Having traveled 138 miles upriver through the Piedmont, the Marshall Expedition trailered the boat around 23 miles of dams to Snowden, Virginia where we began our ascent through the James River Gorge: by far the most challenging part of our upriver journey. In the Gorge the James breaks through the Blue Ridge mountains, dropping at an average of 11 feet per mile. The Gorge is also home to Balcony Falls; at a strong class III, it is the most significant rapid on the James above the fall line in Richmond.
The mile below Balcony is full of challenging whitewater and the crew woke early on a cold, rainy morning last week to begin our ascent. With skill and determination we made our way through long wave trains and tight sluices. Where nessecary, anchors were set quickly and the boat was ascended with ropes. Within two hours of leaving we arrived at Balcony itself. Pulling into an eddy next to the steep, strong constriction rapid we once again ran through the plan hatched the night before. Ropes were deployed to our primary anchor point, and a secondary team was sent accross the river to hold a line that would prevent our bow from being swept downstream during the ascent; should that happen the boat would be smashed on a series of boulders.
As the boat peeled out of the eddy the crew fought vigorously with poles and ropes to work up Balcony. Halfway up the drop, with the 43′ batteau reaching the steepest part of the rapid, we reached our limit. Eight men hauling on the burning rope could do no more to send the boat up river. Stalled in the middle of the biggest rapid on the James, with hands bleeding and strength fading, crew member Kevin Ferrell jumped into action. Kevin, a longtime whitewater kayaker and commercial fisherman, quickly tied a prusik knot, breaking the anchor line and giving the crew much needed rest. Within minutes Kevin had rigged up a 4-to-1 pulley system and the our fears gave way to excitment as we hauled the line and felt the Mary Marshall creep over the lip of the rapid. Exhausted and relieved, cold and wet, the crew pulled up onto a beach next to the rapid where we quickly build a large fire and began roasting pork shoulders.
In the days since Balcony we have continued our ascent of the James River through the spectacular Appalachian Mountains. Rapids are noticibly steeper and more fequent than in the Piedmont, but spirits are high as we relish the beauty of the landscape and spend time exploring relics from the James River and Kanawah Canal. Within the next month we will finish our up-river journey and cross the Alleghany Mountains into West Virginia. From there we will descend the Greenbrier and mighty New Rivers, and reach our journey’s end at the Kanawah River. To find out more about our vessel and mission, visit our blog at www.vacanals.org/marshall.