Deep in the heart of West Virginia, the vast crown of the Allegheny Front rises above fertile valleys. The rivers stemming from this crown are some of the finest whitewater jewels in North America. The Blackwater River is the centerpiece of these jewels, rising above the rest, not in elevation but in its intensity and reputation as one of the most rough-and-tumble rivers in the nation. The Blackwater, aptly named for its root beer-colored water, drains 142 rugged square-miles along its 34-mile course. When atmospheric conditions at the top of the watershed are ripe for rain, experienced paddlers load up and head toward the promised land.
Over 1,500 feet above its confluence with the Dry Fork of the Cheat River, the Blackwater winds peacefully through the vast upland bogs of Canaan Valley. Watching the meandering turns of the river snake along its muddy banks, it’s hard to believe that one of the most heralded whitewater runs thunders just to the west. But as they have done for millennia, these tannic waters imperceptibly move toward the grand crescendo of Blackwater Falls, the iconic feature guarding the maw of the canyon.
In a neighboring valley, the North Fork of the Blackwater gains momentum as it rolls through barren coalfields of yesteryear. The burnt-orange colors of the rocks lining the North Fork are permanent reminders of the underground mining and coke production of the late 1800s. Surface mining remained active during the early kayak descents of the North Fork in the late 1980s. As a teenager, I remember driving to the put-in for the first time and being awe-struck by the neon mine drainage gushing from the surrounding hillsides while counting coke ovens to distract my mind from the intensity of the upcoming adventure.
After descending the North Fork, we joked that our kayak gear was now more toxic than its standard odorous stench. Massive restoration efforts by Friends of Blackwater drastically improved the quality of the watershed, and the large pools above the canyon now house a substantial trout population. But the North Fork’s calmness is short-lived. The moment it leaves the spillway in Thomas, it runs like hell down the bedrock canyon as it was fleeing its tarnished past.
The River Rises
Every once in a dark moon, the crown of mountains lining the Appalachian Plateau holds within its grasp a storm system that unleashes a deluge of water into the basin below. As the rains fill the headwater streams, they begin to collect and swell the Blackwater. A spiking incline on the gauge in Davis alerts us that it’s time to saddle up, shake off the nerves, and prepare to enter the canyon. If there’s enough liquidity, we attempt to conquer the Blackwater Triple Crown: running all three of the Blackwater’s renowned runs in a single day.
As the river level for the Upper Blackwater section bypasses 200 cubic feet per second (CFS), it’s a good sign of what’s to come. It’s usually advisable to wait for the river level to crest and begin to fall. A rising Blackwater is a remarkably different animal than a falling one, as the streams feeding into the canyon below are rising as well, contributing substantially more volume as the run progresses. Optimal flows register between 350-500 CFS, with levels above 500 CFS reserved for those who have the rapids dialed in like a rotary phone.
Into the Canyon
Our descent into Blackwater Canyon begins in the parking lot used to access the Gentle Trail overlook. The hike down, replete with a 40-pound kayak and full kit of gear, is the first test of the day. If it’s winter, the icy roots and rocks make this leg of the journey one of the most difficult. The final steps down the angled rocks lining the riverbank offer the first glimpse of the Blackwater’s rapids extending below its iconic namesake falls.
Legendary kayaker Roger Zbel was on the first descent of the Upper Blackwater, during which his crew successfully paddled each rapid without incident or portage. Zbel told of the days when the state park permitted paddlers to access the river by taking the stairs to the plunge pool directly below Blackwater Falls. This provided easy access to the two rapids above the modern-day put-in, aptly named Roll the Bones and Puke. These drops are still run on occasion, but their disconcerting names leave little motivation for us to hike up the jagged, slippery boulders lining the steep riverbed.
My Nerves are Shot!
After a long scout of the first rapid, Phil’s 100-Yard Dash, we enter the belly of the beast. The view of the Blackwater from a kayak is quite different from the overlooks above. As we approach the horizon line of each relentless rapid, the tops of trees and boulders are the only landmarks visible before we drop into the madness. The Blackwater tumultuously tumbles down the canyon at an incredible 250 vertical-feet-per-mile through rapids with harrowing names like Pinball, Chopper’s Undercut, Sticky Fingers, Shock to the System, and Flatliner Falls. The pace for a well-seasoned group of paddlers that knows the lines can be surprisingly fast, often completing the entire ‘Upper B’ section in just 30 wild minutes. By contrast, the first descent after the 1985 Election Day Flood took well over six hours, as the charging torrent moved car-sized boulders like marbles and permanently altered the rapids.
