In 1934, the Hawks Nest Dam and Hawks Nest Tunnel—a three-mile tube that diverts water to power a manufacturing plant in the town of Alloy—were constructed on the New River downstream of Fayetteville. As the New’s thrashing waters were calmed by the dam, the raptors for which the area was named fled the coop and Hawks Nest Lake inundated the rocky banks of the gorge. As often happens with a major damming project, what was submerged by the lake was lost to history. But in September 2020, Brookfield Energy, the company that manages the dam, drained Hawks Nest Lake by 25 feet for eight weeks so maintenance could be performed on Hawks Nest Tunnel.
As the murky waters receded, the massive boulders that create the bed of the ancient New River were exposed for the first time in 86 years, forming rapids that few living people—if any—had ever seen. While the raptors didn’t flock back to Hawks Nest, whitewater aficionadas did, arriving in adventurous pursuit of a fleeting opportunity to paddle what is now but a memory, submerged once again under the mysterious waters of Hawks Nest Lake. This is the story of the Lost New.
Hawks Nest Lake starts upstream at Teays Landing, a commercial rafting takeout just downstream of Old Nasty, the final rapid on the famed Lower New whitewater stretch. From Teays, the lake meanders around a few flooded bends of the New River before reaching Hawks Nest Dam.
When the drawdown was initiated on September 8, 2020, it took only 24 hours for the lake to drop 25 feet, according to veteran whitewater paddler and raft guide Dave Bassage. He put out a call on Facebook to see who might want to float down a flash of history. The eternally stoked Fayetteville whitewater community, not one to let an opportunity go to waste, jumped right in. An initial scouting mission discovered two significant rapids; a later paddling of the tailwaters by Bassage revealed a third rapid closer to the dam.
Prior to putting on, Bassage dove into the annals of history, looking for any record of these rapids and potential descents. It’s likely that Native Americans had navigated some stretches of the New River long before white settlers arrived, but the first recorded descent of the New River was accomplished in the late 1800s by a pioneering party of paddlers, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, in flat-bottomed, wooden boats called batteaux.
A National Park Service article titled “Batteaux on the New” states that “Marshall’s expedition travelled, with great difficulty, downstream past present day Hawks Nest State Park, naming the spot for the abundance of ospreys they sighted. Washington’s dream of the southern Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was dashed by the whitewater rapids of the lower New River Gorge, which Marshall reported as being too wild for commercial batteau navigation.”
Because there is no record of what rapids these intrepid individuals did or didn’t run, it’s highly plausible that these rapids, given their challenging nature and the boat technology of the early 19th century, had yet to see a human descent.
When the lake is at regular levels, the car-sized boulders that form Old Nasty sit a few feet out of the water, creating a few riffles and a light current that can be navigated on an open-top kayak. When the New is up, Old Nasty becomes a significant wave train that offers one last bit of excitement before paddlers takeout at Teays.
Old Nasty—nasty only in name—is normally tamed by the lake. But as the bottom dropped out, “New Old Nasty” came roaring back, a veritable beast suddenly worthy of its moniker. According to Bassage, after the drawdown took place, the rocks that normally create the light riffles became the entrance gates to a 200-yard-long rapid, offering a riparian revenge just waiting to devour unsuspecting paddlers. “Old Nasty got much, much bigger than it ever was before with three significant drops,” Bassage said. “The middle drop had a hole that looked a lot like Greyhound Bus Stopper [on the Lower New], and the bottom drop had this kind of curling rooster tail of water.”
Next up was a brand-new, river-wide rapid that featured a large central hole, multiple slot moves on the river-right side, and an easier tongue of fast-moving water on river-left. Given the clean line on the left side, which would allow a paddler to easily avoid the dangerous hole, Bassage leaned on his decades of whitewater experience to estimate a class III difficulty rating.
On the afternoon of September 11, Bassage rallied with a group of paddlers: his paddling partner Nicole Borth, with whom he had run the class V Upper Gauley River earlier that morning; Dru Goines, a friend of Borth’s; and Fayetteville locals Melanie Seiler Hames and her husband, Travis Hames. They geared up at Fayette Station, just upstream of the hulking New River Gorge Bridge, for what they thought would be the first descent of the new rapid.
Borth, a yoga instructor and nutritionist based in Clayton, Georgia, initially met Bassage over a decade ago while paddling the Upper Gauley. She hadn’t paddled with Bassage in nearly a decade and reached out to him in spring 2020 while searching for a new paddling partner to get out with on bigger water. When Bassage obliged, they planned a trip to run the Upper Gauley come September. In a serendipitous twist, their planned run just happened to take place during the drawdown, on the morning of the day Bassage decided to take the maiden voyage down the Lost New. “After the Gauley, Dave said, “Hey I’ve got this thing I want to do,” and I was just lucky enough to be along for the ride,” Borth said.
Unbeknownst to them, Fayetteville kayaker and whitewater guide Matt Zickafoose had scored the true first descent in a kayak the evening of September 10, just before Bassage and Borth nabbed what they thought was the first descent of the Lost New.
