High up on the summit of Cheat Mountain, a spectacular river begins its journey to the sea. On the way, it passes through the heart of West Virginia’s old-growth red spruce forests, tumbles over a spectacular horseshoe waterfall, and meanders through some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Appalachia. Meet Shavers Fork, one of the premier wilderness river trips in West Virginia and the gem of the Cheat River watershed.
Shavers is considered one of the Five Forks of Cheat, meeting with the Black Fork in Parsons before joining the Dry, Laurel, and Glady forks to form the mainstem of the Cheat. Its upper reaches constitute the highest river in the eastern United States. An astounding 97-percent of the river’s basin is forested, and two-thirds of it flows through public lands, including the magnificent Monongahela National Forest and the Upper Shavers Fork Reserve, a 96-acre section of the watershed owned by The Nature Conservancy (the preserve is open to the public and contains miles of maintained hiking trails).
An astounding 97-percent of the river’s basin is forested, and two-thirds of it flows through public lands. Its upper reaches constitute the highest river in the eastern United States.
With rapids ranging from class I and II in its lower course and up to class IV in the upper reaches, Shavers Fork offers plenty of overnight options for everything from canoes and duckies to kayaks and packrafts. The superb class II section running from the Route 33 bridge at Bowden to the Riverview Chapel in Porterwood has become an annual pilgrimage for myself and some close friends over the years.
Last year was no different, and so it was on a rainy afternoon in the middle of May that we pushed off and dipped our paddles in the river. Our crew was four humans and one dog deep, and we piled into two catarafts. Our two boats were loaded with everything we’d need—drybags with clothes and hammocks, cooking gear, fishing poles, and, of course, coolers loaded to the brim with plenty of beer and bacon.
When we first set off, Shavers was flowing nicely at 1,100 cubic feet per second (CFS)—“church flows” according to one avid boater in our crew. In August of the previous year, three of us took two canoes and a duckie down this same section with flows between 300 and 500 CFS—many sections were shallow and included scraping the bottom and dragging the boats for few yards here and there, but more exposed rocks made for some fun and technical maneuvers through the rapids with our smaller crafts.
This time around, there was plenty of water separating the bottom of the river from the bottom of our boats. After the first few miles, the rain quickly gave way to brilliant and dynamic blue skies. The higher water levels washed out many of the picky rapids we navigated the previous year, diminishing the typical class II difficulty to a few class I waves and some rocky maneuvers. Considering it was my first time guiding a boat, I was slightly relieved, and the forgiving waves provided the perfect avenue for my paddling partner and me to build our paddling rapport and try some calculated moves like ferrying and surfing.
Although the current was steady, some of the bigger pools gave our friend Owen plenty of opportunities to break out his rod and toss out some casts. Shavers is loaded with bass and both native and stocked trout, and he had little trouble getting bite after bite. While he fished from his boat, my girlfriend Nikki and I ferried from eddy to eddy, cracking beers when the recirculating currents were strong enough to hold us in the spin cycle.
Pristine & Primitive
As the sun dipped below the gorge’s gorgeous horizon high above us, we decided it was time to start scoping out where we’d hunker down for the night. We spotted a pristine island with a rocky shore on river right that featured a mature forest canopy covering an open floor flush with ferns. After looking on a map, we found our island—one of several about halfway down the run in a serpentine section of river that snakes through a steep, forested canyon in the heart of the Monongahela National Forest.
Shavers Fork is considered one of the highest quality streams in West Virginia, and its thriving riparian ecosystem is living proof. Along the way, we saw predatory birds like an osprey, a great barred owl, and several bald eagles; several species of native trout and bass; fingernail clams; and macroinvertebrates like hellgrammites. The water that flows through this magical realm is tea-colored, stained deep red from tannins in decomposing spruce and hemlock needles.
Shavers Fork is considered one of the highest quality streams in West Virginia, and its thriving riparian ecosystem is living proof.
Bacon & Solitude
Flows peaked overnight at about 1,150 CFS, and continued dropping from 800 CFS when we put on the river the next morning. There’s nothing quite like a breakfast of bacon on a quiet forested island, and there’s really nothing comparable to packing up your gear and setting off with nothing on your back but the sun and a PFD. Waterfalls gushed from steep hillsides as the bright sun illuminated the brilliant green explosion of spring in Appalachia. We floated through mile after mile in pure solitude—not another soul was on the river this day, save for a few folks on ATVs on the final mile of the run.
Lower flows the second day meant even longer floats through the deep, clear pools between the rapids. Owen reeled in trout and rock bass while Nikki and I maintained a slow and scenic spin with interim dips of our paddles. By the end of trip, flows had dropped to just under 700 CFS—significantly slower and more relaxed, but still high enough for the loaded boats to avoid scraping the bottom. With tired shoulders and wide smiles, we caught the familiar site of the River View Chapel and paddled into the final eddy. Church flows, indeed.
Dylan Jones is managing editor of Highland Outdoors. If you have an old raft that you’d like to part with, you should email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.