Essays history

The Grande Finale of the Jamie McEwan Trilogy: Denied- Linville Gorge, 1973

It was one of those early spring days that seemed no season at all, rather a pause in seasons, as if nature had come to a stop while trying to remember what should come next. We had seen signs of spring on the drive down: crocuses and daffodils pushing up beside lonely houses, a purple furze along the highway. But here, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there was no color, not even from the buds on the trees. And no birds. No birdcalls, no flutterings in the bushes. This struck me as very strange.

It was a long hike down to the water, so it was a relief to finally put in within sight of a large braided waterfall, to make the delightful transition from heavy, jerky plodding to effortless gliding, from laden camels to free-floating dolphins.

The Linville Gorge. It had never been run, though an imaginative description existed in a guide book written by an expert map-reader named Burmeister. If we could run the gorge, Tom assured me, it would be a first descent.

We started off on a stretch of easy, pleasant whitewater, where Tom pulled away from me. Then, at the first challenging rapid, I caught up when he got out of his boat to scout.

I joined him on the bank, and we studied the rapid in silence, as usual–while I suppressed my impulse to ask questions.

The proper route was obvious. It involved a ninety-degree turn, in mid-current.

“If you missed the turn, you might get banged around on those rocks,” I said finally, pointing.

“Yeah, maybe.”

The water, as I stared at it, kept changing its aspect. One moment its currents and cross-currents looked muscular, powerful beyond all resistance; the next they seemed minor rivulets. Would I cut right over them? Or be swept onto the rocks? I couldn’t tell. I could see exactly what was happening, but I couldn’t gauge the scale, the degree of power. I picked up a piece of driftwood and tossed it in, watching it bob slowly through the waves. It disappeared entirely when it came to the turn.

I saw that it would not be hard to walk around. And I reminded myself that I have to be especially careful. The boat I was paddling, a Hahn design built in England, was unusually fragile. I had sold my tougher Olympic C-1 back to the builder, leaving me with a craft made entirely of polyester and fiberglass, no sandwiched nylon or polypropylene to toughen it. But worse than that: the entire deck, and most of the hull, was not even woven fiberglass, but rather chopped fibers pressed together into what is called “mat.” Mat is considered a heavy material, but this boat was thin enough to remain light–light, stiff, and as I already knew, notoriously easy to break.

But that’s why we trained slalom, wasn’t it? To be able to get down the river without touching any rocks.

Then there was always that other option.

“I guess I’ll carry it,” I said uncertainly.

Tom gave me a quick glance, then looked back at the river. Our etiquette was firmly fixed: each man for himself, make your own decisions, never pressure the other, never give in to pressure.

Tom climbed into his boat. I stood, making no move to carry, and watched him turn out into the current, slide down the first drop, perform a smooth half turn, and accelerate through the proper slot. As I watched him do it, I immediately knew that I could do it, too. Watching another boat paddle a rapid gives you a lot more information than throwing in sticks.

For several long moments I did not move; I stood in the chill air, staring dully at the water, while there passed through me a wave of internal disorientation. Pieces of my mental universe were being rearranged–some moving aside, others falling into the vacancies. When the relocating had completed itself I shivered, and with that shiver the new parts settled into place–and there it was, not at all a new, but an all-too-familiar, pattern.

Big brother leads little brother down the river. No, not a new feeling at all. At six years my senior, Tom had always, automatically, been the leader of our group of two. What was more, he was somewhat of legend throughout the sport for being tough, unafraid, for thinking for himself. He had also been a standout wrestler at Yale, placing second in the Easterns, for example. I had grown up hero-worshipping Tom.

But it wasn’t without a certain sense of personal diminishment that I felt the old paradigm reassert itself. For some things did not fit into that old pattern; there was no room for certain of my previous year’s cherished individual accomplishments, for Olympic Team or Bronze medal or any of that. These are entirely irrelevant here. What did the river care about credentials? This was no artificial trumped-up television spectacle. Here was only the ceaseless flow of water over rock.

