I'm relieved to know that I'm avoiding that rapid. But the relief evaporates when the old man warns me about another dangerous spot just before the final dam. I cannot escape that rapid, he says as we follow a gravel road as bumpy as a washboard, down to the second dam.
My plan is to put in below this dam and paddle down to the final one. Then I'll carry the canoe around to the river below. I can't help but feel nervous down here. A breeze rising off the river stirs the dark canopy of leaves overhead. The old man tells me it means rain. He points to dark clouds building on the horizon.
Before I shove off I roll out the topographical maps for a look at the rapid waiting three miles downriver. A guidebook warns of "irregular and unavoidable standing waves" created by the rocky riverbed. As a precaution I stretch a plastic tarp across the front half of the canoe and lash it to the thwarts with nylon rope. It should deflect water splashing over the bow in the rapid.
I relieve my nervousness by paddling hard until I hear a roar in the distance. It is several minutes before I see the rapid, guarded closely by high gray cliffs on the right. I stand up in the stern, zipping my life jacket as I search for a calm V of water to enter the narrowing river.
The current takes hold, drawing the canoe down into the rapid. Boulders littered with debris from spring floods pass quickly on both sides. The boat drops over a sharp ledge, the bow plunging down into churning water. I feel engulfed by the river.
Suddenly a wave rolls over the bow and nearly fills the canoe. Cold water pours into my lap. The boat rocks precariously as it grinds over a staircase of ledges. It handles like a half-sunken log. I dig the paddle deeper, careful to keep the boat headed downstream, feeling its weight in my arms. It hangs on a final ledge before slipping into calm water.
It takes most of the afternoon to carry the canoe and gear around Buck Dam. After setting up camp I paddle to the center of the river and wedge the boat between two rocks. I assemble my bamboo fly rod, pulling the leader through the shiny metal eyelets, and then tie on a yellow popping bug and cast it into an eddy below a log. I work the spot a half dozen times, drawing the bug across the pool with gentle flips of the rod. Suddenly the water explodes, and the line goes tight. The rod bends almost to the water. The fish breaks the surface, its mouth clamped firmly on the bug.
I break the neck of the dark shiny bass with the handle of a knife and draw the blade along its belly. I flick the entrails into the water, rinse the fish clean and roll it in pancake mix and fry it in a greased skillet. That's supper, along with blackberries picked in a cow pasture and biscuits bought in Fries.
The next morning I paddle until I reach the bridge at Austinville, Va. I find the post office and dispose of the tent, the coolers and a plastic bag stuffed with clothes. I'm left with the shorts and the T shirt I'm wearing, a rain parka, my sleeping bag, a string hammock and the tarp. I consider my hat indispensable. Its brim is encircled with fishing bugs.
Back at the canoe I roll out the maps. I have been out here nine days, seven on the river, and I have traveled 105 miles. My destination of Thurmond is still 155 miles away. I give myself 10 more days to get there. I reach Claytor Lake in Virginia in two days and Bluestone Lake in West Virginia in six.