There have been more bald eagle sightings in Southwest Virginia this fall and winter. The sightings are becoming more widespread. I have heard first-hand accounts of bald eagle spottings at Hidden Valley Lake and at Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, as well as on private land in Washington County between Abingdon and Damascus. Here is a photo my brother-in-law James Bear took of two eagles in December:
The increase in bald eagle sitings was also recently profiled in a local article:
Sightings of bald eagles are still rare enough that people like Osborne and his neighbor are excited to spot one. However, Boynton, a bird watcher himself, says if individuals know where to look, it’s not difficult to see a bald eagle in Southwest Virginia or Smyth County.People regularly spot bald eagles, Boynton said, at Laurel Bed, Claytor and South Holston lakes as well as along the New River. In Smyth County, the wildlife biologist said, eagles can be seen along the Middle Fork and at DGIF’s trout hatchery on Rt. 16 and some private trout farms.
While the bald eagle’s presence has been growing in the region for some time, Boynton did note a new observation that now some nests are being located in Southwest Virginia.
This is the second article in my short series on the New River. This summer we canoed and fished several sections of the New River, first exploring the upper section in North Carolina, then the middle section that flows through Virginia, and finally the section that flows through the New River Valley and into West Virginia. In the first article, I reviewed the section of the New River below the confluence of the North and South forks of the river. This article is about our second trip where we fished and camped at Foster Falls in August 2011.
The New River leaves Ashe County and Alleghany County in North Carolina and crosses the state line and flows into Virginia at Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County. It then briefly crosses back into North Carolina and then back into Virginia again near Fries, Virginia. The river then flows through the eastern part of Grayson County and into Wythe County. As the river flows through the eastern part of the Appalachian Mountains in these counties it gains considerable volume and size as various tributaries add water to its flow.
Shortly after flowing under I-77, the New River has a series of step-like waterfalls that spand the entire width of the river and are collectively classified as a class 3 whitewater. This area is known as Foster Falls and is the site of Virginia’s New River Trail State Park.
The New River Trail State Park is a unique Virginia park: A 57-mile linear state park with various facilities located at different segments of the trail. The main facilities are located at Foster Falls, where there is a small “walk in” campground, river access for fishing and a boat ramp, picnic areas, horse stables, and a canoe livery with a small shop.
The New River Trail itself is a converted railroad bed. The trail is a packed dirt/ash trail that is excellent for mountain bikes or cross bikes. The trail has several trestles that cross the river and also has a tunnel or two that cyclists travel through. The trail is a level grade, with only a few minor hills, and generally follows the New River between Fries and Pulaski. Foster Falls is the approximate half-way mark on the trail, and makes a good base camp to cycle in either direction on the trail.
This trail is scenic with minimal traffic and road crossings. After the Virginia Creeper Trail, it’s probably the nicest off-road cycling trail in Southwest Virginia.
Low water allowed for great wet wading and fishing
The New River is renowned as one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in Virginia. Actually, it’s one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the United States. The river also has large populations of musky and other game fish. The New holds Virginia’s state records for largest smallmouth bass (8 pounds, 1 ounce) and largest musky (45 pounds, 8 ounces.)
There are several areas to fish right at Foster Falls. I believe the key to fishing any large river, but especially the New, is to spread your casts methodically over fairly large areas of water to reach the most fish as possible and then move on. Unless you are bait fishing and patient, covering a section of water and then moving on to another section is the best way to cover this river.
We therefore first bank fished the river, then waded parts of the river where it was shallow and fished across a large island adjacent to the campground. I fly fished with streamers and caught about 10 smallies with a size 8 olive wolly bugger. My sons Karl and Isaac used Mepps and Blue Fox spinners on light and ultra light spinning tackle. They caught about a dozen fish between them.
There are only 12 campsites at Foster Falls. Thus, although it is a group camping area, the sites are dispersed and there is a wonderful absence of what I sometimes call the “Camp Jellystone Effect”−hundreds of sites jammed together creating a permanently smoky area that from a distance resembles a foreign refugee encampment as sometimes seen on the evening news.
Also, because these are “walk in” sites, there are no RVs or trailers. You have to park in a designated parking area and carry your camp gear between 100-200 feet to the designated campsites. This is not that difficult, and, much to my surprise, the state park provides little wagons for campers to transport their gear from the car to the campsites.
Most of the campsites are either right on the river, or very close to the river (with river views). The camground also provides a sheltered area with dry wood for the campers. You simply have to pay a daily fee, and then you may transfer the firewood to your site for your own use. This was convenient and a reasonable way to provide firewood (if you run out, you simply go back to the covered area and get a few more logs).