And I was still the relatively cautious, pain-avoiding Jamie I have always been, still with that unambitious goal of getting myself down in one piece.

Some things never change.

I climbed stiffly into my boat and ran the rapid exactly as Tom had. It was easy.

From that point on we tried to hurry along a little more. We made up our minds quickly, unanimously, when we scouted rapids. Tom was still, almost invariably, the first one down any rapid difficult enough to scout.

The river dropped away, and dropped away again, throwing one blind horizon line after another across our view downstream. Time after time we were forced to climb from our boats. I longed for a dull stretch, for a quiet, lazy mile.

The first serious incident came from just a little slip. I pulled into an eddy at the top of a blind drop, popped my skirt off the cockpit rim, put down my paddle–and started to slide backwards out of the eddy. I grabbed a slippery shoreline rock, but was unable to stop myself; a jet of the main current caught me as I left the shelter of the eddy, forcing the boat against the shore and pinning it there while water poured into my uncovered cockpit. Bent violently sideways at the waist, I clung to one last rock.

I had no attention left for anything outside myself. Suddenly there were hands underneath my armpits; then the boat and I were lifted up, dragged across the rocks, and dumped high and dry.

I crawled out of my boat.

“Thanks. Sorry. I just–I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Let’s be careful.”

We went on. Rapids, and small, bubbling pools. We had to get out to look at almost every drop. Most we ran, but often enough we both decided to carry. Several times we were tempted to run drops which, if located on some easily accessible stretch of river, would have been commonly run. But here, miles from help, we portaged. We made decision after decision without discussion, by mutual consent.

Late morning, perhaps midday, we came to a rapid that we disagreed about. The drop was not tall, and it ended in a calm pool, but I was convinced that the water was dropping directly onto just-concealed underwater rocks. It was hard to tell, because after a drop like that the water boils to the surface anyway, whether it is deep or shallow.

We disagreed briefly, carefully. In order to emphasize the certainty of my opinion, I put my boat on my shoulder and started to walk around, then put it down again as Tom paddled away from the bank to line himself up. For a moment he was hidden from my point of view–then he reappeared above me, poised against the sky; he fell–


One moment he was falling–the next he had come to an almost complete stop, the boat still vertical; then it tipped, twisting, to one side.

Tom rolled up and paddled to shore, sinking fast, the bow of his boat pointing crazily skyward, like the curled toe of a jester’s shoe.

Although this was almost exactly the result that I had anticipated, when it actually happened I found that I was shocked, disconcerted. I realized that, subconsciously, I had assumed Tom would find a loophole, an out, that he would at the last instant pull off the move and arrive at the bottom unscathed. Never had I felt so taken aback to be proven right.

Tom joined me on shore, and we conferred.

“I could hike back in tomorrow with some duct tape,” said Tom. He had allowed three days for our first descent of the full fifteen or so miles to the first bridge-crossing below. We never dreamed, in those days, of carrying extra gear, camping gear or even food. There was no good way to waterproof it. We weren’t about to put ammo boxes in our slalom boats; that was for the traditional canoeists in their big open craft. We didn’t even own a flashlight. Camping would be out of the microbus.

Besides, we had started out hoping to run it all today.

“You really think you can tape it on?” I asked.

“I’m sure I can. I’ve seen it done with a bow that had fallen off completely. This isn’t that bad.”

“Yeah–this has at least six strands of fiberglass holding it on.”

There was a problem, though: the river right, the side of the river that the road ran along, was at this point almost a cliff. It looked like a climber’s challenge, not a paddler’s, to ascend on that side of the river.

The river left, on the other hand, sloped moderately away from us. And of course there was a road there, too, somewhere, farther back, behind the hills. We had seen it on the map. There is always a road, if you go far enough. Just as there is always a river.

