This is a short-story (2,500 words) recollection of my misadventures at the Blue Hole on the New River in West Virginia. Even though we somehow managed to enjoy ourselves, my buddies and I learned quite a few lessons on canoeing, camping, and being woodsmen.
They started around 2005 and continued for years – the conversations with my cousin. “I’d like to make a trip down to the Blue Hole and see if we couldn’t catch a great big catfish like Pa and Joe used to catch.” “It looks like a big-ass hole on Google Earth.” “Yeah. We should do that sometime. How bout this summer?” The conversations would continue, sometimes for hours, while we discussed the adventures we’d have and how many fish we’d catch. We’d both heard about the great catfishing, the beautiful views, and the solitude of camping at a place not so much secretive as incredibly difficult to find. Even those who had been there and knew where it was, knew that it was difficult to reach due to West Virginia’s natural mountainous obstacles.
My grandfather or “Pa” and his brother Joe used to visit this very place. They’d use “limb lines” or “throw lines” as they’d call them to catch big cats out of the river. I’d heard the stories and seen the pictures but I’d never done it myself. But after years of talking about it, Chris and I finally worked out a chance to try it out. The situation was perfect. Chris and I were both free and could be there. My uncle Bob and Chris’ uncle Smiley were both on board for the adventure. Even my nephew Bradley was excited to come along. We sent emails, made phone calls, and even got together a few times to discuss the logistics of the trip.
The plans solidified as we got closer and closer to the big day. Bradley and I would canoe upriver with the bulk of our gear and food. Chris, Smiley, and Bob would all climb down the mountain and meet us there. Bradley and I would scout the area and find a decent place to set up camp and have both tents pitched and ready for the others when they arrived.
Bradley and I put the canoe into the Gauley River just before it meets the New. As soon as we reached the flat water of the New, we turned upstream and paddled forcefully against the current. The first leg of the trip was much easier than I expected as the water level was much lower than when I reconned the trip a month before. We paddled past catfish heaven, the big railroad trestle, and the Hawk’s Nest Hydro Plant with ease. Then it started. We reached the first real obstacle of the week. Looking upstream, we saw a portage of at least 75 yards where we’d have to cross massive boulders with fast moving water between them. I’d carried my canoe many times and could “man-handle” it pretty well. But with all of the gear and the boulders we’d have to climb, I knew that even with my fit 15 year-old nephew helping me, we’d struggle to make it up the river. We carried all of the gear piece by piece across the boulders (lesson 1 – if you have to portage your canoe, make sure all of your gear is in backpacks or otherwise easy to carry). We drug the canoe by its bow painter through any water we could, but we were still forced to carry it most of the way (lesson 2 – base your canoeing plans on current water levels as opposed to river conditions from previous visits). As we neared the end of the first major portage, I tried to wipe the sweat from my eyes as I looked over to Bradley “buddy, I don’t know if we can take many more of these.”
We paddled about 150 yards before the next portage. Compared to the last one, it was a breeze. But for an out-of-shape woodsman, the beating sun and the weight of the canoe were breaking me one boulder at a time. It didn’t take long though and we were paddling again. We made it about 100 yards before we hit the worst portage of the trip. We weren’t half-way through it when Bradley told me to take a rest “You don’t look too good.” “I’m not feeling too good.” Bradley opened up our food container and passed me a few peanut butter crackers, a sweet treat and a little water. Discouraged, I was ready to give up “I don’t think we’re going to make it all the way today. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to set up camp here for tonight and paddle back out tomorrow.” With youth on his side, Bradley assured me that I’d be fine after I took a break and had a little food. He was right and eventually, we finished the portage. As we sat down in my Mad River canoe and my wooden paddle touched the water for the first time in a few hours, I looked up to realize that we had reached it. We were paddling peacefully across the first still water of the Blue Hole. The stories I heard were true. Its beauty overpowered me as I slowly paddled around the few boulders still in our way. From the stern I talked forward to Bradley “let’s paddle on up and get the camp settled. We’ll have plenty of time to sight-see over the next few days.” He acknowledged what I said by paddling with the enthusiasm of a 15 year old boy. I continued paddling and steering but in my old age, I’ve become wise enough to know that it’s never bad to have someone with more energy and youth do the paddling.
Near the head of the Blue Hole, we found a sandbar surrounded by trees and large flat boulders. We decided to make camp here. The sand would provide a soft base for our tents. The boulders would provide us a place to put our gear. The trees would provide shade. And the water directly in front of the camp looked perfect for fishing. Just as we finished unloading the canoe, we made contact with the others from our group. They had climbed down the mountain and were exhausted and covered in sweat. Apparently, the trail was difficult to follow. They’d climb down, realize they were coming to a 75 foot cliff, and have to climb back up to look for the correct trail. “Damn, that sucked.” “That was miserable.” “I’ll never do this again.” None of them were happy about the trip. As Bob stripped to his “tighty-whiteys” and dove in the river, we decided that we’d ferry Smiley across the river first and then we’d set up camp.