Kayaking and Canoeing
Although we didn’t do any boating, there is the possibility of boating both up river and down river from Foster Falls. Running the falls looked a bit sketchy. When we were there in August, there did not appear to be sufficient water to successfully navigate the falls. We saw one kayaker dragging his kayak down the river; it didn’t look fun.
I have kayaked the section of the river above the falls previously (my brother-in-law once took me down this section when a summer lightning and thunderstorm developed in which I feared for my life−getting caught on the water under these conditions can be scary). During higher flows, this can be a moderately challenging kayak with lots of riffles and fast water, but there are not too many obstacles. Downriver from the falls the river slows considerably as it approaches and eventually forms the upper part of Claytor Lake.
Kayaker Down River from Foster Falls
We will definitely return to Foster Falls, probably with a bike focus on our next trip. However, I will also have to bring more marshmellows, Hersheys chocolate, and graham crackers next time. Because this time, these ingredients seemed to mysteriously disappear each night.
It is 3:30 AM. We are parked on a rural hilltop next to a gas station that closed for the night five hours ago.
The gas station is several miles outside the little town of Bakersville, North Carolina. We’re less than 10 miles from the Tennessee state line. Dozens of other passenger vans are lined up on the hill next to us, here, in a place that can only be described as the middle of nowhere.
Wincing, I slowly extend my right leg in order to begin to exit the cramped van. My teammates and I have just traveled 100+ miles over winding, mostly secondary mountain roads in North Carolina since leaving Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia at 10:30 AM yesterday morning. At least one of us has run every single mile of this journey. And we’re only a little over half way to our destination.
After 15 miles of hard running yesterday and no sleep this night, my legs are sore and my eyes are bleary. This is the third time I’m doing this running drill.
I don my headlamp and a reflective vest with blinky lights in that cool, slightly foggy air so typical of the wee morning hours in Southern Appalachia. I gingerly walk over to the “exchange zone,” an area consisting of orange cones with race officials carrying clip boards and stop watches. I inform them of my race number, 314, and the race number of our team captain, Jasen, who is currently on the course and who will shortly hand off to me the large, blue wristband stamped “BLUE RIDGE RELAY” that we are carrying by foot to Asheville.
Many of our competitors are wandering around the same area, several like me trying to loosen up their knotted muscles before the exchange. Some of my own teammates are awake, too, perhaps ingesting a nutrition bar or banana or drinking water to get much needed calories or fluids. (“Ingesting” is a better description than eating, for there is little pleasure in forcing the food down at this hour after the latest gut-wrenching ride). Others on the team are in the van trying to get at least a few moments of uncomfortable shut-eye before their next run.
Those of us who are awake peer into the blackness where the road disappears. We are waiting. After a while, a few headlamps and blinky lights begin to appear at the base of the hill. Human shapes emerge slowly as we begin to recognize the runners who approach.
“DIRTBAGGERS!, DIRTBAGGERS!,” one of the runners exclaims. It’s Jasen. He is letting us know he’s coming and for me to get ready to start the next leg. Lumbering up the long hill, panting hard, he hands me the wristband. I turn back to salute his effort, but he’s yelling at me and pointing down the road. “GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!”
So motivated, I run off into the darkness, continuing the race. Within a few minutes, I am once again all alone. It’s just me and another long stretch of asphalt, though I can only clearly see about thirty feet ahead by the illumination of my headlamp. Although running alone, I’m not lonely. That’s near impossible when your legs are windmilling downhill and your heart rate is pushing past your aerobic threshold.
The Dirtbaggers’ passenger van whizzes by, leapfrogging me to the next exchange zone. My teammates in the van hoot and holler and shout encouragement as they roll past. I acknowledge them with a raised right arm. Geez, I can’t let these guys down by cracking on this leg of the race.
My first, foremost thought at this ungodly hour is that I must get to the next exchange zone as quickly as possible and hand the wristband to Aaron, who will carry it through Bakersville and another stretch of darkness until the next teammates—Keith, Sean, Scott, Mike, Cam, Bruce, Jim and Byrum—do the same thing as we travel the remaining miles of our meandering route (and then three of us will run yet a fourth time to reach the finish line in Asheville).
My second, intermittent thought is, “What the hell am I doing here?”
My third thought—organically evolving from the second, contemplating the totality of this event—causes an almost imperceptible sideways head nod of virtual disbelief and a slight grin: “This is so totally and utterly insane, it’s awesome!”
Then there’s no further deliberative thought. There is only movement. Movement, and the will to keep pushing through this run.
