Above Royal Glen dam at Petersburg, West Virginia, the South Branch of the Potomac River flows through 12 miles of wild, uninhabited gorge. The river is pinned tightly between North Fork Mountain on the west and Cave Mountain on the east. Peaks in these ridges are over 3,000 feet, and in many places the mountains rise straight up from the river, in cliffs 1,000 or 1,500 feet high.
This gorge is called the Smokehole, and the reason why becomes apparent as soon as one lights a fire along the river. Smoke is protected by the gorge's high walls and will hang over a camp, motionless, in a flat canopy. The first white explorers, looking down from the rim, found the hole full of smoke. Below, Indians, who made of the gorge a fishing and hunting camp, burned drying fires on the ledges and in the shallow shelter caves that pock the cliffs.
Places, just as people, can give a first, strong, abstract impression of their character. Thus you file away the memory of a frozen, windy Ontario lake under barren skies. Dark is the word for a camp made on a hummock in a dank Virginia swamp. One week, late in November, we climbed up from the Valley of Oaxaca into the Sierra Madre of southern Mexico. The light was harsh, lemon yellow. The valley floor was yellow from drought. Acre after bright acre of wild marigolds bloomed golden on the sides of the mountains. Our memory of this place is yellow.
Clean is the Smokehole. The river is cold and clear. The water is jade-green marble, with veins of white where the current breaks over scoured boulders and ledges. (This is the same Potomac that flows sluggishly past Washington, by then dark as chocolate, heavy with silt, garbage and sewage.) The cliffs rising from the river are bare and clean. Only a thin skin of vegetation can cling to the rock: mosses, lichens, some stunted white cedar, Virginia pine, columbine, polypody ferns, prickly pear. Frequently landslides strip off even this poor cover, leaving great scars of sterile rock from river level to canyon rim.
On the Cave Mountain side of the gorge there is in some places a narrow strip of level bench. The benches are heavily, softly turfed and are as open and neat as parkland. A few deserted farms and cabins still stand on these benches. The unpainted slab buildings bleach pale, paler, clean, cleaner, season after season.
The clean water, the clean cliffs, the clean benches are insulated in a gorgeful of clean air. Fresh-air descriptions in these days of self-conscious modern living are no longer fresh, having been appropriated by persuaders for deodorants, air conditioners and cigarettes, but the truth remains that the genuine article has body, flavor and kick. Good air feels good, tastes good, smells good. In the Smokehole, for one place, you can sit down, simply breathe—and be doing something worthwhile.
The process of civilizing, humanizing the land has been reversed in the Smokehole. The gorge is less used, less visited by men now than it has been for a century or more. For generations, families of the small, tenacious Smokehole Settlement farmed the benches, made whisky and grazed sheep on the mountain, but the last of these settlers was driven out by a series of terrible floods and landslides in the late 1940s. Now there is not a single permanent dwelling from a point below a federal campground in the upper gorge to Royal Glen, some 10 miles down. Each year now, the few tortuous, abandoned roads that lead over Cave Mountain to the old Smokehole farms get a little worse. There are still at least two of them that are barely passable with a very good jeep and driver, but it takes a rough hour and a half to get from the last hard road to the river.
Most of the canyon is not fished or hunted much these days because of the time and effort it takes to get into the place. Still, there is an interesting and increasing wildlife community in the gorge: deer, bear, turkey, bobcat, perhaps an otter or two, bank beaver and the smaller mammals. There are big trout in some of the river holes.
Among the few regular visitors now are white-water canoeists who have the means and desire for getting into the gorge. We came, John and I, one Good Friday, to clean ourselves up. We came, too, because we knew we could go two days without meeting another soul. We hoped to see bear and beaver and brake fern, and, as always, there was the certainty of finding fine waters to paddle with and against.
One thing should be said about the motives of those who run the Smokehole in a canoe. Anyone who knows enough about white water to consider the trip knows that there are certain dangers in the passage. Paddlers who enter the Smokehole do so at least in part for the pleasure of engaging the risks.