When you’re deep in the New River Gorge, a large portion of the sky is obscured by mountains. It’s difficult to predict upcoming weather. But as Smiley, Bradley and I paddled across the river, the entire sky turned dark purple and there was little doubt that we were going to get drenched (and maybe struck by lightning.) “Paddle harder Bradley. We’ll be a lot better off if we can get off the river and have a tent set up to keep our gear dry.” Bradley sensed the urgency in my voice and paddled with a strength fueled by youth and adrenaline. We reached the river bank quickly. Bradley and Smiley began setting up the first tent with my instructions that they make sure to put my gear in it as well. I turned around and paddled hard and fast back to the other two from our party. I paddle best alone and was making great time across the river as I heard the thunder crack and the entire sky flash bright blue. It seemed that suddenly, heaven’s gates were opened and all of the water in the sky fell right there on us at the Blue Hole. My arms, shoulders, back and legs stung from the power of the downpour. I paddled for dear life. The rain was unpleasant but I was much more worried about capsizing or getting struck by lightning.
As I reached the other side, I could see that Chris and Bob were trying to talk to me but I couldn’t make out anything as the sound of the storm ripped through the valley like an empty coal train. Bob pulled the bow of the canoe onto shore (lesson 3 – don’t try to enter a canoe when it is off balance and partially on shore). “Holy shit!” “Damn this trip.” “What the hell? It wasn’t supposed to rain until late tonight!” By this point, we were all questioning our decision to come to what we would later call “The Big Ass-Hole.”
“Well, we’re already wet and the lightning has stopped. I’ll take one of you across and come back for the other.” I picked up their gear and tossed it haphazardly into the canoe (lesson 4 – pay attention to the weight distribution in a canoe). Bob was already in the water and was holding onto the stern of the canoe (lesson 5 – don’t let people hold onto your canoe while you are trying to enter it). Chris had to step from the shore into the canoe and as he did, all of us, all of our gear, and the canoe flipped onto its side and dumped everything into the river! I suppose we could argue to this day whose fault it was. Regardless, everything in Bob’s and Chris’ packs were soaked. My fishing vest with all of my essentials was soaked. And we were miserable. Eventually, we made it back across the river. Chris and I paddled as Bob held on to the stern. The drag on the canoe made paddling horrible. Occasionally, I’d let my paddle slip and pop Bob’s hands to remind him that it sucked dragging him across the river.
We unloaded all of the gear and threw most of it into my tent – the only tent that Bradley and Smiley managed to pitch. As we felt the first sprinkles of another downpour, we decided the best way to endure it was to do so in the river. We were already soaked and pouring the sweat. Without my boonie hat, the experience would have been miserable. The rain hit the river so hard that it splashed up at least 10 inches above the surface. The boonie covered the area near my head so that it didn’t splash up into my face. Most of the other campers weren’t so lucky.
As the rain ended for the day (certainly not for the night or the other days and nights of the trip), we finished setting up camp and unloading and unpacking our gear. Our food stayed dry and my clothes and sleeping bag stayed dry. Otherwise, everything else was soaked. My camera, my Glock, my wallet, and everyone else’s personal gear – dripping wet (lesson 6 – plan for rain even if it’s only a 20% chance). I tied some 550 cord between two trees to use as a clothes drying line, but clothes don’t dry well when it rains every half hour or so. I laid out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and helped Bradley, a junior woodsman, do the same. We all gathered up as much dry wood as possible – enough for a small cooking fire and settled on some canned goods for dinner. “Anybody gonna stay up for a while and fish or BS?” I had no intentions of it. Smiley and Chris, two of the more dedicated fishermen, may have stayed up for a bit, but the rest of us were ready for the day to end. Bradley and I called it a night and retreated to the tent – the often thought of dry and warm place to sleep. With at least an inch of sand and water covering the entire floor, it provided little dryness or warmth and was a miserable, sleepless experience.
Our fortune did get a little better over the next couple of days. The rain became more sporadic and reduced to a drizzle as opposed to a downpour when it did happen. The “real” fishermen caught a few baitfish for me and I tried my first “throw-line.” However, it proved to be unsuccessful. As rough as this trip had already been, I paid it no mind. I was determined to have a good time so I spent most of the remainder of the trip drinking coffee from a percolator and swimming in the deep pool and fast moving shoals upriver from our camp. We were lucky none of us got hooked from one of Smiley’s lines and I imagine he secretly wanted us to for swimming where he was fishing. He caught a few small channel cats but eventually decided it was too miserable to endure. He packed up and walked out a different path only to find that it was quite easy and only took about 45 minutes to reach his car. The rest of us stayed for the entire trip – enduring the sand on everything, the wet clothes, the wet sleeping gear and the wet everything. Chris told me a few days ago “even my damn pillow was soaked, talk about miserable.”
Even though Chris and I didn’t make our grandpa’s proud from our great and mighty catfish catch, I have to believe that they would have been proud of us for making the effort to get there. All of us were family or close enough to it and even with the rough conditions, we still made the most of it and enjoyed ourselves. Eventually, the last day came and we all made our way out of the Blue Hole. Chris and Bob walked out the new route and confirmed that it was much easier. Bradley and I paddled the canoe back down the river. With much less gear and the current working for us, it proved much easier as well. I can still hear the comments made as we all parted ways. “I’m never doing this trip again.” “Hell, no! The Blue Hole is a big ass-hole.” “Let’s do something easier next year.” “Let’s not do anything next year.”
They started around December – the conversations with my cousin. “I’d like to make a trip down to the Blue Hole again and see if we couldn’t catch a great big catfish like Pa and Joe used to catch.” “Yeah. We should do that again. How bout this summer?” The conversations continue, sometimes for hours, while we discuss the adventures we’re going to have and how many fish we’d catch. If you happen to visit the Blue Hole this summer, maybe we’ll see you there.
**Author’s Note: Names and faces have been changed or omitted to protect the guilty.**