“I’m going to walk up the far side,” said Tom. “I’ll be on the road over there, near the top.”

“Okay. I’m going to keep going.”

Tom nodded, as if he’d been expecting that. He might have distrusted me, he might have wondered if I should go on alone. But no–his nod was a nod of approval.

“I’ll try to get down to where the path gets close to the river,” I said, “and walk up to the overlook. Then I’ll meet up with Peggy, drive around to your side, and get you.”

“Okay, Jamie. Take care of yourself.”

Tom paddled his broken boat to the far bank and left it there. With a last wave he disappeared into the trees.

Going on alone should have made me nervous, I suppose. It did not. Quite the opposite. Tom was my paddling support, yes, my unacknowledged leader. And he was exemplary in not pressuring me. But at the same time, paddling with him was like driving with my father in the passenger seat. I felt exposed, observed, judged. It was not his fault. It was nothing he did. But I couldn’t seem to help it.

Only now, alone on the river, could I fully relax.

At the same time, without really thinking about it, I knew: no more slips were allowed.

I paddled. I climbed out of my boat, I looked. I climbed back in, and paddled some more. Rocks flashed by, waves broke over the deck of my boat, overhanging branches swept by overhead. Gone was the morning’s uncertainty. I was entirely absorbed in what I was doing. Words were irrelevant. There is a terrific clarity that comes with being alone on the river, trying to solve one intricate puzzle after another. And the Linville was complex beyond anything I had paddled. Often enough I chose to portage.

My progress was very slow. My boat had begun to leak badly. Soon I was forced to put in hurriedly, pop my skirt on as quickly as possible, paddle one short section, sprint to shore, climb out, empty, climb back in again.

The time came when the gorge, long shadowed, began to darken. Though I was reluctant to stop–for all the slowness of my progress, this was still a far more appealing means of transportation than walking–I knew I should strike off right away. I hadn’t seen any evidence of a trail, and bushwhacking in the dark without flashlight or compass is a sure way to get lost.

I left my gear on the riverbank and started to walk. My feet squished in my wet-suit booties. The wet-suit chafed at the groin. It didn’t matter. I felt both tired, and infinitely strong.

After a long, wearying, pathless climb, a thousand vertical feet up from the river, I pushed through a screen of bushes and stepped onto the soft dust of the ridge-top road. Twilight had fully established itself. Perfect timing. My brother Tom’s girlfriend, Peggy, should soon leave from the bridge that had been our over-optimistic goal, to drive up this same road toward me. If we didn’t reach the bridge, Tom had told her, come looking for us on the road. Dry clothes, food, warmth, were headed my way.

Or so I thought.

It wasn’t long before a log truck came up from behind, and without my having signaled in any way, the driver stopped and offered me a lift. I only rode the short distance down to Wiseman’s view, however–the only overlook on that side, and the only campground–getting out in case Peggy was parked there.

But the area was deserted. I walked back and down the road.

I walked for long while, perhaps an hour or two–I had no watch. The road ran along the ridge-line, so I had a good view in two directions, but the only lights I saw were miles away. There was very little else. The world had simplified itself: the sky was gray, the forest black, the road an in-between shade.

Obviously something must have happened to Peggy. The microbus should have come along hours ago.

Eventually I turned and walked slowly, aimlessly back upstream. If I stopped I’d be cold. Could I walk all night?

It began to rain. After an attempt at sheltering under a pile of leaves, I got up and continued back to Wiseman’s view. There I headed for the only roof: the outhouse.

The door, on its spring, banged shut behind me. It was an instant relief to be out of the rain. The only smell coming up from the lidless toilet was of damp earth. I lay on the concrete. Three-sixteenth’s of an inch of shark-skin neoprene was all that protected me from a cold, inhospitable world.

This should have been the hardest thing, lying here, waiting for morning. But for some reason it wasn’t really hard at all. It was not at all, for example, like that barely-hanging-in-there feeling you got near the end of a running race or a paddling time-trial. Or going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Those were hard.

