When you are traveling through rural Appalachia you soon notice that the travel is slowed by the winding twisting paths of the roads as they lay so often alongside a small mountain stream or river. During the settlement of these mountains by the Native Americans and mountaineers water was a crucial resource that necessity dictated be nearby. Early homesteads and farms were placed near these sources of water and daily life followed by horse trails and then roads traced a path between them. Today there is still visible and yet aging evidence of these old homes, large and small sitting alongside the streams and rivers in Appalachia.
As the Appalachian claims its place in the history of our planet as the oldest of the mountain ranges, so does one of its great rivers–the New River. “The New River is an ancient river system, the oldest on the North American continent and second only to the Nile River in Africa as the oldest river in the world. It begins as two streams in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, before merging into the New River four miles from the Virginia line. And therein lies another quirk of this ancient river – it flows northward rather than southward like most of the other major rivers along the eastern seaboard.” (http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/waterbodies/display.asp?id=163)
The New and other rivers in these mountains are a part of daily life providing their continued support of farms, fields, livestock, and wild animals. And even more so a part of great exploration and joy as families enjoy even the simplest experiences from skipping stones and fishing to canoeing and tubing along their winding paths through the mountains. My Grandfather taught me how to skip stones in these mountain streams and rivers. The water often clear as glass with the stones so easily seen laying on the riverbed so that they make finding “the best rock that ever was” so fun to play. Thousands of years of water flowing over them creates stones that are rounded and smooth surfaced. I have taken my children to these same streams and rivers to play and skip stones–sharing these mountains waters with them.
The New River flows through mountain fields and pastures in some areas and deep rocky gorges in others with cliffs climbing up beside you on either side. Its path has changed multiple times over the centuries as nature seems to have a creative side to her. But flow it does, providing water and beauty to animals and humans alike.
My family and I went canoeing just a few days ago on the New River. Putting our canoes in on a neighbor’s cattle farm “just down the road a ways”. We pulled our truck over in his drive, and stopped to speak to him as he sat on his front porch enjoying the day. A handmade sign of plywood with black marker on the outer pasture gate across the road read, “5 dollars a boat launch. Place money in the mail box”. My husband of course offered to pay him 5 dollars but he smiled and said, “that’s not for local people”.
We drove down to the river bank and unloaded the canoes without any problems, remembering to close the gates as we did to keep the cattle in the pasture. Part of going canoeing is always making sure you have a vehicle at both ends of the trip–right? So we leave the canoes with my daughter and then take two cars to the low water bridge a few miles down the road–leaving one there and driving one back. It’s a bit of logistics that is always required when you are “local people”.
We come back, park the car and walk down through the gates to the canoes and push them off the bank and into the beautiful clear green water. The rains this Spring have made the river a great depth for canoeing today. Some later summer canoes trips often involve getting stuck on some large boulders or picking up the canoe and walking for a while, but not today.
We paddle out into the middle of the river and so begins our journey down the river. You quickly loose yourself in the quiet of the river in the pastures surrounding it. You paddle some keeping an eye on the larger rocks that scatter the path, and at other times you put your paddle across your legs and just let the river take you in utter peacefulness. The cattle grazing alongside the river appear to stare at you strangely for being in their back yard.
There are areas of small rapids that are created by stones and changes in water level and you grab your paddles and chose your path through them feeling such excitement and you find yourself smiling and laughing as you float over them bobbing up and down on the white water.
My husband and I have canoed this river stretch many, many times over the years. And yet today we were treated to an extraordinary treat–a bald eagle sighting! We were traveling down the river and saw a large bird on the side of the river, taking flight and skimming the river water with its talons catching fish. We quickly realized it was a male bald eagle with its white head and tale flying across the river in front of us! And then we saw another, flying in the same area, both of them flying in low across the water feeding in the river. One of the eagles appeared to fly away and then as we neared a small island in the middle of the river, we saw a huge eagles nest in the top of a large sycamore tree.
In 2015 we had seen and read a local newspaper article about a couple canoeing this area of the New River and how they had seen a bald eagle and nest. Their sighting was reported at the time to be the first time in over 100 years that a bald eagle had been seen in this area of the River. They had been felt to have been lost due to widespread use of DDT over 50 years ago. Slowly they have begun to return to the New River area and our sighting today confirms the one a year ago.
One other bit of history I will share about this incredible and ancient mountain river in our area reveals how close our area came to losing this treasure. In 1962, the Appalachian Power company proposed a dam on the New River nearby, to provide electricity to areas in West Virginia. If the dam had been built, it would have “swallowed 42,000 acres” of pristine Appalachian family and farmland across 3 counties. And the end of a way of life that had been in existence for centuries.