Narrative by Lee Sanderlin, Sports Editor
Photos and video by Dylan Dow, Web Manager
Graphic by Malik Rahili, Editor-in-Chief
April 26, 2016
Cold. Hungry. Sore. Burnt. That’s the best way to describe the traveller that decides to take a journey down the New River in a canoe with almost no idea as to what they’re doing. It’s also the best way to describe myself and my companions, Dylan Dow and Carl Blankenship, after our own 16-mile disaster-filled canoe trek down the river.
Appalachian State, a school known for its excellent access to the activities that the Appalachian Mountains provide, was able to outfit our trip with help from Outdoor Programs, a division of University Recreation.
“We offer students, faculty and staff a number of different opportunities to explore the outdoors,” Rich Campbell, associate director of OP, said. “We have a trips program where we do a number of different human powered trips. Backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, sea kayaking, standup paddle boarding and we do some caving programs.”
OP offers certification courses along with their trips, Campbell said.
“If students want to get their EMT or wilderness first aid or first responder, we offer those programs,” Campbell said.
OP also has an extensive rental program, allowing for students like myself to take their own adventures. In order to make our fever dream of a trip possible, we were able to rent a canoe, paddles, life jackets, dry bags for keeping our cameras dry and sleeping bags all at an affordable price. The low cost for students is what makes OP such a viable resource for students wishing to experience the outdoors around them.
“We exist for the students. All a student needs to rent gear is their AppCard,” Campbell said. “We have very good prices on all of our rentals, the fees are very affordable if you compare them to other commercial rentals. We offer tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, sleeping pads, backpacks, canoes, all the things you’d need for getting out.”
We should have known our trip was snake bitten from the beginning. We were going to put in our canoe at the NC-88 bridge public canoe access. As we made our way down to the water, we couldn’t find the canoe access, so we decided to just throw our boat in the water and get on with it.
After finally setting off, supplies aboard, we were underway and making good time. According to the map it would take two hours to reach the first state park access, six hours total to reach our campsite for the evening. Everything was running smoothly.
About one hour into the trip, we encountered our pitfall. Due to the low water level, rocks were abundant in the river and we were stuck on one. After using the paddles to free ourselves, we immediately hit another and the boat begin to take on water as the rock held the side under.
Unable to free the boat, we tried to save as much of the supplies as possible before the water ruined them or they got carried down river. Luckily, the cameras, sleeping bags and some of the food made it. Unluckily, the frying pan, the tarp for the tent and a paddle didn’t.
Here we were, shoes filled with water, pants soaked, the canoe half submerged, while helplessly watching one of the two paddles floating down the river, barely over two miles into the journey.
Eventually the boat was freed, emptied, and what gear we had reloaded and we set off, trying to catch up to our paddle with 14 miles remaining. The paddle was never seen again.
Less than half a mile down river from disaster, there was a small island that we used as a chance to regroup and put on some dry socks and pants. Having dry feet, even if only temporarily, was one of the highlights of the day.
Despite the occasional rock to get hung up on, the next few miles are the easiest. Eventually the Fulton Reeves bridge crosses the river, offering a chance to get out, stretch and enjoy warm asphalt for a few moment. The bridge, which is normally too low to travel under, is the canoers last landmark before reaching the U.S. 221 Access campsite.
The campsite itself is the sweetest sight after a day on the river. Level sleeping areas, a fire ring, picnic tables – and they’re dry.
Using flint, a cook fire was started shortly after hauling the boat out of the water. Having spent the entire day sustaining on cheese-puffs and wearing cold, water-filled shoes, warm food was the top priority.
Opting to use the grate attached to the fire ring instead of a stick to cook hotdogs left much to be desired. Not having anything to remove the hot dogs from the grate, as well as ash that had accumulated on it made for an unneeded challenge on an already long day.
Using the pliers from a multi tool, the hot dogs eventually made their way off the fire and into stomachs. Despite the ash and wet bread, it was another one of the highlights of the day.
In order to pass the time before heading to bed, and to attempt to refrain from using phones recreationally, we played blackjack for almost an hour. While playing, a large group set up their camp site nearby.
They drove to the park instead of canoeing, and brought with them large tents, a Coleman grill, air mattresses, all the needed comforts of home. Why even leave the house if you needed all of that?
Eventually darkness fell and it was time to go to sleep and recuperate from the day. Opting to sleep in an ENO hammock instead of the tent turned out to be just another disaster. The temperature dropped into the upper 30s making sleep nearly impossible. Having wet feet didn’t help either.
Waking up early, it was nearly impossible to move my toes, which were numb from the cold. Needing a fire and lacking the patience to use flint to start it, Dow swallowed his pride and asked the neighboring group to borrow their lighter.
When it was warm enough that the sensation returned to everyone’s feet, it was time to cook. First we tried bacon on the grate, but it turned black with ash and was unedible.
Next were baked beans. Without a can opener, Dow used a knife to cut the lid open. Placing the can over the fire to warm the beans, it was eventually warm enough to eat. That was the high point of the trip. Warm food on a cold morning that didn’t taste like ash.
Our transportation arrived later in the morning, bringing biscuits with them. If civilization had a taste, it would be a McDonald’s sausage biscuit after 24 hours in the wilderness.
Finally it was over. Showers and soft mattresses were waiting. We would explain to OP later about losing their paddle, or why the bottom of their canoe was missing an abundance of green paint that now decorated various rocks in the river. Despite being unprepared and overwhelmed, the trip was a success. No one got hurt, and despite our best efforts we didn’t sink our canoe.
It may sound miserable, and it was, but it was also a great experience. The outdoors is waiting, go find it.