G. Sam Piatt
PDT Outdoors Writer
Recently, at the McConnell House in Wurtland, where I was signing and selling copies of “Men of Valor,” my book of nearly 70 World War II combat stories from local veterans, a man who looked familiar walked up, bought a book, and asked me, “Do you remember that trip down the Greenbrier River with the Blazing Paddles Canoe Club?”
That trip took place more than 20 years ago but yes, I remember it – probably will never forget it.
There have been five incidents during my life when I could have died and probably should have died. I don’t include the Greenbrier trip as one of them, even though I could have been drowned, or perhaps succumbed to hypothermia. The temperature of the river water that early April day was 45 degrees.
There were 12 of us in six canoes. My son, Kelly Joe, shared a canoe with me.
We drove from Boyd County BPCC headquarters up to a streamside park on the New River, just downstream from Hinton, W.Va. The Greenbrier meets the New at Hinton. We parked our cars there and continued on, in a van pulling a trailer with racks that held the six canoes, up along a narrow country road leading up the left side of the Greenbrier.
We drove up the Greenbrier quite a distance before putting our canoes in at a small dock. The fellow we enlisted to drive the van took it and the trailer back down to the take-out point, where we had parked our cars.
I hadn’t had all that much experience at canoeing. As Kelly and I climbed into the slender craft I remember thinking of how it was like climbing onto the back of a bucking bronco in the chute. “Ho boy. Steady now, steady boy.”
I took the front, guiding seat, giving Kelly the power seat in the rear.
And off we went, down a wide, clear, smooth river. No rapids – none as yet, anyway. Songbirds sounded off in the trees along the banks, trees just beginning to sprout their spring foliage.
By the time we passed a large statue of John Henry, the legendary “steel-drivin’ man,” standing above us on a ledge halfway up the mountain, the current had increased and we were moving along at a pretty good pace.
OVER BACON FALLS
Soon we heard the sound of rushing water coming from just around a bend up ahead.
One of the more experienced pair of canoeists went on ahead to scout Bacon Falls – see which side of the tumbling staircase of water we should go down to assure us the best chance of staying in our boats.
“You’ll be okay. Just don’t let the changing currents get you turned broadside,” someone told Kelly and me as we prepared to start down.
I had expected the worst but it wasn’t bad, really. Just a gradual descending staircase of water tbat everyone navigated with no problems.
It had clouded over and a few raindrops were falling as we pulled in on a rocky bar to pitch camp for the night. We managed supper, pitched the two-man pup tents, and gathered in wood and built a campfire.
I had noticed as we loaded our gear at the beginning of the float that two or three cases of liquid refreshments made with hops and barley had been placed into the canoes by some. No one had cracked these boxes during the trip, but now, settled in for the night, the camp was filled – in addition to the songs of crickets and tree frogs – with the “Phtt! S-ssss” sound of aluminum cans popping open.
LIKE NOAH’S DAYS
The party was cut short though when everyone was forced to take refuge inside the tents. The heavens opened up and the rain came down with such force that the campfire fizzled out.
A miserable night crept by like a wounded snake. Sleeping on rocks while rivulets of water tried to force their way in under the doorflap made for quite an uncomfortable time.
A gentle pitter-patter of raindrops on canvas is usually a relaxing sound for a tent camper. But this was more of a roar.
Thankfully someone during the night had the presence of mind to pull the canoes farther up on the bank and tie them off to trees. Although the rain slacked off at daybreak, the river had risen a good three to four feet during the night. The brown water went roaring by, carrying driftwood and tree limbs with it.
RIVER OF NO RTURN
There was no other way out of there but down that river. We loaded up, said a prayer, and pushed off, down the river of no return.
Places where there had been gentle riffles were now roaring rapids. We “girl-scouted” them, taking the side less fearsome.
Kelly and I had abandoned our seats and were on our knees in the bottom of the canoe, paddling furiously to keep from being tossed out or overturned.
“Dad, while you’re down there on your knees, pray. Pray hard!” I remember Kelly yelling at me once or twice.
As we came up on Hinton, we stroked for the shore for all we were worth. The water was in the trees. The current was strong. On the New River, a mile or so below Hinton, lies Sandstone Falls. Going over those falls in a canoe, even with the river at normal level, would probably prove fatal.
We managed to pull in at the take-out point where our vehicles were parked.
Yes, I remember the trip with the Blazing Paddles Canoe Club.
MEN OF VALOR
The Jesse Stuart Foundation last week received fresh copies of “Men of Valor” from the printer. These have an expanded index at the end. In addition, I still have some of the first edition copies.
To get one, make a check to me for $26, which includes the cost of handling and shipping, and mail it to me at 50 First Street, South Shore, Ky., 41175.
Include the address you want it mailed to and stipulate if you want it personally signed and to whom.
Or you can stop by my home on Sand Hill, Ky., and get one for $20 even.
The Sand Hill exit off U.S. 23 is about three miles east of South Shore. Turn off U.S. 23 on Piatt Street (Ky. 3117), cross one street, turn right on First Street, second house on the right – an orange brick ranch with a big front porch, big maple tree in front yard (50 on the mailbox).
G. Sam Piatt can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or Gsamwriter@aol.com.