During one of Zbel’s initial post-flood descents, a group of paddlers gathered near the two-mile marker where the river rolls off a vertical fall and enters a series of continuous slides extending beyond the vantage point. A paddler named Lucky came careening through the slides and met Zbel in the eddy below, infamously asking, “How much further is it, man? My nerves are shot and I can’t take it anymore!” Roger informed Lucky—fortunate in that moment only by name—that he was not quite half-way down the run. Over time, Lucky’s candid declaration became the name for the series of slides that follows, as well as a common sentiment for rookie paddlers reaching that point in their maiden voyages down the Upper B.
Shortly after My Nerves Are Shot, the Blackwater Canyon’s walls begin to widen, offering shaken paddlers a momentary sense of relief. We, however, know what lurks ahead. The widening of a canyon is a topographical deviation that usually indicates calmer waters below. But not this day! The break in the canyon walls is merely an opening to let the bombastic North Fork of the Blackwater rush in at the three-mile mark. The torrential rains have spanned the entirety of the landscape above, blessing us with the second run of the day. To run it, we must earn it with a mile-and-a-half hike up this steeper, narrower canyon to reach the beginning of this rowdy run that drops nearly 400 vertical-feet-per-mile.
Steep & Deep
Hiking up this side canyon is not for the faint of heart–one slip and we may find ourselves sliding through a slalom course of rusted railroad ties that could abruptly end our day. Once up on the railroad grade, the hike mellows out, offering a last chance for weary paddlers to throw in the towel and catch a ride back to the safety of the parking lot. Despite the temptation, we continue onwards. The North Fork of the Blackwater begins with Douglas Falls, a screaming waterfall with a 40-foot sheer drop to a cauldron of jumbled boulders below. This behemoth has been run successfully by a small handful of elite paddlers over the years without incident. We choose not to test our luck.
From this point, the North Fork appears to fall off the face of the Earth, and we quickly find ourselves staring down the barrel of a 30-foot vertical fall righteously named Gluteal Mash. After repositioning our kidneys, the descent continues through rapids like World’s Ugliest, Eye of the Needle, Double Indemnity, and Rainbow Room, where local legend Don Smith’s whitewater journey came to its perilous end. I was one of the folks who led Don down his inaugural North Fork journey. Over the years, Don would become a regular on this run, earning the nickname “Blackwater Don” for his hundreds of descents down the river. His helmet still hangs on the tree shadowing the end of his rainbow. As a show of respect to an old friend, I walk around this rapid and spend a few minutes resting by that tree, reminiscing about the many times we exchanged energized grins sliding down the waterlogged bedrock of the North Fork.
Slide Into Glory
Shortly after the falls of Double Indemnity, the thrashing North Fork merges with its bigger brother, marking our successful descent of two of the most acclaimed class V whitewater runs in West Virginia. The two rivers join to swell the banks further, creating the third and final leg of the Lower Blackwater. There is no break in the action, as the ‘Lower B’ remains intense through its upper stretches. But alas, the river slowly begins to relent as the easy-but-fast-moving boogie water between rapids becomes less demanding and the field of view broadens. The nervous adrenaline begins its conversion to euphoria, and the river’s character adapts as the experience nears its crescendo.
The last great rapid is West Virginia Slide, where the high-volume river rolls down a gentle slope of endless bedrock, zigging and zagging across the channel. We glide across the tops of breaking waves as if paddling through endless shore breaks in the ocean. The last couple miles of river gently roll into the small town of Hendricks, hosting the Blackwater’s confluence with the Dry Fork. Even though our nerves are shot, we can finally relax. We’ve just completed one of the greatest hat tricks in all of whitewater. There is but one remaining question: will we return when the river runs high again?
Shimmy Shimrock is western Maryland born and raised, on the Youghiogheny is where he spent most of his dayz. Chillin’ out maxin, relaxin’ all cool, boofing off boulders outside of the school. Just a couple of guys that were up to some good, running all the rivers in the neighborhood. He got in one little swim and his mom got scared; she said, “You’re becoming a real estate agent and cutting your hair.”