There’s a witchy window in West Virginia when autumn’s golden glow sweeps across the mountains, when nights become cool and crisp. The wide ribbons of deciduous forest that cover our wrinkled landscape explode from their homogenous green into a radiant display of fall color. Most mornings, mysterious fog rises from rivers and valleys while mist ascends from the transforming trees that blanket our corner of the Appalachian Mountains.
The notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that rule the New River Gorge during winter, spring, and summer become somewhat more predictable. As schools reopen and summer’s frenzy quiets down, one might think we have turned in for the season, but don’t be fooled. Fayetteville in the fall is an outdoor junkie’s fairy tale. There is nary a moment when something doesn’t beckon you to get outside and play.
I’ve always loved getting on the river early in the morning, when the fog is still rising from the water and the trees. On one such misty late-October morning in 2019, I found myself on the banks of the New River assembling my witch costume. This was not another ordinary day on the river, but rather a quite extraordinary one. I was gearing up, alongside my fellow witches, for the first-annual Witches and Wizards Paddle, an annual event hosted by the Historic Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).
As we gathered in the parking lot above the frothing Fayette Station Rapid, there was a quiet excitement building against the stunning backdrop of the New River’s golden corridor. Laughter filled the misty air as we hugged and checked out one another’s boards and traded costume items. I kept thinking my outfit would be better with a cape, but noticed that no one else had cam-strapped a straw broom to their paddle, so I felt adequately prepared for the magical outing.
I caught up with my friend Julie Jones about her daughters, one of whom was my former student and is now a fellow river guide. Julie just so happened to have the perfect witch’s cape for me because, like a true mom, she brought extras. That’s how small towns work: someone will always have something right when you need it. I also caught up with my friend Mara Petretich, and noted that her daughter Rose seemed much taller since the last time I had seen her. Time seems to fly by and stand still all at once around here; the kids always grow up too quickly.
With costumes assembled and SUP boards fully inflated, we slipped off into the New River and paddled upstream into the moody mist. The gorge looks stunning no matter the season, and this morning was no exception. The walls of the ancient canyon were vibrant, an explosion of burnt oranges and blistering yellows, flaming reds intermingled with deep purples and pinks. Thanks to the calm nights and low flows, the river was crystal clear, a welcome change from summer’s turbulent brown waters.
Drifting upstream on a New River fall morning with my fellow witches was surreal, erie, calm, and beautiful. There were giggles and drifting conversations. There were quiet moments of solitude interrupted by bursts of laughter that rippled across the water and echoed their way upstream. Past the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge, we coalesced and circled around each other in a big eddy. It was magical floating there together in our capes and pointy hats. It felt like a private river party with an inclusive and open invitation: You are welcome here. Dress up. Bring your PFD and a pointy hat (and a cape).
Inclusion is just what Tabitha Stover had in mind when she envisioned a Witches and Wizards SUP gathering at Fayette Station. Stover shared the idea with Meghan Fisher, a local SUP guide and owner of Mountain Surf Paddle Sports, and Melanie Seiler Hames, a local river guide and executive director of Active Southern West Virginia. Fisher and Seiler Hames loved the idea and jumped right on board to help organize and spread word of the event.
According to Stover, that communal willingness to get together and get outside is the norm around here. “We are a community of people who simply are not going to grow up. We are going to put on our witch hats and enjoy the magic that we have right here in our backyard,” she said.
The three spread the word through their respective media channels so people like me knew where to go and what to bring. Fisher and Seiler Hames leveraged their professional experience as local outdoor guides to make sure all interested participants had adequate skills and access to the appropriate equipment. That’s “small-town” Appalachia for you—good to the last drop.
As we floated through the long, quiet pool back down to the take-out, I sensed the cold coming, that familiar snapping bite in the morning air. I felt the shift from summer to autumn settling into my bones. I turned my gaze, trying my best to savor every drop of Mother Nature’s annual party, complete with her own leave-no-trace confetti leafscapes. Autumn in the New River Gorge is bittersweet beauty beyond belief. And once again, it’s just about time to dress up in costumes and float through long, misty pools on the second oldest river in the world.
The 2022 Witches & Wizards Paddle is currently planned for Sunday, October 30th. Depending on river levels, it will be held at Fayette Station on the New River or at Kanawha Falls on the Kanawha River. You can find out more information here.
Mariah Lee Hibarger is a teacher, traveler, and professional guide who splits her time between Fayetteville, the Grand Canyon, and Latin America.