The Blue Ridge Relay, or BRR, is a 208 mile running relay race that traverses back and forth across the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a cumulative elevation gain of 27,000 vertical feet. It’s arguably the toughest relay road race in the nation. The tagline for the race is “Consider All Others a Warm Up.”
BRR has 27,000 vertical feet of climbing. That’s like climbing Mount Everest more than twice (remember Everest climbers start at 17,000 feet). No, it’s not a truly analogous comparison, but it gives you an idea of the vertical climbing in this monster race.
On September 9th and 10th, 2011, our team, named “The Dirtbaggers,” ran the 208 miles in just under 27 hours at a 7:47 minute per mile average pace. We came in 20th place out of the 120 teams that started the race (several teams DNF’d). Amazingly, the winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, ran 208 miles in a little over 20 hours with a scorching 5:53 minute per mile average pace.
36 Individual Races
The BRR is one of the oldest road relay races in the Eastern United States. The concept of super long relay races goes back a couple decades or so, with several of the first ones out West, most notably the Hood to Coast 200 mile relay race in Oregon. They have picked up much greater interest in the last decade on the heels of the big running boom the United States is currently experiencing (marathon running is up 37% percent since 2000; this year was the first year that even those runners who qualified for the Boston Marathon had to be chosen by a lottery in order to get a place on the starting line). While most runners still consider ultra-running and other mega running events like the Blue Ridge Relay as extreme, these kinds of races are enjoying a concomitant growth and increased interest for those looking for the next challenge after the marathon.
The relay has 36 sections, each of which is between 3 and 11 miles in length. Starting at Grayson Highlands State Park at over 5000’ elevation in Virginia, the race includes some of the most scenic and highest mountains in North Carolina, including a climb up the ramparts of iconic Grandfather Mountain (5900’) and around Mount Mitchell (6600’), the highest mountain in the East. Several legs are on or adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Generally, the race bounces between 1500’ and 4000’ vertical feet practically every three or four legs. The map of the entire course shows it generally travels south. The race officials generated topographical maps (which do not do the course justice and don’t show all of the hills) for each of the 36 legs. I ran legs 2, 13, 24, and the brutal, penultimate 35 (containing a 7-11% gradient climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
Each leg is rated easy, moderate, hard, very hard, or “mountain goat hard.” As we ran this race, we realized, however, that easy, moderate, and hard are relative terms.
Even the so-called easy runs usually had hills that, in their own right, would be called hard by anyone other than the organizer of a 208-mile race in the mountains. The longest leg was 10 mile all-uphill run on Route 220 that essentially paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway as it climbed the bottom half of Grandfather Mountain.
There were two mountain goat legs, each of which had climbs that exceeded 13% gradient in places. There were also long, unrelenting downhill runs that would punish the hamstrings and knees. One all-downhill run was nine miles in length!
A Group Effort
I love individual races; they provide their own reward. There’s no hiding in an individual race. You wholly own the result, for better or worse. The Blue Ridge Relay was not necessarily a “better” race than a solo race, but it was definitely different.
The beauty of the relay race concept is that while only one member of the team is racing against the clock at a time, there is a collective team effort that in some ways elevates the event beyond an event of comparable or greater individual effort such as a solo marathon. At the same time, because the BRR is a mountainous course, no leg is exactly like any other leg in length or topography, and direct comparisons between the runners is difficult. Each team member just has to run the best they can on their unique segments of the course.
Running for a team puts a different sort of pressure on you; for me, this different motivation was refreshing. The camaraderie and fellowship of doing the relay together with my teammates was more “fun” than a purely individual race. Obviously, how much “fun” a race like this is depends on who your teammates are—you need to think about with whom you want to spend a sleep-deprived night in a van in the mountains when you put together your crew. Although every single one us had not been on a team with every other one of us before this race, most of us had a connection to several others on the team. We were fortunate, too, in that the guys on the team were cool, got along, and jelled well.
The Blue Ridge Relay is as much about the non-running aspects as the runs themselves. The whole thing was a great experience that is very different than an ordinary race. On top of this, not knowing exactly what to expect (none of us had done the BRR before) and the grand scale of the race made it a true adventure.
A Logistical Nightmare
The race organizers did a good job putting this race together. When I first learned about this race, it seemed to me to be a logistical nightmare. In addition to organizing a start and a finish as in a traditional race, there were 35 “exchange zones,” or finish lines to the individual legs and staging areas for the teams who were starting the next legs. The various exchange zones were post offices, volunteer fire rescue stations, church parking lots, the Penland School of Crafts, and the odd gas station.
