There’s a certain heartbreak when the final snow of the year begins to melt in Canaan Valley. We savor the season’s remaining offerings like sweet words of affection. Searching for any kernels that nature—or retired snow guns—may have left for us, we ski every last turn we can find. Brown landscapes emerge from decaying fields of white and the sky turns a perpetual gray. Crestfallen at winter’s impending end, I’m invariably reassured that the season is approaching for a canoe trip down Smokehole Canyon, a journey through history and natural wonders that gives us space to reflect.
In the numerous high tributaries of the South Branch of the Potomac River’s watershed, thick groves of rhododendron and mountain laurel choke seasonal streams, making navigation prohibitive for all but the most technically skilled kayakers. A little further downstream, however, one can float through pockets of wilderness during a short but vastly fulfilling paddling season when it is wise to carefully monitor the rain gauges in the days prior to an adventure.
This upper stretch of the South Branch, the eminently wild Smokehole Canyon, is generally runnable March through May, but is heavily dependent on seasonal spring rainfall. Below the meanders of the undulating limestone canyon, wilderness transitions to intermittent farmsteads. After joining with the North Fork of the South Branch, the waters roll through Petersburg, Moorefield, then into the Trough to Romney, and eventually to the confluence with the Shenandoah at Harper’s Ferry on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. With each successive confluence, the river can be floated later and later into the summer.
Departing my home base of Canaan Valley, I crest the Eastern Continental Divide to a dryer, warmer climate, where the hoary frost transitions abruptly into chartreuse buds populating hardwoods that welcome the new season. Driving through verdant pastoral landscapes, I reflect on the thousands of soldiers who trained here during World War II and took advantage of the area’s many escarpments—Seneca Rocks the most notable among them. I nod to the anglers and paddlers seeking both subsistence and adventure—or some measure of both—and soon enough come upon Smoke Hole Road.
Crossing the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River, I snake my way along the inspiring North Fork Mountain. From further up the mountain, there are soaring views to the north of the Allegheny Front and the valley below. To the south, there are occasional glimpses into the upper stretches of the South Branch, where the storied canyon between Cave and North Fork mountains begins. Blue Rock, a 1,000-foot limestone escarpment, beckons far below.
It’s rare to find lengthy, roadless stretches of wild navigable rivers in the eastern U.S. West Virginia offers a handful, Smokehole Canyon among them. The gorge is, as Del McCoury put it, sweet Appalachia. To know it is to know the heart of the Mountain State.
A Smokey Past
Though no one is entirely certain of the origin of the canyon’s name, there are several theories. One argues it comes from the fog that regularly hovers on the river, while another posits it’s because of the fires from moonshining stills that frequented the area during Prohibition. The most common hypothesis is that the epithet comes from Native Americans who used one or more of the gorge’s many caves for smoking meat.
It’s disappointingly difficult to find any authentic documentation of the canyon’s indigenous residents. Though today there are no federally recognized tribes in West Virginia and less than one percent of the state’s population identifies as Native American, numerous peoples lived in and moved to the area —Delaware, Cherokee, Saponi and Shawnee among them. For thousands of years, native families resided in the area of Smokehole Canyon, until they were forcibly relocated or succumbed to lethal settler maladies, including smallpox, tuberculosis, and cholera.
In the Smokehole region, it’s clear that numerous conflicts arose between white settlers and the increasingly displaced Shawnee, including brutal raids on Fort Upper Tract and Fort Seybert. These fortifications were commissioned by George Washington to shield settlers as lands were gradually, but systematically, stolen and white families scratched out a homesteading life. The more readily available historical sources, however, are incomplete at best and problematic at worst. For example, one cites, without necessary context, “Indian depredations, crimes and murders.” We can—and must—do better at interpreting our often-brutal history more objectively.
Far more capably documented is the chronicle of the canyon’s settlement by European American families, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. For them, it was a hard subsistence life of farming, foraging, hunting, and fishing. Paddling down the river, one can still see remnants of the road that facilitated commerce with Petersburg, the terminus of the traditional Smokehole float. Confederates reportedly mined upstream for saltpeter before being driven out by Union forces.
In 1927, much of the area was incorporated into the Monongahela National Forest. That period witnessed numerous conservation projects undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Moonshine stills are said to have populated the area at that time. The Great Depression hit hard, leading to a homesteader exodus and lasting population decline. Though sparse, resilient communities remain scattered throughout the region.
Upstream without a Canoe
The first time I paddled the Upper Smokehole Canyon was a haphazard misadventure involving a janky, overloaded flatwater canoe, a panicked (though otherwise delightful) dog unaccustomed to whitewater, and more eagerness than wit. Chasing after an errant kayak lodged against a submerged log, we wrapped our canoe around a large boulder in the swift water. The local rescue team was unable to recover the canoe but had great success with the kayak, using an impressive z-drag rope technique that pulled with so much force it shot the kayak into the woods like a missile.
This is not how one generally experiences the Smokehole, so be reassured it’s as approachable a canyon as it is glorious. My virgin trip was an anomaly, but it’s prudent to have a practiced crew with a basic sense of coordinating a craft through mild whitewater. Alternatively, be prepared for a frigid swim. Regardless, be sure to bring a few backup layers as the canyon can be disarmingly cold.