Blissfully unaware of Zickafoose’s descent, Bassage and Borth, paddling a two-person Shredder raft, lined up on river right to take a narrow slot move. Because they scouted the rapid from river left, they misjudged the size of the slot and were forced to make a last-second move to a larger slot that offered safer passage. “That change of plan added to the excitement,” Bassage said. “We had already done the Upper Gauley earlier that day, so [Nicole and I] were really in tune with each other. We threw the right paddle strokes and made it through clean; that made it extra fun that we had to improvise.”
Borth said the rapid went seamlessly even with the last-second line change. “We barely talked, paddling with Dave is so fluid,” she said. “It was one of the best whitewater experiences I’ve ever had. It’s just magical to be on the water with him.”
Travis Hames, a renowned river surfer, opted to run the rapid in an inflatable kayak while Seiler Hames, one of the region’s top standup paddleboarders, undoubtedly earned the first paddleboard descent. “I could see the current on the left side and weave between the breaking waves and the pour-overs to find a smooth line for the paddleboard, so that I’m not punching through a lot of breaking whitewater, which separates you from the board,” she said. “It went smoothly, and I was able to maintain my line at the bottom after passing the hole in the center. I stayed on my feet and got two nice big waves at the bottom; it feels amazing to accomplish any bits of whitewater on a paddleboard.”
Now that the descent was completed, it was time to name the rapid. The honor was given to Bassage, who, after discussing some of the options with Borth, decided on New Love—an homage to the New River and Tom Love, the late inventor of the beloved Shredder raft, the very craft in which they accomplished their descent. “I had a couple of names I was thinking of, and I settled on New Love because it was a newly exposed rapid on the New,” Bassage said. “I also wanted to honor Tom Love, who had just passed away a month or two before the descent.”
Although New Love was the star of the Lost New, Bassage said that New Old Nasty offered the biggest challenge. “There was actually more carnage that happened in New Old Nasty than in New Love; part of that was because in New Love, you’d scout it and pick your line and everybody pretty much knew what they in for,” Bassage said. “In New Old Nasty, you’re pretty much running it on the fly, so some misjudged and got worked in a hole. It was a test of your ability to read and run whitewater.”
Bassage, always one to do his homework, also scouted a takeout spot before his crew’s maiden voyage. “I met a landowner that had a cabin and gave us permission to take out there anytime we wanted to,” he said. “Ironically, as we came paddling up to his cabin the first time, he and his buddies were there, and there was a guy on the porch playing “Dueling Banjos” on his banjo.”
That simple ascending and descending melody was made immensely popular in the film “Deliverance,” which took place on the Chattooga River, a famed whitewater stretch that cuts through the Georgia and into South Carolina, which is Borth’s home river. “We had an epic takeout experience, and to hear “Dueling Banjos” was just so cool,” she said.
According to Seiler Hames, the area where Hawks Nest Lake would normally be flush with the cabin was now a steep, 40-foot scramble up smooth, round boulders to get to the cabin’s porch. “We had to pull our boats up, and here’s this great multi-generational family hanging out, cooking food, offering us beers, and just having a good old time,” she said. “Then we had to hike the train tracks and trail all the way back to the cars, the take-out was a whole journey in itself.”
Days later, Bassage returned to continue down beyond the cabin and explore the final stretch of the Lost New. He dubbed the final rapid Flirtation. Nestled just above the silty tailwaters swirling among the sloughing cliffs of mud, Flirtation was a mild rapid, offering a glimpse of what would could be if Hawks Nest Dam were to be removed completely. “I’m sure it would get a lot bigger,” he said. “I named it Flirtation because it’s a just a hint of what might be there.”
After running Flirtation, Bassage had to paddle back upstream to reach a safe takeout point above the quicksand-like banks of silt. Along the way, he noticed other freshly exposed items—loads of detritus that had sunk to the bottom of the lake over the decades. Bassage, who also works for the New River Conservancy, took advantage of the low water and organized a trash cleanup with the National Park Service and local organizations. Over 40 crafts of various sizes showed up, resulting in the removal of “hundreds of tires” and nearly as many bags of trash, Bassage said.
But, as the Debbie Downers of the world say, all good things must come to an end. And so it was that just eight brief weeks after the Lost New formed, the flood gates closed and Hawks Nest Lake sent the blossoming riverbed back to its watery grave. “Now that the lake is back up, I miss it,” Bassage said. “I feel really privileged that I got to experience something where there’s a very good chance it won’t exist again in my lifetime.”
Seiler Hames reflected on the Lost New as an opportunity to connect with those who came before us. “I thought back to the Native Americans, with this being Shawnee and Cherokee land, standing on the riverbank looking at that rapid for the very first time as they might have seen it,” she said. “It connects us to the river, and to those people who came into this area for the very first time to live and hunt and play here. It gives me that feeling of a relationship with those first inhabitants.”
For throngs of people around the world, 2020 was a lost year of sorts. Inundated under the societal floodwaters of a global pandemic, the story of the Lost New briefly emerged above the proverbial surface as a fleeting moment of joy, its name apropos for the era. “Every time I go out and run through Old Nasty now when I’m guiding, I look and think Oh, I remember a year ago this was so much fun. Now I see that little hint of what I know is down underneath there, and it just makes me smile.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and is still dealing with the FOMO of missing out on the Lost New.