I lay there, feeling quite certain that I could not possibly sleep … and drifted off, roused to shift positions, slept again.

On one of my many awakenings I found my little box suffused with gray light. I shifted, opened my eyes. The light was filtering down from the ventilation gap between walls and roof.

I closed my eyes again, feeling unbearably cramped, exhausted, cold. I tried, vainly, to sleep once more.

But then, slowly, with every breath, I began to feel better.

Chilled, stiff, groggy, with no plan or time-schedule, no breakfast waiting, no shape to the day ahead, closed between four walls set too close together for me to stretch out, stripped of the basic comforts I have always taken for granted, I became aware of an underlying pleasure. Very mild, very quiet it was, this small but indestructible pleasure–easily lost, overwhelmed, in everyday life–yet here it was, a little pulse of pleasure with each heartbeat. And there was another, steady, sustaining pleasure in the ebb and flow of my quiet breathing. The night was over. And here I was. That was all I needed. Being alive was all I ever needed. Everything else–friends, comforts, medals, success–were extras. Nice enough in their way. But it was tremendously freeing to realize that I don’t need them to feel pleasure. That this bare existence is pleasure enough.

I lay, for a time, clasping this knowledge to myself. Finally, on impulse, I sat up, struggled to my feet, stood leaning against the wall. The light was dim. There was no more rain-sound. No sounds at all.

I opened the door and stepped out. The quiet was unearthly. No traffic, no insects, no birds. Even the light seemed muffled, there under the low branches of the pines. But something had changed overnight. A new smell was in the air. I walked toward the clearing that was the parking lot and stopped at its edge, under the last overhanging boughs.

A sloppy wet snow perhaps two inches deep blanketed the lot. I shivered at this confirmation of the cold, tucked my hands under my armpits and squeezed down.

Slowly I walked out into the open. Stopping in the middle of the lot I swung my arms stiffly forward and back. That didn’t seem to help. And yet I felt very calm, and strangely happy, as I squished through the slushy snow, out to the “main” road, that furrowed tract, and down it.

To my surprise the road remained as deserted as it had been last night.

I needed shelter, food. And it would certainly be nice to take off the damp, chafing wet-suit and put on dry clothes. Yet part of me was for some reason glad that no one came.

It took us that entire second day to reassemble ourselves. The first person I met was a man operating a bulldozer off to one side of the road–a man in his early thirties with an omnicompetent backwoods air about him. He dropped everything to drive me around the gorge in his pickup in search of Tom and Peggy. Peggy I never found, but Tom showed up on the road on the far side. Our new friend bought us food at a gas stop, then went back to work, leaving us with obvious reluctance.

We tried, without money or ID, to convince a hotel operator to take us in, failed, and ended up attempting to build a fire in the snow while a new flurry swept around us. We had not yet succeeded when Peggy pulled over beside us.

She hadn’t been able to make it up the road, she explained, and had spent the night in a woman’s trailer-home near the take-out. The bulldozer operator and I must have driven right by her that morning.

The next day, on a still cool but this time partly-sunny spring morning, we set out once again, with a fresh roll of duct tape, dry wet suits, and a supply of matches double-wrapped in sandwich baggies. After long hikes to our separate boats, and time for Tom to tape his boat and make his way down to me, and then for me to tape mine, it was noon before we were ready to start out together, with boats almost watertight, and determination fixed in our eyes.

Just before setting out, I managed to lose the new roll of tape by dropping it into a deep pool in the river.


Tom just shook his head.

We were in the midst of the most difficult section so far. The river was dropping fast, twisting and turning on itself like an animal struggling against the stony clamp of the squeezed-together hills, fretting at its course, diving under blockading rocks instead of cooperatively flowing over or around, beating itself into white fury over unyielding ledge and stone.

