Among the throngs of visitors who have explored the trails and vistas of Blackwater Falls State Park, only a select few have ventured below the base of West Virginia’s highest waterfall to the tumultuous section of whitewater that rumbles beyond. These bold, brave souls are the kayakers, who come one by one to test their mettle when high water calls.
While others are drawn to the picturesque 60-foot waterfall cascading over the sandstone cliff, kayakers wait until it becomes a thundering wall of root beer-colored water sending frothy waves pulsating through the canyon below; they come to paddle one of the most challenging and renowned sections of river in Appalachia.
While Blackwater Falls State Park is known as a tourist destination, kayakers view the Blackwater as more than just a pretty face. The three sections of world-class whitewater—the Upper Blackwater, Lower Blackwater, and North Fork of the Blackwater—combine to provide an array of options for elite kayakers at various water levels. The river’s continuous disposition and high consequences mean all three class V sections require tremendous technical skills and mental prowess.
The Upper Blackwater begins below Blackwater Falls—which is illegal to run—and stacks back-to-back rapids in the steep canyon below. The Lower Blackwater is the more manageable little brother of the Upper. Next door (and flowing into the Lower Blackwater) is the North Fork of the Blackwater, less than a mile long and packed with waterfalls and slides around every bend. The notoriety of all three sections puts the river on the bucket list of many paddlers. While the reputation of the river keeps it nagging at the corners of many a paddler’s dream, for others it litters their nightmares.
“The noise when you’re walking down to that put-in, you can hear the falls upstream, that was the most scared I’ve ever been at any put-in,” says Nick “Nugget” Parsons when he described his first time kayaking the Upper Blackwater. “I always thought it was something I couldn’t do.”
A whitewater raft guide turned kayaker, Parsons quickly excelled at kayaking. From his home base near the adventure town of Fayetteville, he took on tough runs such as the Lower Meadow and Manns Creek, but the Blackwater always loomed on the horizon of his paddling progression.
“There is something about West Virginia being your home state that makes you really want to do all the runs here,” Parsons says. “I don’t know why but that river just really stood out to me.”
The Blackwater is nestled in a rural area of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, just outside the sleepy town of Davis. The notorious river was far enough from Fayetteville to make it off the beaten path for Parsons, but close enough that he had heard its horror stories. As he prepared to run the Upper Blackwater for the first time, Parsons scoured the web for information in a way he had never done for previous outings.
“I looked up all the accident reports and read through all that,” he said. Between the research, watching videos of the section, and the stories he’d heard, Parsons’s nerves began to build in a way that was unfamiliar to the gung-ho paddler. “My mental game was ruined by all that Youtube scouting,” Parsons says.
It was Jay Moffatt, a kayaker who once lived right on the Blackwater canyon rim and paddled across the globe, who encouraged Parsons to join a crew for his inaugural run.
“I should have spent more time scouting that first rapid,” Parsons says. “But my legs were shaking real bad so I got in my boat real quick so they wouldn’t see it.”
While the Upper B beat Parsons down his first time, he went back for a second lap that day and has since returned to paddle the river many times.
“I think it’s really a hell of a benchmark for somebody’s mental game, if you can get into something like that and keep your cool, you definitely have a stability and a confidence,” Parsons says. ”That’s something you work for, on the Blackwater a mistake in one rapid puts you right into the next.”
Because of the Upper’s high consequences, Moffatt, who led Parsons down for the first time, says while he has paddled the section countless times, he’s selective about who he takes into the canyon.
“I really only want to lead people down that have far more than enough skill to do the run,” Moffatt says. “The Upper Blackwater is no ‘step-up’ run.”
The Lower Blackwater can be paddled by those with less skill at normal flows, but is still a risky class V run. According to Moffatt, the Blackwater has had a number of fatalities and plenty of close calls, noting he prefers to paddle with those who share his motto: know your limit and stay within it.
Moffatt learned this lesson first-hand on the Blackwater at the ripe age of 21 and vividly remembers his first encounter with the dark, tannin-stained water.
Fresh out of college where he learned to roll in a pool in Missoula, Montana, Moffatt quickly progressed as he padded across Montana and Idaho. The summer of ’96 brought him to West Virginia, where he was paddling everyday on the New and Gauley rivers. When fall came, he decided to join a crew of paddlers on a trip to the storied Blackwater.
“We get up there, it’s a good medium level, I put in at 100 Yard Dash and immediately flip over,” Moffatt recalls. “I roll up, pinball, and beater the rest of the way down the rapid.”
Moffatt hiked out at the bottom of the rapid—the first of 10 on the Upper.
“I realized I was way in over my head,” he says. He had less than a year of experience at the time. “This was a place where you have to be on your A-game and you better have some skills.”
It would take a few seasons of experience before Moffatt returned to the canyon to complete the Upper. Now 20 years and thousands of river miles later, Moffatt considers the Blackwater to be a “bread and butter run.” But he doesn’t take paddling the notorious river lightly.
“Mindset is paramount but preparation and conditioning are key as well,” he says. “I personally need to do push-ups and pull-ups in order to keep in shape, as well as mountain biking as much as possible.”
In addition to being mentally and physically prepared, Moffatt prioritizes paddling with others who have a similar safety standard, carrying rescue and emergency equipment at all times—especially on remote runs.
For those who aren’t kayakers, it can be difficult to understand what drives people to descend into remote canyons and put their lives on the line for an adrenaline rush. Whether it be a section of the Blackwater or another class V river, paddlers agree that while this level of whitewater is not to be taken lightly, it doesn’t mean ambitious boaters shouldn’t give it a shot.
“It’s that risk and reward, you could have the same exact line in a rapid that had class II consequences and it’s not as fun,” Parsons says. ”When there’s something at stake, it’s feeling alive, feeling in the moment.”
For Parsons, it’s all about the fine line between feeling alive and staying alive. Parsons portages around the Sticky Fingers rapid on the Blackwater every time he runs the section because of the potentially deadly consequences of making one wrong move.
“A lot of my buddies fire up that Sticky Fingers rapid, but it’s one move, it’s not a good boof, there’s nothing fun about it,” Parsons says. “I just look at something like that and I’m just like ‘you know man, that ain’t fair to mom and dad.’”
Parsons’s philosophy is that risk needs to be evaluated based on one’s skill level. “You know our lifestyle, it’s a selfish lifestyle, but there just comes a level of selfishness that I’m not OK with,” he says. “Those other guys that run it, they’re better than me so it’s more of a risk for me to do it. If my parents weren’t alive I’d fire that shit right up, but I don’t want to do that to them.”
Despite consideration of his parents, Parsons doesn’t plan to scale back his kayaking anytime soon.
“People just have a preconceived notion that kayaking is so dangerous, but if you really line your skill level up with what you are paddling, it is pretty safe,” Parsons says. “Half the time, maybe more, when something bad happens, it’s because you’re paddling outside of your skill level. Every time I’ve been hurt it’s because of that.”
West Virginia’s Blakwater River has claimed enough lives to prove the points of Parsons and Moffatt. Their stories and relationship with the Backwater go to show that consistency in paddling is about as reliable as the water of a free-flowing mountain river. But while skill levels, water levels, and even rapids change over time, one thing does remain consistent—the vibrant spirit of those who paddle the Blackwater.
Juniper Rose is a freelance journalist, kayaker and raft guide covering all things whitewater for Highland Outdoors.