Old Canoes on the New River

Cowritten by Hartwell Carson and Chris Trumbauer

The Toyota Prius is not generally regarded as a top-notch off-road vehicle. This is especially true when it has two canoes on the roof and is stuffed to capacity with two grown men, camping gear and a cooler full of beer. This did not deter Hartwell Carson, the Prius’s driver, as he careened down a sketchy dirt road high above the New River Gorge in rural West Virginia. We had debated whether this “short-cut” would be passable – and the jury was still out, as the condition of the road deteriorated with each passing mile.

From the passenger seat, I looked down into the valley below, scouting the river that we would spend the next three days paddling (if we ever made it to the put-in). The water level was super low, and we worried that we’d have to portage some of the rapids. That concern seemed unimportant, however, when the Prius suddenly bottomed out in a deep, muddy pothole. Fortunate to have lost only time rather than an axle, we had to backtrack and take the long way to the put-in, nervously laughing about the intermittent metallic rattling sound the car was now making.


Most people extol the virtues of being prepared. That’s a fair point – and probably good advice.  But the real adventures – the stuff of good stories – often result from times when you are unprepared or end up overcoming some daunting (but likely avoidable) adversity.

An hour later we met up with our friend Kemp Burdette at the Glade Creek put-in. We started gearing up the canoes, which looked a little beat up. Hartwell informed us that he was up until midnight fixing one of them. Looking at the old canoes, Kemp remarked that he heard the New River is “flashy,” meaning that water level can rise rapidly. Hartwell looked around for a few seconds then told Kemp that he was being ridiculous. That was about the time that we noticed our boats, which had been sitting on dry land minutes before, were now floating. I looked at Hartwell – he shrugged. We threw caution to the wind, because the sun was out, the beer was cold and our spirits were high.

Kemp and I jumped into one canoe and Hartwell threw the cooler into the other. We paddled for about an hour until the sky darkened and it started raining, gently at first but then harder. We made it through the class III Quinnimont Rapids and then raced for a place to camp as the storm engulfed us. We waited out the storm in our tent, drinking bourbon and telling stories.

We emerged from the tent after the storm had passed and darkness had fallen. Too cold and wet to make a real dinner, we settled for devouring a box of cookies and warmed ourselves up with a hatchet-throwing contest.


Afterward, Kemp pointed into the darkness. “Is that a picnic table?” Sure enough, we were right next to a day-use area. We went to investigate and spotted a sign indicating that camping, fires and alcohol were prohibited. Huh. We had already broken all three rules but it was too late to do anything about it. On the plus side, there was a bathroom here – an unexpected (but welcome) amenity.

Shortly after that, headlights pulled into the parking lot and Kemp went to check it out. He came back and reported that it was a couple of rangers and they were “cool,” after he explained the situation to them. He had promised them that we would be quiet and pack up early.

The next morning, we awoke to two important realizations. We had neglected to eat dinner and the river had risen three feet. A big breakfast solved the first problem but there was nothing we could do about the second one.

The river was swollen and whitewater appeared where no rapids were marked on our map. These conditions were much more suited for rafts than our old canoes. The first class II we encountered was way more challenging than the two class IIIs we breezed through the day before. A tricky wave train threw Kemp and my canoe right over. We hung on to our overturned boat as Hartwell nosed his canoe into ours and helped to push us to safety before we encountered any more rapids.

We broke for lunch at Dowdy Creek and scrambled through a large railroad culvert that led to a beautiful waterfall. The falls drop 50 feet straight into a beautiful, clear pool of water, then a second cascade falls another 40 feet. After scrambling around the falls for a bit, Hartwell reminded us that I had promised to grill up lunch. Back by the river, I set up the stove on a small peninsula of river stones, but before the sausages were done, the peninsula was under water and we had to move to higher ground. The river was still rising fast and we had two more Class III rapids to finish that day.


We heard the next rapids before we saw them and knew we were in trouble. Kemp and I watched Hartwell disappear over the horizon line and moments later the big wave swamped and flipped our boat. We swam the rest of the rapid, gathered our gear and boats, and headed downstream to look for a place to camp. The river was so high we couldn’t find one, so we pressed on. We came to the next rapid, which looked gnarly. “Might as well – you’re already wet!” yelled Hartwell. He shot through but Kemp and I flipped again.

Shortly after we righted the canoe we found a decent place to camp. I started a fire and – making up for the last night – Kemp started on a double dose of dinner (shrimp and steak fajitas). A good night’s sleep was interrupted only by the roar of a coal train barreling past on the other side of the river at 4:00 A.M.

The next day, a bald eagle soared over an angry, brown river. All we wanted was not to get wet. I put on the dry clothes I was saving for the ride home. “I’m all in,” I declared. “Not getting wet today.” At first our canoe, which we had named “Tippy McTipface” didn’t seem likely to cooperate. But we ended up navigating a couple of unmarked – and pretty nasty – rapids without dumping.


We pulled into the take-out on time and dry. We packed into the station wagon we had left there and headed back to the put-in. Hartwell wondered if any local Trump supporters had messed with his car, which had a prominent Hillary Clinton sticker on the bumper. “This will be a good barometer for the state of the country – if you can leave a Prius with a Hillary sticker in a remote parking lot for three days, in a red state and it doesn’t get vandalized, we are all good.” With the Prius unscathed and our faith in humanity secure, we drove back laughing that despite our lack of preparation, we had plenty of stories to last until our next adventure.


Places to Go, Things to See: