Essays history

The first of the Jamie McEwan Trilogy: Iron Ring 1970

What a crowd,” my brother commented as we ate a hasty breakfast at the parking lot that, by common consent, had become the paddlers’ campground. There must have been six or eight other cars there, at least a dozen paddlers, just beginning to stir.

That was a crowd in those days. How little we could have imagined that the annual draw-down from the Summersville Dam would one day become the “Gauley Fest”: one part each of circus, party, and trade show, with attendance in the thousands.

It was a chill October morning. Someone was pumping up a Coleman stove; others were conversing in low tones. Though we were out of sight of the Summersville Dam’s discharge pipes, we could hear the tremendous sound–not exactly a “rumbling,” but a peculiarly deep static–as the three great pipes, twenty feet across, unceasingly shot their jets of water at sixty to ninety miles per hour into a churning pool below. We had slept to that sound, dreamed to it.

“Come on,” said Tom to me. “Now’s the time.”

The sun had reached us, on our elevated plateau, but the valley below lay deep in misty shadow.

“You guys going to breakfast?” someone called as we opened the doors to our van.

“We’re going to put in,” Tom called back.

“What’s the big rush?”

“We’re doing the whole run today.”

“The whole twenty-two miles? Today?”

“That’s right.”

“What’ll you do tomorrow?”

“We’ll run it again tomorrow.”

The rest would split the trip into two days, hiking up a trail half-way down to camp with their shuttled cars.

“Hey, you haven’t run this before, have you?” asked someone else.

“No,” said Tom. “But it’s better to go alone, anyway.”

“What are you, anti-social?”

“Not really,” said Tom, with a grin that said, maybe he was. “But it’s more fun on your own. It’s like a first descent.”

Suddenly a knobby, balding head thrust out of the open hatch of a nearby cab-back pick-up. It was John Sweet, National Canoe Champion and a hero, a giant of the sport. A lean, wiry research chemist from Penn State, John was an expert in every aspect of boating, from the new fiberglass construction to the sliding pry stroke. It only added to his mystique that Sweet was the only whitewater paddler anyone had ever heard of who, it was said, couldn’t swim.

“You’re starting down without us?” Sweet asked. John already knew we were planning to do the trip in one day; we had arranged a shuttle with him the night before.

“Yeah,” said Tom. “We don’t want to be led down. We want to see it fresh.”

I watched John anxiously for his reaction. I had been nodding my agreement after each of Tom’s statements, but inside I wasn’t so sure.

Sweet would lead the other group. He was one of the few who had ever seen it before, having been part of the first canoe and kayak descent, two years previous. One of the few rapids that was then named was “Sweet’s Falls.”

“It makes sense to start early,” said Sweet. “You’ll have a long day. You’ll have to scout a lot in the upper half, though. And watch out for Iron Ring. You should carry that. Make sure you carry Iron Ring.”

The head pulled back in again.

Our Ford van thumped and clunked as we eased our way into the shadows, around the switchbacks, down to where the river steamed in the cool air. We suited up, dropped our slalom boats into an eddy that pulsed with the power of the current beyond, snapped on our spray skirts, soaked our hands for a minute in the water’s summer-stored warmth, then paddled out into the current, yielding ourselves to the power of the Gauley.

We scouted often that day, stumbling down the jumbled rocks of the bank, or scrambling up the backs of mansion-sized boulders to peer downstream. Each time we climbed from our boats and considered the puzzle of a new rapid, trying to guess at the nature of underwater obstacles from the particular shape of an exploding wave or the direction of the water’s bubbling recoil, trying to calculate the vectors of its dividing and intersecting currents, I asked myself: is this Iron Ring?

Tommy seemed less concerned. As was usual, the loquacious late-night wrangler over Nietzsche or Kierkegaard was transformed into a taciturn boating companion. His expression was rapt, elsewhere. My questions–will you go right or left? Is this one it, you think?–seemed irritating interruptions to a drawn-out conversation he was having with the river. He answered reluctantly. I knew why. To Tommy, words were out of place on the river. Words acted as an obscuring veil; only in silence could the raw experience be directly felt.

The run was twenty-two miles, the entire distance studded with rapids. Twenty-two miles is usually considered a full day of paddling. Twenty-two miles spent scanning for an iron ring at the top of each rapid on the Gauley river seemed Herculean.

I was not just searching for a steep rapid with a big hole at its end; I was looking for an actual ring–for that evocative name, Iron Ring, did not spring from some creative paddler’s brain. I was looking for a hunk of rusted iron that had been bolted into the bedrock of the river bank when the river had served as freight transportation for the product of these ancient hills. It was an anchor point to help lumberjacks clear the log-jams that commonly piled up at the lip of that particular drop.

The Gauley river, named after some long-forgotten West Virginia settler, was part of the drainage system of the mighty New River. The New is–naturally, given the name–one of the oldest rivers in the world, second only, some claim, to the Nile. The forests around us had been in existence for 250 million years, having escaped inundation when the Atlantic Ocean had formed a mere 160 million years ago.

Of course we didn’t know all that, at the time. We had heard it was good whitewater; so we were there.

We didn’t know its age, and yet–somehow–we could feel it. As a very crude, general rule, newer rivers run steadily downhill through beds of smallish rocks; older rivers gather themselves in quiet pools and then plunge suddenly over and between larger rocks or slabs of carved bedrock.

The boulders of the Gauley are particularly large. The smaller are like cars; then there are the delivery trucks; then the semis; then the truly house-sized. Like enormous prehistoric beasts they slumber amidst the swirling waters, towering above this new, brightly colored form of aquatic life that float, or dart quickly about, in their shadows. What cataclysm shook them down from what surrounding mountains, ages ago? (The “mountains” were worn now to rounded lumps of hills, their tops set far back, miles sometimes, from the river banks.) Or dug them, perhaps, out of the obdurate spine of the world. We did not know their story, but their size, the much-handled smoothness of their shapes, spoke to us of their high-piled years of patient endurance. They waited–for what? For us?

We never found the ring. We paddled every rapid of the twenty-two miles–Tommy leading most of them–and never found the iron ring.

We laughed and whooped it up, when, light-headed with hunger (we never brought lunch, in those days), we saw the road again, signaling the end of the run. What was so tough about Iron Ring? we gloated. We never even noticed it!

That evening, at the campground, we traded stories. We heard of lost paddles, swims, involuntary surfs in keeper holes. And, of course, we publicly gloated. What was so tough about Iron Ring?

At this point everyone looked to John Sweet, of course.

Maybe it’s not that hard, Sweet conceded. No harder than the rest. But it’s more dangerous. If you drop into that pour-over at the bottom, that might be it. You might die. It’s not worth the risk.

That sobered us. It sobered me, at least. I could not tell with Tom. I could never tell with Tom.

Was it the glasses that made Tommy so hard to read? Thick, horn-rimmed glasses, held together with strips of duct tape, behind which he blinked out at the world with an air of abstraction, an innocent untouchability which seemed to render him impervious to cold, hunger, danger, or disapproval. He didn’t see what others saw, the obvious, the surface; instead his special x-ray lenses permitted him to see straight through to the hidden essence of things.

I was still a teenager; Tom was twenty-four, the clear leader of our group of two. I was an enthusiastic follower: when Tommy said, “Let’s see it fresh, for ourselves,” I tagged along and did my very best to see it fresh, per instructions.

But here was another expert to listen to. And I listened carefully, to a detailed description of just where Iron Ring was, and just how to recognize it.

The next morning I had it repeated to me, just in case.

And I found it.

Again, we left before the rest, determined to have our own, unfiltered, unsullied experience on the river. We didn’t have to climb from our boats as often, now that we had seen it once. Though, of course, every run was different. Even the most highly trained and well-prepared racer, on a slalom course he may have run hundreds of times, which has been studied on video and analyzed for him by crowds of helpful coaches, still finds it impossible to trace the same line with the same strokes twice in a row. The waves seethe and froth, build and break into foaming white-caps, then flatten again into smooth green lumps. The eddies, too, swirl in one direction, then the other; the water level rises and falls along the banks; tall dry rocks receive an occasional splash on their very peaks from some playful jet. The surface of a rapid shifts and shivers like land in the grip of an unceasing earthquake. There are fractal patterns, too complex for calculation; there are probabilities; but there is never peace. A river is the world’s most dynamic playing field.

I found it, the iron ring set in the rock at the entrance of a short, violent rapid. Whose rough hands had set it in the rock sometime in the last century?

Iron Ring. I held it in my own hands. A heavy, cold piece of dark metal, eight inches in diameter, made of octagonal stock almost two inches thick, pinned so firmly by a bolt of the same material that it seemed a natural extension of the bedrock. Just a thing. And yet, it seemed to radiate a kind of unearthly power, as if it were a talisman, a magic token, the finger ring of a giant who lurked just over one of the surrounding ridges.

A thing; also a rapid. We hadn’t looked for the ring here, the day before, because this rapid had impressed us as less difficult than several we had already negotiated. There was an unobstructed passage down the right side, through a series of cresting waves. Some of these, breaking almost constantly, angled left, feeding into a good-sized pour-over that dropped into a steep hole.

The guru of the river had declared this one a killer hole.

We had judged the rapid no problem, the day before. Start right center, cut a little right near the bottom; no fancy maneuvers needed, no problem. Today it looked different. What if you flipped over?

Can you walk a beam six inches off the ground? Sure. How about sixty feet?

As usual, though, Tommy seemed unimpressed.

For once, I led the way; I couldn’t wait. Fear transformed into action, I drove right, right, far more right than needed, until I saw the hole go by.


I had just turned eighteen. That might explain the strength of the feeling that flowed through me, saturating my every cell. A feeling quieter, stronger than exultation. I didn’t feel like shouting, whooping: I felt completed, as if I had just been reunited with some long-mislaid piece of myself.

Catching the first eddy I could reach I turned upstream to watch my brother.

There he was. He hadn’t waited to watch me. There he was, floating down–backwards. Directly upstream of the hole. Looking first over one shoulder, then the other. I caught a glimpse of his face; it showed only his normal, bemused interest. His paddle moved in a casual rhythm.

“Go!” I shouted, meaninglessly. He could not hear.

It could not happen. It was not possible. He began to paddle away from the pour-over–not fast, just deliberately–but the waves were pushing the other way. His boat lifted for a moment as it rode over the buried rock, seemed to hesitate as if at the very last moment it might slip around–then fell into the hole. Something within me fell along with it.

Instantly the boat was upside down.


After staring for a moment I looked around, trying to shake off the numbness of my dazed horror. There must be something I could do, some way to effect an heroic rescue. But the hole was well off shore; I couldn’t reach him from there. And I couldn’t fight the current back up to where he was. There was nothing I could think of. Gone, gone. I was alone on the river. More completely alone than I had ever been.

Death. It could not happen. It could not. My brother. Tom. Could it really happen, like that?

I could still see his kayak’s white hull, bobbing in the intersection of the two currents. Falling water drummed down on it. And as I watched, the hull worked its way from the center of the hole toward one side. Then the current began to tug on one end. It moved farther and farther, the down-flowing current improving its grip with each surge, until the kayak bounced out one side of the hole and floated downstream.

Then the craft jerked, twisted–and there Tom was, water streaming from his helmet as he rolled. In a moment he pulled into the eddy alongside me.

“God, Tom.”

“Pretty good hole, eh?”

“I thought you were dead!”

“You did? No kidding. Actually, it was–kind of neat.” He smiled as he said this, perhaps at the inadequacy of the conventional phrase. But when all words were inadequate, the most worn cliché will do. “I could feel the current, under there,” he went on, “and I sort of pulled on it, with my paddle angled so it would pull me the right direction; I kept pulling, and I came out the side.”

“I saw, I saw that. God, but Tom–God you scared me.”


The rest of the run was full of incident. In Sweet’s Falls I broke my C-1 and, after rolling up and thus satisfying my sense of honor, was forced to climb from the sinking craft and swim it to shore. Yet after the emotional convulsions of Iron Ring, it was all anticlimax.

We talked to John Sweet again, before the long drive back home. We had to tell him. We had to ask, what about this killer hole? We caught him at the take-out, amidst the “crowd.”

Poor John–but that’s looking back. At the time we had no sympathy for the plight of the veteran who, after a run or two down a river, has “guru” status forced upon him.

“Well,” he said, his voice rising several notes and becoming even more nasal than usual, “well, the hole might not be so bad. It’s against the shore, there, where it’s all undercut, that it looks like a death trap. We saw it at a lot lower water level, that first time–maybe it’s not so dangerous now. At this level, it’s all pretty well covered, and there’s not much push that direction. But I tell you, there are a whole bunch of jagged, undercut rocks in there. I think the loggers used dynamite to clear out the channel, and that’s where the rubble ended up.”

Though we hadn’t seen any of this, we nodded and looked appropriately grave.

“I’d have to look at it,” said Tom later, out of John’s hearing. “You’ve always got to see it for yourself. You’ve got to see it fresh.”

Seeing it fresh: that was Tommy’s specialty. Tom was the first to explore the innards of that hole, and, over the years, he has been among the first to plumb the secrets of rivers from Mexico to Newfoundland to Bhutan, even pushing the edge of the runnable in his own backyard, on the Great Falls of the Potomac.

Seeing it fresh. Talking to the river gods, one on one, deep in their secret places. Seeing things, feeling things, beneath the surface, beyond the reach of ordinary vision.

I’ve tried his glasses. They don’t do anything for me.