August 13, 2014. Day four, Wednesday. After the late night rain and great sleep, I woke up to the sound of a soft distant rain. “No way, more rain?” I thought. The tent was dry but I heard rain. As it turned out, it wasn’t rain at all. I crawled out of my tent and worked my way down the pebbly shoreline. It was dead calm and quiet except for the sound of the water flowing from a spring into the river and darn if it didn’t sound like rain.
Perched on the rivers edge like a great blue heron, I watched as a thick fog was creeping towards our campsite. To the left, upriver, a dense fog hung in the air and blocked all view. To the right, downriver, it was clear up to the mountain peaks as the glow of dawn lit them. On the river, in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains there was no direction. North, south, east and west didn't exist. There was only upriver, downriver, river right and river left.
The fog was beautiful.
I spent the early morning drying off camping and cooking gear, packed them away, then hit the river. Instead of fishing I flipped rocks collecting crayfish, hellgrammites and madtoms … all excellent bait for smallmouth bass. Hellgrammites are the larval stage of Dobson Flies
(cool critters with big pinchers and wings). I suppose we are lucky Dobson Flies only grow to be about four inches long. Madtoms
are an elusive species of catfish that also grow to four inches and are THE best smallmouth bass bait in the James River. Madtoms are hard to catch and if not handled carefully, can sting you with their tiny needle-like pectoral fins and dorsal fin. The poison in their fins creates a bee sting like feeling, but the pain is worth it.
Flipping rocks that morning took me back to the times when I became addicted to fishing and the outdoors. About 35 years ago, my family used to camp on the Shenandoah River in Bentonville, VA. I remember the last road on the trip that would lead to the river … we would drive down the side of a mountain along a dense, curvy, narrow road which eventually opened up into a valley with the beautiful Shenandoah River rolling through it.
All these memories 'definitely' gather around her.
We’d pull through an old gate leading to a cow pasture in our old Volkswagen camper, find a good spot next to the river and set up camp for the weekend. Fishing was awesome along the limestone ridges. These narrow, submerged ledges offered pathways across the river with deep water both above and below them. There were also plenty of rocks in the shallows that offered unlimited exploration, rock flipping, bait collecting and set the stage for my lifelong passion.
I became pretty good at catching madtoms with my hands at a young age, and I still had enough skill to catch a few. Although I saw three times as many as I caught, I put four madtoms in the bait bucket.
Eventually the Tripper was packed full and we set off for our destination that day … Glasgow and then camping at Balcony Falls, an area with a class IV rapid. We paddled expertly through a number of class I and class II rapids that day without any problems. The Tripper, our 'Old Faithful' canoe, grounded a few times in shallow water, as we cruised past Alpine and Natural Bridge Station. It was an exciting trip loaded with beautiful scenery and excellent fishing, which included a surprise hit on a top water bait from a Muskie. I didn't hook the great fish but just seeing one rise to a lure was pretty cool.
After a short break, late in the morning, we paddled through a winding stretch of deep water that eventually ended in a long stretch of fast water with rapids and exposed boulders throughout. As we approached it, the river appeared to drop several feet over the couple hundred yards of fast water.
I found it amazing how the river backs up with long runs of slow moving, deep water and then BANG! Rocks, riffles, rapids and shallows. The James River zigs and zags through the mountains and natural dams of rock create those long stretches of deep water.
After a solid morning of gaining confidence in our paddling skills, I stood and scouted for a route to take as we approached the rapids with exposed boulders, mentioned above. I saw a nice wave train on river left. Wave trains are runs of water in between shallow, rocky areas that moves water fairly fast, creating a cascade of white water, or wave train. Warren and I very much liked wave trains as they moved the Tripper fast and efficient through some tricky areas. As we entered this particular wave train on river left we sped up pretty quickly. We enjoyed the extra speed for a few moments, then BOOM! We hit a rock barely submerged beneath the surface, on our port side, at full speed, the Tripper nearly flipped and both of us flew out of the canoe.
Warren grabbed his fishing poles and paddle before ejecting from the Tripper. He continued his trip down the James by foot as he, rather quickly, slipped away, down river in the rapids. I was tossed out and grabbed the Tripper with one hand and kept myself from hitting rocks with the other. The Tripper and I were dragged downriver about fifty yards until I was able to work the canoe into an eddy of calm water. I lost my paddle but had control of the canoe, which was half full of water. Warren made his way back upriver and we bailed water. After bailing we took inventory of our immediately visible supplies. The only things missing were a paddle and the cooking grate. “Oh crap” we thought. “We have to get that grate!” The cooking grate was key for our gourmet meals cooked over open flames." Both Warren and I worked our way back up to the submerged boulder that knocked us off and out of our rocker. We searched briefly and the grate was found about five feet from impact. “Sweet, the grate was back onboard!”
While heading downriver, using the spare paddle, we agreed the rapid that knocked us over would be called, ‘Rockfalls Rapid’. After a chuckle over the event we located our lost paddle about a mile downriver floating in an eddy on river right. “Sweet, the paddle was back onboard too!”
Eventually we made it to Glasgow, tied the Tripper to a root along the shore and walked a mile to a convenience store. Our purpose whenever leaving the river was the same ... to resupply with our most essential items, one of which was ice. Leaving the Tripper for long periods of time made me a little nervous but it was always fine, every time we came back all our gear, tackle and camping supplies were fine. Good stuff.
We loaded the canoe with our needed supplies and journeyed about a mile downriver to find a campsite at Balcony Falls. The river was noticeably different here. The boulders shot from the river at greater heights and ridges of rock were longer and taller.
We arrived at Balcony Falls. "What a cool spot”, I thought. The mountains rose up from all directions and huge, massive boulders shot up and out of the river just about everywhere as far upstream as you could see and as far downstream. Apparently Balcony Falls is often used and camping is the norm at this location. There were plenty of well-maintained campsites for an area that is only accessible by canoe or kayak. There was even a mailbox nailed to the side of a tree, full of supplies for those that might need batteries, a flashlight, matches, lighters, etc. There was even a shovel to use so you could "Burry Your Poop" and it even stated so along the handle, but with more graphic words.
Fishing at Balcony was incredible. We caught plenty of bass and sunfish. Lots of wildlife in the area too … we saw an eagle, osprey, heron, kingfishers, a walking stick and a mink. There were loads of minnows, crayfish, hellgrammites and madtoms too. Balcony Falls was a pretty sweet spot.
The river had a different mood here and Balcony Falls looked BIG. I mean an eighteen-foot canoe loaded with nine fishing rods, multiple tackle boxes, seven dry bags, two tents, a huge cooler, dry boxes with wallets and cell phones and two adventuresome dudes with paddles. I was VERY uneasy about paddling the Tripper through Balcony Falls so I spent the evening fishing and investigating river right. I made my way pretty far downriver searching for an alternate route. I climbed over massive boulders, wade fished through slow moving, deep water and through a few rapids too. The entire time my eyes were looking for an alternate, less daunting route.
I found one!
Later that night I shared my find with Warren. While sitting around the campfire, sipping a cold one, we decided to take the safe route … to take the route on river right. Immediate relief set in as I expected my whitewater, thrill seeking fishing partner to want the experience of Balcony Falls. "Whew!"
Once we were around and below Balcony, we still had a plethora of class II rapids, but nothing like Balcony. I was relieved, but still ready for some serious paddling the next day.
The Photos Stories: Above, left: Looking upriver at the fog.
Middle, right: Warren on the bow, somewhere near Alpine, Virginia on the James.
Middle, left: Balcony Falls from above the big drop.
Below, right: Our saving grate hot at work, cooking up our meal at Balcony Falls.