As the afternoon wore on, my boat slowly broke up beneath me, not from any one hole but from the accumulation of many cracks. Dying the death of a thousand cuts. Once more I was reduced to paddling only a couple of minutes before I was forced to stop and empty. Tom’s boat, with its flexible snout, was not doing much better. As the sun passed behind the hills we knew we were far from the end of the gorge. We pressed on until the air around us began to fill with the gray dust of twilight, then shouldered our boats and struck off together into the woods.

We found a path that angled uphill in the right direction, giving us, in comparison with our first-day hikes out, a highway up and out of the gorge. Along it I trudged, hardly noticing that Tom was slowly leaving me behind, forging ahead up the long slope.

For a time the path was easy to follow, even in the dark forest; I could feel its slight hollow under the thin soles of my wet-suit booties. But when, instead, the earth gave way to a haphazard jumble of rock, I stopped and peered ahead.

Night had fallen. A dark night. At some point when I wasn’t noticing, clouds had covered the sky.

I could hear water running, a thin tinkling sound. Ahead of me, across the rock, I could see no break in the dark wall of undergrowth. Taking my bearings from the path behind me, I picked my way across the rocks, stepping over the stream. Surprising how wide a bed this little brook had scoured off the hillside. On the other side I walked into a waist-high rhododendron. I backed off and tried again. And again. Many times. I couldn’t find the path.

“Tom! I shouted. Tom!” I waited for an answer. Trees creaked overhead with the sound of doors opening and closing.

He was too far ahead to hear. I shouldn’t have let myself fall behind.

I dug out my matches and built a fire on the top of the tallest rock I could find. In the wild flaring light of my twig fire I could see a thin unmistakable path cutting into the darkness.

Once on the path again I had no trouble following it, curving back and forth but always up, until the slope finally eased. Stepping into a wide grassy clearing I was greeted by a familiar voice.

“Hey, Jamie.”

“Did you find the road?”

“No. I lost the path in this open spot. I’ve been wandering around looking for it for a while.”

I laughed, and told him what had happened to me at the streambed. To my surprise, Tom apologized for leaving me behind.

It struck me as very strange, to have him apologize. I hadn’t kept up, my fault, end of story–or so I would have thought. And if I had thought differently, why should Tom care? His apology revealed an unexpected sensitivity to my opinion.

Together we located the path again, and on it soon found the ridge-top road. Dropping our boats in its ditch, we turned and strolled downriver, silent for a time.

I knew the adventure was over. We only had the three days. We had to drive north; my spring vacation was nearly over, and Peggy had to return to her job and two girls. In two days of paddling we had covered perhaps eight miles, roughly half of our goal. We had been defeated. Denied by the river.

I wouldn’t have thought that possible. To me, yes, but not to Tom.

Our booties squelched as we walked. We followed the road down onto flatter ground where we came upon human habitation, a farm where a single street lamp shone all night, high on its pole.

In its light I looked over at Tom. Aware of the turn of my head, he looked back at me, giving his tight-lipped smile. It struck me how vulnerable that look was. A wave of protective feeling passed through me.

It surprised and disconcerted me to notice this feeling. Protective, toward Tom, my leader and my own main protector, who had pulled me out of trouble time and again?

But there it was. I was a middling sort of guy, a mixture: a dash of courage, a cup of caution; a dose of ambition, a healthy measure of laziness. While Tom’s purity, like the brittleness of many an unalloyed metal, could also be a weakness. He had missed out on Olympic year training with shoulder and knee injuries.

And, walking under that single light in midst of overwhelming darkness, it fully came to me: Tom was just another guy, another human being, very different from me, but not essentially different, having to make decisions, day by day, like the rest of us. Not as certain, not as monolithic, not as heroically “other” as I, in my hero worship, had always assumed. This was the kind of revelation one usually has in relation to a parent–and Tom, six years older, had in my mind assumed a half-parental role. It was the simple realization: he’s human, too.

Of course, I knew that; in a sense I’d always known that. I just hadn’t felt that.

We passed the farm and moved on into the darkness, disappearing as tracelessly as two wandering spirits.

We talked, now and again, about the river, the countryside, the upcoming summer, the cold, our voices thin and lonely in the vast darkness. But for the most part we walked in silence, side by side in our parallel tire ruts.

Essays history

Jamie McEwan II: Years Later, I Added the Frame- Chattooga River, 1971

Look at the moon,” I said, pointing. “And that star, and the little cloud.”


“And the ridge, and those other clouds. What a picture. What do you think–do you include the ridge and the clouds, or zoom in on just the little cloud and the moon and the star?”

A hypothetical question–we had no camera.

“Why not include everything?” said Tom. “Why draw a line around it?”

I looked over. Brother Tom, driving, sat sprawled, his seat as far back as it would go, one rawboned hand lightly holding the wheel.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just–for fun.”

“We don’t have to cut things up. We don’t have to take them to pieces.”

I looked at the moon again: a thin crescent moon with its star and pink cloud keeping pace with us while tree-topped ridges rose and fell between.

“So many people,” Tom went on, “only see things the way everyone else sees them. Pre-digested. They don’t think anything is actually real unless it’s on TV, or if there’s a photo. Or a story.”

I waited for him to go on; his last sentence hung in the air with the pitch of incompletion. But the minutes unrolled with no further comment.

Perhaps Tom had concluded that by talking at all he was interfering with the experience. I tried to think of some safe topic of conversation. Failing, I turned away, rested my head on the cold, vibrating glass and watched the silhouettes of trees and signs speed by like–no, not like anything. Like themselves.


I woke in full daylight, to a discord of chirping that seemed to herald a spring morning, rather than late fall. Tom was not in his sleeping bag. Pulling on jeans and a sweat shirt I climbed out of the van’s back hatch and walked upriver.

The road was an orange-red gash through the pine forest, a startlingly bright color to northern eyes. From a low area on the left, from beneath a chill swirling mist, came the sounds of gently flowing water, bubblings and churnings plus an occasional percussion of plops. The sun was hidden somewhere in a pearl-gray sky; the tops of the pines trembled only slightly.

Too cold to linger long, I jogged back to the van. Tom sat in the sliding-door opening gently spreading peanut butter on too-soft bread.

“Maybe we should hit a restaurant for breakfast,” I suggested.

“Notice any last night?”

“I guess not.”

“I think we’re pretty far from any town. Besides, you probably want to get an early start.”

“I guess. You know, I was hoping it was going to be warmer here. I think we’re going to have to go farther south.”

“Think so? If we go much farther south we’ll run out of mountains.”

I didn’t answer.

“We’ve left the snow behind, anyway,” he added.

“Yeah.” I moved his crutches, sat beside him, reached for the bread.

“What are you going to do today?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Poke around, I guess.”

He would stay dry all day. For a moment I almost wished I could trade places with him, injured knee and all.


It wasn’t long before I dropped my decked canoe onto the water, snapped my sprayskirt on its cockpit rim, and took up my paddle. There were many strokes ahead of me.

During the first miles I picked a dry line down mild rapids, while the mist dissipated and the sun became a bright spot in the still-prevailing haze.

Then a well-defined eddy beckoned. I planted a paddle deep into its solid stillness, swung myself around to face upstream, and then drove out into the current again. Now that I had turned one way my muscles required a corresponding stretch on the opposite side; I soon found an appropriate eddy. Then the first side again. Back and forth. As the river began to fall more quickly I paused in the center of each eddy to look ahead, twisting around in my boat. Often a single glance was all I needed, allowing me to flow back into the current without entirely losing momentum.

At a deeper, more serious note from the river I pulled against one shore. A vertical gap in my view downstream marked a steeper drop. I stopped and climbed from my boat, making the awkward transition from water to land-animal.