Since a lot of these were in very rural areas and were used in the middle of the night, there obviously was a lot of planning done before the race. In addition, there was a lot of local support from the communities through which we ran, including police support (most notably when a red Trans Am type vehicle zoomed through one of the late-night exchange zones and had to be chased down by a local police officer). Literally 100s of portable toilets were at the exchange zones throughout the race. The courses for the most part were well-marked, with signage at almost all of the turns.
A Laid-Back Race
While there definitely was some nervous energy at the beginning, this race was informal from the get-go. Most of the passenger vans were decorated in some fashion or, like ours, at least had some race-related graffiti written on the windows. For example, before the 10:30 start of our wave of runners, one of the teams huddled its members together and loudly, publically proclaimed that it was time for “The Prayer.” I was not sure what to expect. The team then opened their passenger van to reveal a jacked up speaker system, and blasted the audio of the Prayer from Talladega Nights for everyone. Some of the runners were dressed up in costumes for the intial leg of the race.
As far as any nutrition, the teams were pretty much on their own. You had to bring all of your own water, food, etc. that your team would need. There were very few places during most of the race where you could re-supply; in addition, since the race is through the night, most of the few stores that were on the course were closed when we passed them.
The finish line was at Battery Park in Asheville. While the location was good, there was no significant designated area for racers or their friends or family after the race. This may have been because the teams necessarily come into town in waves throughout the day.
There was not as much “swag” as I expected for such a large race (actually, there was none); the finish line reward was a refrigerator magnet (not a medal, trophy, or anything to memorialize actually finishing the race); there was no congregating area or water or food at the finish. You just sort of went through the finishing chute, got your magnet, and were told you did a good job. The thought may be that finishing in Asheville, you have tons of eating and drinking options within a couple of blocks from the finish line. In any event, these are minor criticisms to what was an overall fantastic experience.
After the race and after some rest, our team went out for refreshments at Asheville’s local watering hole, Barley’s Tap Room (while aging a little bit, it’s ambiance still equals that of the Barley’s in Knoxville, see my story about that one here). The winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, was there, too. One of their members came over and talked to us about the race. He had run the Hood to Coast relay previously, and he told us that BRR blows it away in terms of vertical climbing and overall difficulty.
Finishing the Blue Ridge Relay was a tour de force for our team. If you have a group of 6 to 12 individuals who want to punish themselves and have fun doing so, this is a great race. Bring your A-game, though, and save some for the middle. Because at 3:30 AM, this race is a beast.
This is the first of a short series of articles that will examine the New River, the largest river which flows through Southwest Virginia, and the source of great outdoor opportunities in the region including paddling and fishing.
Purportedly the second oldest river in the world (only the Nile in Africa is older), the New River predates the Appalachian Mountains (themselves some of the oldest mountain ranges in the world). Geologists explain that this river existed before the tectonic shift that caused the uplift of the Appalachia range. The river more or less continued its present-day path during the tectonic shift, cutting through the mountains as they were created.
The New begins high in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina. The New actually starts as two rivers, the North Fork and South Fork of the New. These two forks join in Ashe County before flowing north and west through Virginia into West Virginia. The mighty New ends when it confluences with the Gauley River to form the Kanawah River, which flows into the Ohio River at the West Virginia/Ohio state line.
In the 2001 bestseller Far Appalachia, author and radio host Noah Adams travelled the length of the New River from North Carolina to West Virginia, recounting the scenery, his interactions with local residents along the way, and his autobiographical musings about his own family’s heritage in the region. In the book, Adams notes that there are two views as to the source point, or the true beginning, of the New. On the South Fork, it is somewhere near Blowing Rock; on the North Fork, it is somewhere on the upper part of Snake Mountain, one of the highest peaks in northwestern North Carolina. (As an aside, Blood, Sweat and Gears, the well-known challenge century road bike race that starts and ends in Valle Crucis, NC every June, traverses the high road over Snake Mountain. I can attest it is very difficult climb on a road bike.)
My son Karl and I did our own “section” paddle trips and travels to different parts of the New River Blueway, or paddle trail, over the course of this summer. For non-hiking readers, a “section” hike is the partial completion of a long trail, like the Appalachian Trail, in “sections”. Most hikers on the AT, for example, are section hikers, not thru hikers. We applied this concept to the New River, taking on several distinct sections of the river to observe and experience the river along its course. This article is the trip report about the first section. In June we travelled from Abingdon to Ashe and Allegheny County to paddle a 13-mile stretch of the South Fork of the New (above the confluence). This section of the New is part of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina. An excellent map of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina is here.
possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, [and] shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.
