
Charlie meanwhile had scrambled up on shore. Just upstream from where he was there was another kayaker who had pulled over and built a fire to warm up. Charlie sprinted to him to warm up by the fire and I jogged over. I was wearing a couple extra layers under my dry suit, so I pulled off the extra layers, tossed them to Charlie and then ran back downstream to see where JC was.
JC was in a hole playing around. He looked at me and when I told him to get out of the water till everyone was alright he asked "Why?". Not wanting to argue with a stubborn 14-year old I yelled, "GET OUT!" and he promptly pulled into shore and got out of his boat.
Across the river we could see Matt safely on shore. He promptly stripped off his wet suit, wrung the water out of it, then climbed back in to warm up! John reached him a few minutes later so I walked back to Charlie and dug a jacket and hat out of my pack and passed it over to him. He gladly pulled on all the clothes I handed him and after a while began to warm up again.
After about 20 minutes John and Matt were back in the water and paddling back to us. Charlie jumped back in the pack raft (vowing not to surf) and we headed downriver. After Balcony Falls the river enters a rock garden with a bunch of fun rippled and ledges. JC and John continued to play around in surf holes until I finally had to tell them that Charlie and Matt were chilled so we should continue on.
The rest of the float was straightforward and we all began paddling hard to stay warm and reach the take out. About a mile before the take out we saw a pair of bald eagles - I was pretty stoked - the sighting being the first bald eagles I've ever seen on the east coast!
After the final rapid you have to paddle almost two miles of flat water. JC, who is fast becoming a true play-boat kayaker, complained endlessly about the flat water ("It's sooo boring!" he kept yelling).
And finally, around 4 pm we reached the take out and were soon back at the car pulling on dry clothes and arguing over who got to eat the left-over ham biscuits that we had brought for lunch!
A couple hours later we were back home to yet another giganotosaurus family meal and all of us were pretty psyched to get out for a December 27th float.
What a great way to end the year!
River Info: James, VA - Balcony Falls Run (Glasgow to Snowdon); Class II+(III)
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