Three choices. I could carry around. I could run the drop before me, to plunge into a bubbling pool, with unknown consequences. Or I could scout a side channel that flowed off to river right.

I shivered in the mist that rose from the churning water before me, and again felt a shrinking distaste for all that turbulent wetness. I could easily pick up my boat and carry around; the pool below the falls waited only steps away. No one was there to judge me, to coax me; no one was there to impress. The only thing that I had to do today was to deliver myself at the take-out before dark, where food and shelter waited. In fact–what was I doing here at all? Why go to all the trouble to get myself into a situation in which my only goal was to get myself out again?

Take away the prop of other people, the support of their gaze, the stimulus of their conversation–was there anything left?

I looked up at the sky, around at the undramatic brown hills, and felt a crazy, disconnected freedom. I could scream, sing, shout, run naked…. No one was there; no one would pass this way for months. How strange it seemed, that of all of the places on Earth, I was in this particular one. I looked back up the river. No trace remained of my passage. Yet here I was, somehow. Still shivering.

Looking back at the drop I saw, in one sweeping glance, the proper line. I imagined how it would feel, how the strokes would fall, how the waves would jostle me. Then, without ever having come to a conscious decision, I trotted back to my boat.

Swooping with the water as it curved, then smacking into the boiling pool below, seemed so natural, so inevitable, that it was almost dreamlike. The imagined run and the experience had blended.

More rapids, more drops, more decisions. Rocks and water, hills and sky were my only audience. All the attention I would have given to companions fell only on these–and on myself. The day grew warmer, the sun brighter. Once I tried sunbathing on a flat rock out of the wind. Still too cold, the sun too hazed. I had brought no lunch. One part of me wanted only to put the miles behind me, to find food and warmth and companionship at the end of the run. Another part wanted nothing, was lost in the wordless isolation of the day.

In a calm stretch I pulled my boat onto shore and wandered up a small rise, between oaks and beeches and dogwood and rhododendron, to relieve myself. Away from the river I became aware of the calls of birds, the rustle and scamper of small animals, the soughing of wind in the trees. I walked further from the river, aimlessly exploring.

Who owned this land? Did anyone ever visit it?

I put my hand on a white oak tree and looked up, feeling its strength of trunk, its spread of bare reaching limbs. I laid my cheek against it as if to plumb the secrets of its woody heart.

The chill drove me back to my boat, where I was grateful to again fold my bare legs into its thin fiberglass protection. The sun, a white disc showing through the wooly overcast, had already passed its zenith. I had no watch, but I could feel the afternoon drawing on as I continued down the river.

Again I was forced to scout, again wondered why I should run a tricky ledge. Why bother? The desire seemed to come not from my mind but out of my hands, my arms, my back. This morning my body had demanded symmetrical turns. Now it urged me to put into motion the strokes I imagined while standing on shore.

Look. See. Do.

The river took on a new rhythm. The rapids became more continuous, the surrounding hills steeper. Now I threaded down among large, dark, worn rocks, half submerged, that brooded silently amidst the rushing waters.

I came to a rapid where the only clear channel lay between two large boulders in midstream. There was no good way to scout from shore; I paddled back and forth above the drop, snatching glimpses over my shoulder when I could. A smooth green path of water led over the lip between them, exiting below as a gush of white foam.

Finally I swung my canoe around and shot through the gap. Losing my balance I put out my paddle in an instinctive brace–it rasped over the rock–then with a “Crack!” that vibrated through my arm I tipped over.

I fell as through a mirror into another world: a cold, wet, unfriendly world where I could not breathe, could not see, could not hear. Stupidly not understanding, I tried to use my paddle to right myself. Failing, I realized that I held only a splintered shaft in my hands–the blade had broken off. I tried to roll up with my hands only, a maneuver that was easy in a swimming pool; failing again, I pulled my spray skirt from the cockpit rim, pushed my legs from the boat, and swam upward.

