Two penguins are paddling a canoe through a desert. The penguin in front turns to the penguin in back and says, “Wears your paddle.” The second penguin says, “Sure does.”
So goes the classic and cryptic joke that has resulted in a cult-like following among a disparate group of friends. While being able to read the grammatical clue to deciphering the riddlesque punchline makes it easy for you, dear reader, I highly recommend telling it to someone—the reflexive laugh you’ll immediately receive soon followed by a deeply puzzled look will be well worth your 10 seconds of effort.
“Wears your paddle” is not only the primary point of confusion in the aforementioned joke; it’s also a mantra that my wife Nikki and I have adopted as we’ve voluntarily undertaken a slew of low-water paddling expeditions over the years. And while we don’t have any deserts in which to paddle, we certainly have worn our paddles—and raft—down via incessant contact with various riparian substrates.
Low-Water Paddling X-Plained
Most extreme sports require extraordinary environmental variables to be labeled as such. Low-water paddling, however, isn’t extreme. Rather, it’s X-stream (get it? because no water means it’s an ex-stream).
Simply put, low-water paddling is the act of paddling a craft down a river currently possessing an abnormally low amount of water. As a river’s flow, often measured as a real-time metric in cubic feet per second (CFS), drops, the substrate—the material constituting the riverbed—becomes closer to the water surface, eventually becoming completely exposed.
In other words, as the bottom drops out, a waterway becomes exponentially less navigable. A hypothetical river might offer a clean ride over a range of several thousand CFS, but at a certain point, a drop of just a few hundred CFS can result in a drastically different paddling experience. At 1,000 CFS in this hypothetical river, you’ve got your optimal flow for a fun run. Let’s say it drops down to 500 CFS. You’ll still get a good trip, but might bump a few rocks here and there, only having to exit the boat once in a shallow riffle to pull it a few feet to deeper water. But if our imaginary river drops to 400 CFS, you’ll be bopping off countless boulders and have to hop out of the boat at least 10 times to drag it through the entire length of the gravel bars that form the shallow riffles between deep pools.
You’ll scuff your rubberized raft or scrape your canoe over a variety of submerged and exposed textures, often wearing down the material and leaving paint marks on pointy rocks. You’ll bang your paddle around in the riffles and ding the blade as you leverage it between boulders like a fulcrum on which to spin the raft when you invariably get hung up on a stealth rock. You’re going to beat the shit out of your gear and shorten its lifespan. But as we say, sometimes it’s either low paddling or no paddling.
Most reasonable folks who engage in year-round paddling in West Virginia have a quiver of aquatic crafts to suit variable conditions. Nikki and I, however, own only one boat: a lime-green cataraft that we affectionately call The Booger. At 12 feet long, six feet wide, and robust enough to carry four people, The Booger is not necessarily what you’d call a nimble craft. However, it’s incredibly capable of crushing class V rapids on the Gauley and is ideal for hauling gear on overnight outings.
How Low Can You Go?
Given the exponentially decreasing amount of floating you can do as the flow drops, assessing one’s ability—and tolerance—to run a section at the lowest-possible level can involve some intense calculus. To be frank, there’s no actual limit to how low you can run a river. Theoretically, you could get geared up in neoprene and a PFD, grab a paddle in one hand, and simply drag your rig with the other across a bone-dry riverbed. Is it technically paddling? No, not really. But does it qualify as low-water paddling? I’d argue that it at least merits spirited (bourbon is my preference) debate.
Every year in April, we embark on an annual pilgrimage to float the Smoke Hole Canyon—a ruggedly spectacular wonderland where the South Branch Potomac River cuts a deep gorge through Pendleton and Grant counties. Because the South Branch Potomac flows through the rain shadow of the Allegheny Front and to the east of North Fork Mountain—the driest single ridgeline in the entire Appalachian Mountain range—it is a low-flow rio that typically offers a brief window of reliable levels for paddling in early spring.
American Whitewater, the go-to source for river levels and paddling beta across the country, lists the Smoke Hole Canyon as having a minimum recommended level of 2.5 feet on the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) gauge at Franklin, meaning that anything lower is likely to be scrapey (or bony in boater speak).
