by Matt Kearns
The Elkspedition made it to Sutton May 24, the psychological if not literal halfway point of our journey. Ahead of us is 100 miles down the Elk River Water Trail in our trusty blue canoe. Behind us is 17 miles of hiking, 40 miles of biking, 25 miles of paddling, and one canoe flip.
The hiking down Laurel Run was difficult and slow over mossy rocks, through stinging nettle and thick spruce stands. Along the abandoned and overgrown railroad tracks below Slatyfork it had an other-worldly feel. The biking was efficient and beautiful along winding country roads, leaving plenty of time to fish. I caught three brook trout and a smallmouth bass.
More about the flip: From the time we went to bed on the 21st to the time we woke up on the 22nd the Elk River below Webster Springs rose over a foot owing to the torrential storm that blew through. A gauge over 6 feet would probably have been perfect for a decked over kayak but it proved a little too much for our open canoe. We slopped water over the gunnels constantly, despite making the mellowest lines on the river.
A little below Webster Springs we found Sewer Plant Rapid. Each wave around the bend was slightly larger than its predecessor and we took on water with each pitch and roll. By the time we arrived at the biggest wave we were already half full and too heavy to make the move out of the deep hole in the rapid. We swamped and then flipped.
All of our gear was secured to the boat and we were dressed for a swim. Adam and I have practiced self rescue for times like these and kicked into action, swimming to shore with our paddles and a line to the canoe, working hard to keep the boat and ourselves from getting pinned on any rocks. We got to shore wet and tired, but little worse for the wear.
Our decision to bike past the remaining rapids below Webster Springs was based primarily on keeping the Elkspedition on schedule. The big waves were going to make what we thought would be a straightforward day in intermediate whitewater excruciatingly slow as we would have to line or portage past all the biggest rapids, actions further slowed down and complicated by the heavy vegetation along shore. Looking at the river later on from the road above, on bikes, confirmed our decision.
We biked down to the bridge on CR 7, below the hardest rapids, and launched the canoe for the second time. Even here we still had to line around one wave as big or bigger than Sewer Plant rapid. The Elk River is serious whitewater.
The paddling mellowed out completely in the backwaters of Sutton Lake. The weather did not. We had to pull off the water to wait out another downpour — visibility in the rain was no more than a dozen yards.
Thankfully, things dried out for our final push across the lake. We were surprised to find our cruising speed was just a shade under 4mph, a proud accomplishment for a canoe on flat water. We made the long portage around Sutton Dam in two trips, arriving in Sutton in time for the wonderful hospitality of Cafe Cimino.
The generosity and support along the way has been amazing. My father dropped us off at trip's start. Gil and Mary at the Elk River Inn hosted local Birthplace of Rivers supporters for an evening at their bar. Friendly landowners let us camp on their farms. A random fisherman have us part of his catch. My father and mother helped us swap bikes for a canoe. Keith and Paula put us up in Webster Springs and then came thru with a shuttle and loaner bikes at a moment when the entire trip was in jeopardy. Melody at Cafe Cimino provided an evening of food and fun. Folks have hiked and biked part of our journey with us.
Along the way we've been doing our best to share our story and talk to people about the Elk River's origins in Pocahontas County. We're thrilled when we find out that someone has read or heard about our journey: "You're the two guys coming down the Elk" is a great conversation starter.
With 100 miles and 6 days yet to go we're excited to be entering the final stretch of the Elk River to the Kanawha while continuing to connect with people along the way and reminding them of the river's start high in the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. And do a little fishing along the way. See you in Charleston!