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The New broadens and gains strength as it travels northward, slipping silently past towns like Mouth of Wilson and Ripplemead and showing its fury at places like Buzzards Roost and Foster Falls.
I first learned about the New through newspaper stories when I was in high school. In the mid-1970s I read about a power company's plans to dam the upper river valley and force its residents out.
The Appalachian Power Company wanted to build two hydroelectric dams in Grayson County, Va. The reservoirs were to flood nearly 50,000 acres and displace more than 3,000 people living along the river. But many of the residents fought the project, scoffing at the company's promise that economic prosperity would accompany the recreational development of the reservoirs. To these people the loss of their homes and farms, their churches and cemeteries, their simple way of life, would have been too great a sacrifice.
In 1976 the project was scrapped after the state of North Carolina and a diverse coalition of conservation groups joined forces with determined residents. The Congress and the North Carolina legislature designated a 26½-mile stretch of the river as wild and scenic, which preserved the valley.
A year after the New was saved, I learned to canoe at Buzzards Roost, the first treacherous rapid of the river and the place where one of the dams would have been built. As a student at UNC, I returned to that stretch often, sometimes with a canoeing partner, sometimes alone. After setting up camp I often wandered up the dirt road leading to the quiet community of Cox Chapel.
One trip I met Elze Cox. He was sitting atop a tractor in his potato patch, not more than 100 yards from the frame house where he was born in 1910. He recounted proudly the history of Cox Chapel. It was settled after the Revolutionary War by Lieut. David Cox, who had discovered the valley years before as a hatchet boy in one of George Washington's surveying parties.
Elze was a fine storyteller, with a wonderful rolling laugh. One tale involved a band of slaves who planned to paddle to freedom in a dugout canoe. They knew the river ran northward to Ohio, a free state, but they weren't aware of its dangers. Until the flood of 1918 the rapid at Buzzards Roost contained a hole that sucked water down and spewed it straight back up. The slaves paddled blindly into the trap, and there they drowned.
Four days into the trip, Dave and I navigate Buzzards Roost without a hitch. We breeze past the road leading to Cox Chapel. I don't tell Dave about Elze. His mind is elsewhere. He hasn't said so yet, but I think he is growing tired of the river. He talks often about getting settled in Greensboro, possibly enrolling in college and playing basketball—not about what the river holds for us tomorrow.
Later we stop at a campground for a hot shower and a cold beer. What I envisage as a brief respite for our sore backs turns into a weekend of carousing in nearby Sparta, N.C. For three days we cruise the parking lot of the Sis and Bill Dairy Bar with high school kids. This is Dave's idea of fun, and I go along, with regret. It is becoming clear that we've come to the river for different reasons.
Sunday arrives, and we leave Sparta by mid-morning. I paddle from the stern, Dave from the bow. The broad river runs slowly, rippling from the breeze blowing in our faces. Three bends farther downriver, Dave rests his paddle. Three hours later, he lies back toward the center thwart, resting his head on a life jacket.