In May 2020, the first year we paddled the Smoke Hole, the river was steady at a juicy level of 3.3 feet. The Booger floated over the substrate at a steady click, requiring a few paddle strokes here and there to keep the boat tracking straight in the current. The class III Landslide Rapid was easily navigable from a technical standpoint—none of the large rocks that create the rapid were exposed—and the only challenge came in avoiding a large hole in the middle of a frothy pour-over.
In late April 2021, the South Branch Potomac was at 2.4 feet—just a smidge below the recommended level. But given our newfound love for this world-class stretch of river, we decided to test the waters and see just how low we could go. We found that The Booger, despite its hulking size, was somehow nimble enough to navigate the maze of bump rocks that cause problems once the gauge drops below 2.5 feet. Landslide, with several of its large boulders exposed, was more technical but still a breeze for our crew. The trip involved a few drag-a-boats, but nothing too horrendous. We decided that we would definitely run the Smoke Hole at 2.4 feet again, American Whitewater’s suggestion be damned!
Last year, as the annual trip approached, our building anticipation was offset by waning excitement as the river level was low with no rain in the forecast. The day of the float, the USGS gauge was at a paltry 2.17 feet and dropping. We were faced with two options: stay home and endure the inevitable FOMO of wishing we were out in one of our favorite places, or go endure the inevitable torture of dragging our boat down a considerable percentage of the Smoke Hole Canyon’s 16+ river miles. The choice was obvious: go and endure!
Nikki and I loaded up The Booger with all the hefty comforts necessary for a luxurious overnight trip—a dry bag with spare clothes, tent, and sleeping gear; a dry box filled with a two-burner stove and fuel, an iron skillet, French press, and many other camp kitchen accoutrement; a collapsible table on which to place said gear; two camp chairs; a backgammon board; and a cooler filled to the brim with you-guess-what. As Nikki and I hoisted The Booger and waddled it to the put-in, we exchanged nervous glances. The sage advice of my friend Owen rattled in my skull: If the rio is low, you can still go. Leave the luxury items at home and go ultralight backpacking-style.
The first rapid, usually a fun train of small-but-splashy waves, looked like a trickly riffle that would undoubtedly be a bony, bumpy ride—if we even made it through to begin with. Naturally, with our boat sitting low and heavy in the water, we hit the first visible rock and stopped completely. We sat there and sighed as our wise friends who run the Smoke Hole in canoes sent the riffle clean with maybe a few scrapes. We huffed and got out of The Booger, grabbing the webbing tied along the pontoons’ length and started yanking it along the rounded river rocks. In case you didn’t know, rubber is sticky and doesn’t like to slide along anything with ease. The canoeists drifted ahead, getting smaller and smaller as we reached the end of the riffle, defeated at the thought of 15.8 more miles of hell.
Fortunately, big, deep pools punctuate the benign rapids and riffles of the South Branch Potomac, providing easy passage and rest between bouts of taking The Booger for a walk. We munched snacks and sipped adult beverages in the flatwater, gazing up at the towering limestone cliffs as members of our crew cast lines from their canoes. All was well on the Smoke Hole.
Right before one particularly spectacular bend in the canyon, the river splits into two parallel channels and drops in elevation over a 100-yard-long boulder garden, offering paddlers a choice. We eyed up the options; the right channel appeared to have less water and more pointy rocks to contend with. Knowing we’d probably end up walking either way, we decided to test our luck on the left channel.
Another one of Owen’s aphorisms drifted through my blissed-out brain: “To suffer now means greatness later.”
Navigating an extended rocky riffle requires intense substrate scrutiny for choosing an optimal micro-line. When you enter a combat situation like that, a clean line is no longer an option. You’d best strap your seatbelt on and put that tray table in the upright position, cause it’s about to get turbulent. The fine line between success and failure boils down to possessing supreme boat awareness. You must be able to immediately identify which rocks you can straddle between the pontoons and which rocks you can successfully bump to set you up for the next hit. Because once you get off-line, there’s no recovering. Beyond your water-reading ability, advanced maneuvers are often required. You might have to intentionally snag a tube on a rock, bounce up and down on the tubes to induce temporary buoyancy, and take the requisite paddle strokes to throw a full 360-degree spin before breaking free—anything to avoid getting out of the boat.