Light. Air. I grabbed the end-loop of my canoe and hung on grimly, looking from bank to bank in indecision. As I hesitated, the current washed me gently against a flat rock that just broke the surface. I crawled up onto it.

For some moments I lay, while the water drained from my clothes. But I couldn’t rest for long. I had to find the paddle blade. With miles still to go, I needed it.

I rose and gazed downstream. Not far below me the river fell away abruptly over and around an irregular line of boulders. No paddle.

It might have hung up somewhere in the drop below; if not, it was now washing downstream. I had to catch it. I had to try.

With a struggle I emptied my slippery water-filled craft, slid it into the water below the rock and stepped in. Without bothering with bracing or spray skirt I hand-paddled to the left bank, jumped out and, hoisting the canoe to my shoulder, tried to run along the bank.

But it was impossible to run amongst the jumble of boulders. In the next eddy I could find I climbed in again, pushing fully into the knee braces this time and attaching the spray skirt around me. From close-by, upstream, came the pulsating roar of the rapid I had just carried around. Downstream the waves were mild, and scooping at the water with both hands I made good time through them and around a bend.

There, above the next rapid, I saw the blond flash of freshly broken wood. Bent forward I dug away, harder and harder, as if sprinting for a finish line, as if thousands of spectators were cheering me on. I snatched up the broken blade just at the lip of the next drop.

Crude though it was–a blade with only six inches of splintered shaft for handle–it yet served far better than my hands. The rapid proved easy.

When the water slowed and deepened I rested, leaning forward on my front deck. Before me lay a long, quiet pool. I had reached the reservoir that filled the river valley with its unnatural flood.

The sound of rapids upstream became louder as I drifted around to face them. A patch of vivid blue appeared in the sky above the hills upstream. The first clear sky of the day. For one moment, seeing the sky, the hills, the trees, the river, it seemed that a great message was about to be given to me. I sat very still, floating, waiting in suspense.

No message came.

I breathed again. That scrap of luminescent blue emphasized the relative gloom of the shaded river. It must be getting late. And I had–what was it?–I tried to remember from the map–two or three miles of flat reservoir to cross before I reached the take-out.

Through experiment I found that the best way to use my stub of a paddle was to switch from one side to the other every few strokes. The splintered wood chafed my hands. My back ached. My legs cramped. It seemed much longer than a few miles. The riverbed widened into a lake that still did not reveal my brother or any sign of road.

I made for a light patch amidst the dull shoreline: a beach, I guessed. Slowly I crawled across the surface of the water. A dark spot resolved itself into Tom, sitting motionless. Watching me approach, no doubt. Now I existed in someone else’s eyes.

I paddled straight in, running my bow onto the rough pebbles. Tom sat against a little tree stump, his crutches beside him, looking at me with mild interest. The moment came when he should have spoken, asked a question, wondered at my plight … and the moment went by in silence. My turn … somehow silence was the proper answer.

Silence to silence went the conversation as I climbed stiffly from my boat, hoisted it, and waited for Tom to push himself to his feet.

Still without speaking we made our way along a path through blackberry bushes. With one word, any word, I would have fallen back into everyday life. Instead I remained suspended. The diffuse light of the fading sunset, the water dripping from my boat, the ground beneath my feet, the bushes, Tom–I was acutely aware of them all. At the same time I was aware of my own awareness. I could look both ways–from outside and from inside–bounded and unbounded–framed and frameless–present and storied.


As he drove out the gravel take-out road, Tom threw out a long arm to point across me.

“Moon’s up,” he said, with a quizzical smile.

The moon gave only a fuzzy glow through the haze: unworthy of photographs, not suitable for framing.

“Oh, moon,” I said. “Oooooh moon!” I howled, and we laughed as the gravel clicked and the van swayed and the boats creaked above.

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.