Where exactly the canyon begins is a matter of some conversation, but the more commonly run sections start roughly around Eagle Rock. The crag is among the more prominent of the many limestone outcrops that attract raptors and is reportedly named after a Revolutionary War soldier who lived and was buried in the area.
Below that is a series of class II/II+ rapids interspersed with gentle pools that invite trout, many intermittently released from upstream to the delight of anglers and their families that await their smoky dinner fodder with excitedly clinking cutlery. I usually run the upper section before breakfast, putting in at the low-water bridge not far from Shreve’s Store, long a center of local chatter and a cultural hub in its own right.
The Upper Canyon section ends where the road does, at Big Bend Campground, nestled in a dramatic meander that betrays the river’s age. We bivy there for the night before entering the gorge. With two days of provisions and a crew of grinning adventurers, nature-seekers, and all-around mountain freaks, we go forth seeking solace, camaraderie, hijinks, and adventure.
A Geologic Wonderland
It’s theorized that the river here was once subterranean before the ground collapsed, a logical hypothesis given the numerous karst features and caves that populate the area. Not far away, the Lost River disappears at Lost River State Park and then reappears some ways off as the Cacapon River. The Cave Mountain anticline, with its many visible thrust faults, offers a profusion of cliffs that delight the eye, sometimes soaring up abruptly from the river for a thousand feet.
Erosion is a powerful force. We just happen to be in this place at this moment in time, following eons of corrosion of a once primordial landscape. To contemplate it is to feel small. By reminding us of our insignificance, the river liberates us. To be present here is a gift.
In 1965, a significant portion of the gorge was protected through inclusion in the Spruce Knob–Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, the first national recreation area designated by Congress to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Nature Conservancy and the WV Division of Forestry played important roles in conserving the area. Together, they’ve ensured the protection of unique flora and contiguous habitat for bears, deer, birds, bats, amphibians, insects, and a diversity of other critters. The landscape cultivates unparalleled opportunities for paddling, climbing, fishing, hiking, camping, and other activities that allow us to unwind and connect with nature and our humanity. The canyon is home to sensitive, rare, and threatened species, so should you decide to visit, it’s incumbent you do so with a light touch and minimal impact.
Majesty & Morels
Our crew pilots a variety of craft, from canoes to rafts, duckies, and kayaks, navigating a series of riffles interspersed with serene pools in between. The calm periods allow us to gaze in wonderment at the many crags, waterfalls, caves, deer, and waterfowl that populate the canyon. Though our vessels are diverse, our commonality is our desire to connect with the natural world.
We fulfill it on an afternoon break, exploring the sandy shore foraging for morels. I excitedly identify and harvest a handful, and sauté them that evening with butter, salt, and ramps foraged the prior month in the dense firs of Canaan Valley. My modest umami offerings furnish a headlamp-illuminated dinner table almost as comforting as my company and the vast landscape that surrounds us.
Far from sizable towns and their corresponding lights, the gorge offers stunning, robust views of the night sky. Slowly drifting away from the campfire, I rediscover my insignificance under a Milky Way so vigorous it drips down on me like a mist. Maya Angelou once asked, “Why do we journey, muttering like rumors among the stars?” Her query centered on love; mine is more focused on gratitude. That sentiment is reaffirmed in the morning with my merry company, who generously share their trout, morels, eggs scrambled with ramps, and other local fare. The sense of community is palpable.
Arm in arm, we gaze up in wonderment. Motivated for a side adventure, we scramble up the canyon walls to a notably dryer environment that reminds me of my years in Colorado. We ascend to an overlook where, breathing heavily, we find perspective by gazing down on riffling meanders and across to prominent ridgelines. A red-tailed hawk rises above us, floating with ease on the thermals, its throaty call echoing across the abyss. Our conversation ceases naturally to take it all in. “KEE-AAH…KEE-AAH.”
The next day’s adventures allow for abundant rock gardens and wildlife complimented by a couple of modestly technical class II+ rapids, gradually descending to the confluence with the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac. That fork flows down from Seneca Rocks through the spectacular Hopeville Canyon before swelling the South Branch’s volume at one of the canyon’s last crags.
Soon thereafter is the most intimidating river feature, the decommissioned Royal Glen Dam. Paddling it is relatively straightforward, with the line always run at river-left to avoid any remaining rebar. In this region, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once planned the misguided Royal Glen Reservoir. It would have inundated more than a thousand acres, ostensibly to reduce flooding risks in Petersburg and improve opportunities for flat water recreation. The project would have obliterated the Smokehole Canyon as we know it. The remainder of the float after the dam and prior to the takeout in Petersburg involves higher water and a series of shelves that, at the right levels, offer fun rooster-tail waves that may swamp a novice canoeist.
Legends of the canyon abound, some apocryphal. “Clean is the Smokehole,” wrote a paddler in a 1964 essay expounding on the river’s countless attributes. Miles from civilization and lightly trammeled, the gorge is a journey back in time, a sojourn to a place where we are reminded that we are but specks of dust in the cosmos. I long to return.
John Garder is a resident of Canaan Valley. When he’s not doing his job of protecting the places that inspire us, he’s likely off on some hairbrained adventure.
Feature photo: An old homestead perched along the shore of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Photo by Dylan Jones