Into the cascading riffle we went, utilizing every low-water paddling skill in the toolbox. We maintained laser-focus as we bopped down the fork, relying on our fine-tuned rapport to operate as a team without saying much. Each successive rock bump and spin move inched us closer to the big pool below—we started to think we might actually have a chance. Left here! Backstroke there! Watch out for that rock! Hit this one! Lift yer ass up to unweight the pontoon! As we scraped off the final rock and entered the eddy of the big pool at the bottom of the slide, we whooped and hollered as if we had just successfully survived a class V rapid on the Upper Gauley, despite a near-zero chance of death.
Miles later, still very much at the back of the pack, we approached the Landslide rapid. I stood up in the floor of the boat to get a look and gulped as a jumbled maze of jagged boulders lay in place of what, in previous years, had been a river-wide rapid. There was but one navigable path through the jumble, and it barely looked wide enough for The Booger. Over the incessant white noise of the whitewater, I shouted commands at Nikki to take a backstroke, rudder, and paddle hard forward as I echoed the sequence of paddle strokes.
We slotted into the drop perfectly and immediately heard the familiar squeaky, smudgy sound of rubber on rock as we wedged between two boulders. We sat there for a moment before the surge of water behind The Booger—now serving as a cork for a majority of the river—popped us out into the swirling pool below. Thrilled that we made it through without having to exit the boat amid the biggest rapid, we tapped paddle blades before eddying out and mooring The Booger to a tree at our riverside campsite.
The next morning, I woke with a pounding headache from the night’s revelry and stumbled down to the cobbled shore to dip my face in the cold water. The Booger, which most definitely had not moved on its own volition, was significantly more beached than when we first parked it. My heart dropped, but not nearly as much as the river had overnight.
But the inevitable trials and tribulations would have to wait—we were still enjoying the high vibes of river camp and had a hearty meal to enjoy. Our friend Geo cheffed up his classic Smoke Hole breakfast of freshly harvested ramps, morels, and trout. We brewed pot after pot of coffee, sure to make heavy use of the heavy kitchen gear. Some things, like a riverside breakfast with your favorite people, can only be accomplished via arduous effort. Another one of Owen’s aphorisms drifted through my blissed-out brain: To suffer now means greatness later. Lounging in the sun under the neon-green sycamore leaves, I thought about how we sat in the calming eye of the storm between bouts of suffering.
As we broke down camp and secured our gear in The Booger, anxiety crept back in as the second bout of suffering was about to begin. We knew we had about 11 miles of paddling—and boat dragging—between us and the take-out in Petersburg. By now, you can guess how the remainder of the trip went: blissful periods of floating through pools punctuated by fuming bouts of taking our fully loaded boat for an aquatic hike. After one particularly long schlep, we made the executive decision that, to reduce weight, we had to drink and eat everything left in the cooler.
The highpoint of the day was our famous charcuterie lunch, an annual tradition that is presented and enjoyed at the confluence where the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River (affectionately referred to as the NoFoSoBraPotomo) joins the South Branch proper. As each member of the flotilla added delicacies like cured meats, smoked oysters, and fine cheeses to the spread, the sense of camaraderie that comes standard with group outings grew with the smorgasbord. We joked that the only reason we go and do these hair-brained adventures is to enjoy classy meals in pristine locales.
Once the NoFoSoBraPotomo adds its crystalline waters to the South Branch, the river swells in size, meaning that the tortuous part of the journey was (mostly) over. While we still bumped and scraped along several shallow riffles, the experience was closer to a traditional rafting trip. As we pulled up to the take-out and broke down The Booger, we experienced a familiar emotional paradox, simultaneously elated that the hard work was done but deflated that another glorious journey down the Smoke Hole had come to an end.
When we got home, I checked the USGS gauge records to see just how low the South Branch Potomac had fallen. By the time we took off, the river had dropped to 1.9 feet, smashing our previous low record and setting an absolute minimum level at which we would most definitely, positively, never, ever run it again… or would we?
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and would like to publicly apologize to our beloved Booger for all the aquatic abuse we’ve put her through.