A Little Day Trip on the Cacapon

-- by David Winer

Sycamore Islander, June 2003

The group made good speed in the swift current.
When Tryon Wells asked Jane and me to join his friends for their annual run down the Cacapon River, we immediately agreed. I had paddled this lovely stream in West Virginia a few times, but more than thirty years ago. Memories returned of clear water flowing through a charming semi-wild valley and fascinating forests and cliffs all around. This has been a favorite stream for novice to intermediate white-water paddlers for a long time—I looked it up in a 1959 river guidebook: "A small fast stream, giving wonderful white water sport in extremely beautiful scenery."

Our fiberglass canoe down at Sycamore Island is the only one we have that is suitable for rocky river travel so the evening before I paddled it down the canal to Lock 6, where Jane met me to put it on the car. The early forecast the next morning included a front moving through with a chance of tornadoes. Hmmm, something to mull over. But we set off with hopes that the weather would have passed through by the time we reached the meeting place at Capon Bridge.

Windshield wipers thumped all the way. Jane even had to use the overhead light to see her crossword puzzle. When we got to the river we could see that the recent spell of wet weather had swollen the stream to alarming proportions, but none of the other paddlers seemed overly concerned. In addition to Islanders Tryon Wells, Peter Jones, and Holly Syrrakos, we had Caroline and Eliza Hazard, Cathie Faint, and Joe Hage’s brothers, Steve and Peter. Quite a compatible bunch as it turned out. We ran a shuttle, leaving our cars at the take-out bridge downstream, then set off in five canoes, donning parkas against the lingering rain.

What’s a little rain when you’re having a good time?
Initially, the current moved us along quickly and there were no difficulties--none of the usual rocks to avoid since they were deeply submerged. This piece-of-cake situation called for a reality alert from our former Caretaker, Peter Jones, and Holly Syrrakos who had made this trip with Tryon often: we would probably encounter standing waves to smash through instead of having to maneuver through frequent rocky passages. Oh, how true this prediction turned out to be!

Standing waves require the paddlers to enter perpendicular to them so as not to broach sideways and then capsize as the waves wash in over the gunwales. It’s really not supposed to be difficult—just plough straight ahead and enjoy the smash, smash, smash, and the exhilaration. And that is indeed the way it worked for a while. But the waves began to increase in size after a few miles. Before long we would need to bail out water coming in over the bows. Soon we had spills and frequent stops for emptying the boats. In spite of these setbacks I must note that we were having a grand time. Everyone had come prepared for dunkings with dry clothes in waterproof bags, and the water was not so terribly cold.

I had a special reason not to capsize though—a digital camera to keep dry and at the ready. So I was trying very hard to find the best passages through the rough spots. Nevertheless, there were rough spots around nearly every bend, and eventually one caught us. As we swept around a hard left turn the canoe angled straight for a branch off the right bank, hanging about two feet over the water. As Jane crunched into it she rolled sideways and the canoe rolled with her. The branch was way too thick to bend, about four inches thick, so I just latched on with both hands and hung there as the boat swept on under me and capsized.

When we reached the rapids it was a different river.
Here, Peter Hage manages to avoid a drop-off.
It’s interesting, what goes through one’s mind at a moment like this. I watched Jane and the canoe bobbing along and could see that she was o.k., with help from the other canoes waiting below. My only thought was to see if I could keep that electronic camera in my breast pocket from going under. Somehow I was able to slip under the branch, stretched out horizontally by the current, and hand-over-hand, make it to shore. The camera never went completely under water, but was so wet that it stopped working. Arrggh. Fortunately, putting the soggy camera in a dry bag at that point saved it from total ruin at the next major encounter with the river.

We came to a long stretch of water with unavoidable standing waves and lots of them, one after another. These waves were higher than the freeboard in our canoe, so each one managed to slop water in as we ploughed through—and of course each time that happened the boat got less buoyant, and the next wave deposited still more water. We ran out of freeboard before we ran out of waves as the canoe simply settled into the drink. The others managed to stay afloat to aid us as we drifted into calmer water. At this point Jane and I were happy to hear that the take-out was near. And we soon discovered that our ancient dry-bag had leaked so much that the clothing inside was much too wet to use.

Survivors at the take-out. Wet, cold, and happy.
Before long everyone was loading up cars and taking group snaps. Some stayed in the area for more canoeing, some went to a resort for the night, and some of us cruised back home in warm cars in time for supper.

Afloat photos by the author, before his camera got wet; dry land photo by Peter Hage.