This section of the river is also part of the North Carolina New River State Park (there is also a New River State Park in Virginia, but that is for the next article). We elected to paddle the section from Wagoner Road to Route 221. The trip is about a five or six-hour paddle, not including stops. Here was our route:
In North Carolina the New River is still a moderately sized river. Both the North Fork and the South Fork are navigable. There are apparently some trout in the upper reaches of the New River, most notably high on the North Fork section. However, where we were paddling the river was already somewhat warm (compared to trout waters). The section of the New from the confluence to the Virginia state line is supposed to be a fairly good smallmouth fishery. We were above that section. We fished the 13-mile stretch of the South Fork intermittently with light spinning tackle, and did not catch anything.
The flora up in the North Carolina High Country is a bit different from down in the New River Valley in Virginia. For example, there were rhododendron on the banks of the river and stands of pine trees mixed in with the hardwoods.
Make no mistake, although moderately sized, this is still a powerful river. There are numerous boulders and riffles that I imagine cause current changes to a much greater extent when the river is at a higher cubic feet per second (CFU). We ran the river in low water, however it is probably quite a different river during the springtime. On this section of the New, where it is designated a National Scenic and Wild River, there are relatively few homes or other signs of development. You go through whole sections of river where the trees come right down to the water, and there are no homes visible up river or down river.
On this paddling trip, we saw geese, beaver or otter, osprey, and ducks. There were also hunting blinds set up in some of the open fields along the river. The water along the 13-mile stretch we paddled was mostly flat or moderate Class I rapids. There were a few submerged rock shelves over which we had to paddle, and we almost bottomed out in a place or two.
Overall, this is a nice paddle trip. It may be a bit long for some folks. There are shorter alternatives along this route, and both up river and down river from the section that we completed. The New River State Park has several access points.
One thing we did not do, that should be done if you are in the area, is have breakfast or lunch at Shatley Springs Inn, an old inn and restaurant that is a true old-timey place renowned for its family style dining with delicious North Carolina country food.
Breakfast at Shatley Springs and/or a canoe trip down the New would be an excellent day trip down from a camping trip in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area in Virginia. We have in fact done this in the past.
Cumulus Clouds Over the New River
It takes about 1 1/2 hours to drive from Abingdon to the Route 221 Bridge crossing (where the New River State Park is located, and where we rented our canoe). From Abingdon, drive to Damascus, then up Route 58 past the Beartree Lake area. Up on the mountain, Route 58 makes a sharp right-hand turn. You can continue on Route 58 through Whitetop, or instead stay straight on Route 603, aka Konnarock Road. Either one will eventually take you to Route 16/Route 58 south. I prefer going via Route 603 over to Route 16, as it is a straighter road.
At Route 16/58 head south to Mouth of Wilson. Drive through Mouth of Wilson. Here Route 16/58 split. To get to the New River State Park at the Route 221, bear left and stay on Route 58. After about 1 mile there is a junction with Route 93. Turn right on Route 93. This turns into Route 113 at the NC state line.
Drive on Route 113 for about 8 miles, until it junctions with Route 221. (At this intersection is a BBQ restaurant called Motleys.)
Make a right on Route 221. Route 221 is a very twisty road, taking you through the small community of Scottsville, NC (just a few homes and churches) and after about 5 miles on Route 221 you will see the signs for the New River State Park. A nother mile or so and you will cross the New River. Immediately on the right there is an old General Store with inadequate parking right on Route 221. Behind this store is New River Outfitters.
Note: There are plenty of other outfitters in the area. National Geographic makes an excellent map of the entire New River watershed, it is Map 773, New River Blueway, and it contains names of most of the outfitters in NC, VA, and WV with their locations identified clearly on the map.
Note: This area of North Carolina is very rural, and the roads are very twisty. Getting around is not intuitive until you know the roads. Carry a good map, use a GPS, etc. In addition, this makes getting to and from the canoe/kayak drop off points difficult. This is another reason using an outfitter in this area is good idea.
This photograph was taken on the morning of Sunday, June 26, 2011. I awoke early to get ready for the first of several paddling trips we have taken this summer on the New River. In each trip, we left Abingdon early in the morning and witnessed a great sunrise as a sort of prologue to the adventures ahead of us on the river.
On the first morning, as I prepared our fishing tackle and provisions in the kitchen I noticed the sky was a brilliant pink and purple in the East as the sun began to rise. I drove to Main Street and took some quick photographs of the scenic skyline of Abingdon. Note you can see right through the shutter-adorned window of the Washington County Courthouse cupola. In the foreground is the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church steeple.
The photo below shows more of the skyline. The purple periphery framed the pink background of the rooftops. The dramatic sunrise was an auspicious start to our first trip to the New River this year.