I’m often asked, “Where’s your favorite place you’ve been so far?”
That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, and if you catch me on an off day, I may respond in some sarcastic tone and completely dismiss your inquiry.
But it’s understandable why people ask. When I attended the Adventure Photography Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last fall, I suddenly found myself sitting in front of a number of my biggest idols (namely Tim Kemple, Corey Rich, Lucas Gilman, and Chris Burkard). The best part? These guys were willing to answer any and all questions I had for them. These adventure photographers have visited nearly every corner of the world, from the highest peaks to the deepest seas, and so of course, my first question went something along the lines of, “Where’s your favorite place you’ve been?”
But if there’s anything these past six (oh my goodness – SIX?!) months of living on the road have taught me, it’s that the real pleasures of life lie in the act of rediscovery. While discovering a new place is certainly an exciting, novel means of diving headfirst into the unknown, some of my greatest memories from the road have been in rediscovering an area I consider familiar.
Allow me to explain.
This past weekend, I found myself back in a town I fondly refer to as “home” – Damascus, Va. Damascus was my home away from home in college. When I wasn’t in class or studying for tests, I was running on the Appalachian Trail, drinking coffee at Mojoe’s, or paddling on the number of class II-III creeks and rivers that converge in the heart of town. I loved this little mountain oasis so much so, that my senior year in college, I decided to live just outside of town on a little hill in a little white house and commute 20 minutes to school every day.
I must have run that same 8-mile stretch of trail dozens of times. And the rivers? Surely the number of trips I’ve taken down the South Fork of the Holston River alone rank in the triple digits. Until this past weekend, I thought I knew everything that Damascus had to offer.
As is tradition within the paddling “fam” in Damascus, Sunday is church day. When the local river is running, we paddle. The South Fork of the Holston is a quiet little class II run most of the year. It’s our stomping grounds, the river that taught us to read water and catch eddies and ferry across current. I remember being scared, standing on the banks of the put-in at Drowning Ford (the name certainly didn’t help those first-timer-nerves) and decked from head-to-toe in borrowed gear. Back then, the South Fork was a raging monster of a river, unnavigable at best. I and my little kayak were just along for the ride, powerless to the fickle whims of the river.
But as time went on, the South Fork became less of a beast and more of a nurturing momma bear. We’d do full moon and new moon paddles, group floatillas with 30+ people and every assortment of craft you can imagine. We’d do laps or connect sections of river further upstream or park and play all day at the surf hole. Heck, we’d even booze cruise the damn thing in the dead of winter (there’s nothing a little Peppermint Schnapps can’t handle). Eventually though, especially after I’d spent a couple seasons guiding in the New River Gorge and paddling elsewhere throughout the Southeast, the South Fork became a little boring, and I began to lose sight of the true beauty and magic of that river.
And then this past Sunday, I rediscovered that feeling of awe I experienced all those years ago. As our group floated downstream toward the confluence of Laurel Creek and the South Fork of the Holston, we pulled off on river right to check out a rock feature that starts to resemble a cave at lower water levels. As I explored deep back into the crevasses, I realized I’d never done this before. All of those years I’d spent paddling this same stretch of river and not once had I ever veered off the main flow to prod beneath the cliff face.
The river glimmered in the sunlight, bouncing a mirage of watery illusions on the rock above. In that moment, it didn’t feel like I was back on my home turf, paddling with the people that taught me to kayak. It felt strangely surreal, exotic, like the river was entirely foreign yet faintly familiar all in one go.
We peeled out and continued floating downstream. As the current lapped at my boat, so too did those images of watery reflections on stone cold sandstone. The sun was shining. The water, frigid but surprisingly clear given its long journey down the mountain. Our group of five chattered quietly as we paddled along. There was no sense of urgency in our strokes, no need for checking the clock. We were on river time. I thought to myself how simple and how beautiful it all was, this day on the water.
And then, all at once, our group chattering fell quiet. The faint flapping of wings overhead made us all turn our chins to the sky. The shadow of a bald eagle slowly came into view as it carved across the river, settling on a branch just downstream of us. When we caught up to him, he peered questioningly at us from his perch, as if to say, “What the hell are you looking at?” He didn’t fly away though, seemingly unperturbed by our floating posse of plastic boats. Instead, he lazily drifted downstream and landed on another branch, like a guide showing a trip down the river.
No one spoke as we continued floating, heads craned back and eyes squinting to see the fading silhouette of our escort against the afternoon sun. I’ve seen herons and osprey on this river before, but never a bald eagle, and never so intimately. We eventually lost sight of our river guide, and about the only words I could summon were “dude” and “whoa.”
Even after our paddle as I was driving north to my parents’ home in northern Virginia, the magic of those two little moments lingered in my mind. Sure, perhaps the South Fork of the Holston isn’t on the bucket list of must-paddle rivers in the Southeast, but that doesn’t make it any less of a gem.
The next time you find yourself somewhere you’ve been a million times before, take the time to stop and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. You might be surprised with what you find.