After an hour on the river, I'm ready for a pitch of white. Except for a few ledges, the river has been gentle. It runs smooth and dark as far as I can see.
This narrow trail—called the South Fork—never seems to change. Bend after bend, it winds northward, cutting horseshoes through these North Carolina mountains until it meets the North Fork to form the New River. From water level, we are not aware of the pattern. We simply paddle, letting the current carry us along the outside bank, where the water runs faster and deeper.
It is a Sunday morning in July 1980. Dave rests his paddle across his knees and looks back, smiling. "This is it, the trip we wanted," he says.
We plan to paddle the dark-green canoe from West Jefferson, N.C. to Thurmond, W. Va.—260 miles through northwestern North Carolina and the two Virginias. We know the river becomes rugged when it enters the New River Gorge at Thurmond. We'll concede the gorge to the wild-eyed boaters and weekend rafters who enjoy dropping over five-foot ledges and plowing through towering haystack rapids. Where the gorge begins, our trip will end. Ours is a peaceful beginning through the rolling farmland and tall stands of birch and pine in Ashe County. Circling a bend, we startle a half dozen wood ducks, which settle behind a fallen sycamore downstream.
Dave and I are modest paddlers. We wear no crash helmets, no wet suits. I wear L.L. Bean shorts and Carolina-blue sneakers, in keeping with my image as a University of North Carolina fraternity man. A floppy red hat keeps the sun off my neck.
Dave is an old high school buddy. He joined the Army the year after he graduated, with low marks on his report card and a dream of playing college basketball. I was finishing my senior year when he left for boot camp. He was first stationed in Hawaii as an infantryman. The year before, he'd been assigned to Fort Dix, N.J., where he learned of the death of his parents. His father died in April, his mother in May, both from cancer.
I attended his mother's funeral in Winston-Salem, where nearly forgotten aunts and uncles offered Dave enough advice to plan a dozen futures. He received a discharge shortly afterward, and he said he wanted to get away. I mentioned my plans to canoe the New River, and soon I had a partner—one who'd never been in a canoe.
Early this morning my parents dropped us off at a narrow bridge near West Jefferson. We loaded the 16-foot canoe to the gunwales with boxes of supplies and gear. We carried sleeping bags, a tent, fishing poles, a water jug, an ax and saw, extra boots, life jackets, bottles of suntan lotion and a roll of topographical maps in a waterproof tube. What we had thought were the bare essentials nearly sank the boat when we shoved off.
By late afternoon, we're tired and cramped from kneeling in the canoe. Every white-water guidebook I've read advises paddlers to kneel to make the boat more stable in rapids. But that advice seems pointless today: We faced no rapids of any consequence, hardly a ripple.
Our conversation lags as the boat drifts past a garden of gray whale-backed boulders. Worn smooth, they give an idea of the age of the ancient New River. At 100 million years, it is generally considered by geologists to be the second-oldest river in the world. Only the Nile is older.