Monday, March 5, 2007

Chasing water and searching for First D's in VA

Saint Mary's Wilderness Area is almost the entire watershed of the Saint Mary's River which drains the western slope of the Blue Ridge Parkway north of is junction with Rt 56 in central VA. This watershed is just over the ridge and slightly north of the VA ultra-classic forks of the Tye. As a native of VA I have had the Saint Mary's drainage marked on my topo map for years as a possible First Descent, but it wasn't until more recently I really started pursuing it. In winter of 2004 Shannon and I hiked up the river to Saint Mary's Falls from the parking area at the bottom of the valley. What we saw was a some of low angle slides, a few boulder gardens, and the falls itself which looked sketchy at best.

After our first scouting mission it was clear to me that hiking up from the bottom was not an option. The gorge is extremely rugged and the rough trail crosses the river multiple times which would not be possible at the water levels required for a run. If Saint Mary's River was going to be run it would have to be a hike-in to the upper watershed, likely from the Blue Ridge Parkway. After getting some rough directions to a unmarked turn off the parkway from Mike, Shannon and I returned in August of 2006 for another scouting mission. We found the parking spot on the parkway and hiked about 2 miles down Mine Bank Trail into Saint Mary's River arriving about 2 miles above the falls. Then we hiked downstream to the falls scouting and taking photos along the way. After this scout we not only knew that we could access the river by hiking off the parkway, but also that the gorge above the falls contained some good looking ledges and boulder gardens that would make the run worthwhile. Here is Saint Mary's Falls from our August 2006 scouting trip. Its hard to see the scale in this pic, but it's about 16 feet tall and the landing is not so friendly.

The next chapter in the saga of my pursuit of Saint Mary's takes place in September 2006. As VA was pounded by heavy rains Brandon and I drove late into the night arriving at my parents house after 2:00 AM. After a few hours sleep we began what would turn out to be an epic day. We made a quick First D of East Fork of Elk Creek in the morning and then headed to Saint Mary's. We began the hike in about 1:00 PM as the Tye River gauge was spiking towards biblical levels. Upon arriving at the river found it to be a swift torrent with continuous rapids and only a few eddys in the trees. This level was much higher than we expected and we hadn't even reached the gorge where the river narrows as it squeezes between the sandstone walls. After avoiding several dangerous trees we made are way towards the gorge as the gradient and difficulty continued to pick up. Upon reaching entrance to the gorge we found a walled in log flume with river wide holes sporting 10 foot wide backwashes. The epic portaging began and we ran very few rapids until we passed Saint Mary's Falls where we put back on and began paddling downstream again. However, we were soon in trouble as Brandon missed a eddy and began getting worked in the riverwide hole that followed. As he exited his boat I franticly peeled out to give chase as he washed out of sight around the bend down continuous, pushy, and walled in rapids. As paddled hard trying to catch up I knew that a riverwide log could end things for both of us, but to do anything else would be to leave Brandon to fend for himself which was not an option. As Brandon disappeared into a steep riverwide hole in front of me I launched a huge boof off the river left wall and as I landed he resurfaced 20 feet downstream. Luckily a recirculating eddy allowed us to be stop and get out. We hike 1/4 mile downstream to recover Brandon's boat and decided with nightfall approaching to hike downstream as fast as we could using our boats to cross the river as needed. Just as it was getting too dark to see my own feet we emerged from the trail into the parking lot.

Since we were flooded out of the gorge in September Brandon and I have often talked about returning to complete the descent and this weekend we finally got our chance. Dustin Bunch and I drove all morning Friday hoping to attempt another first in the Saint Mary's Drainage, Mine Bank Creek. During our September attempt Brandon and I have hiked past a raging Mine Bank Creek on our way to into Saint Mary's River. With gauges in the region just peaking Friday morning I was hoping Dustin and I could make our way down Mine Bank, run what we could, and leave our boats at the confluence with Saint Mary's. This would allow us to hike back in Saturday morning and be nice and fresh for a descent of Saint Mary's River. Unfortunately by the time we reached the creek it was already too low. We ran a few slides, but decided to hike our boats in and leave them for the next day anyway.

Saturday morning we met up with Brandon Hughett and John Howard, set shuttle and proceeded to begin the hike.

We reached the confluence of Mine Bank Creek and Saint Mary's River just after noon and found the water had dropped dramatically. The flow was going to be minimal, but we were there, committed, and just happy to be putting back on this beautiful river.

We worked our way downstream through countless low angle slides and boulder gardens. Soon the walls tightened up a bit and we reached the 4 foot ledge that signals the beginning of the gorge. A tree in the pool on the left necessitated a boof off the shallower right side.

Just downstream of Entrance Ledge is a sweet 10 foot drop I couldn't resist naming "Finder's Keepers"

As we continued downstream we found a few boulder drops and a few slides. Here's one we're calling "You First" since at our limited flow it involved sliding down under a boulder and landing beside an undercut wall. At higher water easier lines on the left should open up, but I probed it anyway.

Here is Brandon on a slide somewhere in the gorge.

Here's Brandon testing his new video camera.

Here's Dustin in one of the many boulder rapids. These were really fun on our first attempt, but many were kinda scrapy on this time around.

John finishing the slide that is 20 yards upstream of Saint Mary's Falls.

Soon we arrived at the main event... Saint Mary's Falls. After some scouting I decided it would go on the left side even though it involved taking a hit on the shelf.

The bounce sent me over the handlebars and onto a shallow shelf floundering around and ultimately coming out of my boat.
I couldn't stand to let the first and only descent of Saint Mary's Falls end with me out of my boat so I hiked my back up for another attempt.

This time I angled a few degrees further right, I pitched onto my side, but stayed in my boat and paddled away.

Other highlights from this tale include: Brandon leaving Knoxville at 4:00 AM for the run and then returning that night... The Blue Ridge Parkway being closed for non existant snow requiring finding alternate parkway access... and John admitting part way into the hike that he had not been to sleep or eaten since the night before.
All and all this was a very special run in a very remote and rugged place. Having seen it at extremely high water and now at low water we can hopefully dial in the required levels so others can experience it as well. All told we hiked 2+ miles, paddled 4+ miles, portaged at least 5 trees, and all the drops were run.
Until Next Time...