PHOTOS BY BILLY BOWLING
"Being on the river gives me a sense of wholeness. I can find peace out there when it isn't available anywhere else.” — Paul Moody, New River's Edge
Lately I've been struggling to find hope in humanity. News about the latest terrorist attack can make it hard. It’s even harder to know how to be part of the solution — how to contribute to the broad, overwhelming, intangible idea of world peace. Sometimes, the best we can do is focus on what we can control: our immediate circle of influence. That can mean spreading love, compassion, and understanding to our own networks and to those who we contact, whether friend or a stranger. And to spread peace, it helps to find it in ourselves first.
Lakes and rivers can help. They can unlock that peace within the souls of all who traverse their waters. Water trails are a gateway to the natural world and its inherent meditative and therapeutic benefits. It’s impossible to know how just how deeply these waters impact people. What I do know is how water continues to be more than just a resource, as a friend and constant companion for peace and renewal.
While paddling the New River in Giles County, Virginia, I felt a refreshing wave of serenity, of history and rebirth, that reminded me that there is hope hidden in the seemingly untouched parts of the world.
Sometimes one town on its own is too small to truly be considered the Next Best Paddling Town. Sometimes it takes collaboration and pooling of resources by neighboring communities to provide paddler amenities for a larger region. The five municipalities in Giles County, Virginia do just that, focusing their energies on the New River, ironically one of the geologically oldest rivers in America.
The New River flows 360 miles from its origin in North Carolina near the Tennessee state line to its confluence with the Gauley River in West Virginia. The New is in the Ohio River Watershed which means, for the Mississippi River junkies out there, you could start your expedition to the Gulf of Mexico in North Carolina.
The most popular paddling stretches on the New River Water Trail are the 6 miles from Eggleston to New River's Edge in Pembroke and the 9-mile stretch of river from New River's Edge to Bluff City (complete with play-spots to surf waves). The New River is a dynamic water trail that can accommodate your recreational desires whether you are a novice paddler looking for a relaxing day on the river or an expert paddler looking for a challenging run.
I had the pleasure of paddling through the mountains from Eggleston to New River's Edge on a beautiful sunny day. Hailing from Minnesota, dramatic topography is enough to make me stop in my tracks, so experiencing the mountains from the water added an extra layer of awe to the already awesome adventure the New River provides. It was difficult to watch for obstacles in the small but exhilarating rapid sets on this stretch because my eyes gravitated to the rock cliffs leaning toward the river, whispering history and hiding wildlife.
Paddlers on this route can pack a picnic lunch and stop at one of the many gravel beaches overlooking the seemingly undeveloped landscape. Much of the land along the river is owned by the railroad, which can be a double-edged sword for paddling: The land is undeveloped, but access to the river and river communities can be challenging. The communities in Giles County have worked hard to provide 11 public access points along the 37 miles of managed water trail on the New River, including two new boat ramps complete with interpretive signs and bathrooms.
While paddling this stretch, our group came across a rope-swing singing our names like an irresistible river siren. Every bend in the New River presents a new adventure, quickly turning a six-mile stretch into a day-long multi-use excursion. If you rent a boat from one of the three main outfitters in Giles County — New River's Edge, Tangent Outfitters, and New River Outdoor Company — they will gladly take care of shuttling to and from the river as well as connect you to biking and hiking experiences in the valley. The Appalachian Trail runs through Giles County (tag-lined Virginia's Mountain Playground) and the two- to three-hour hike to the Cascades Waterfall brings people from all over to experience the mountains.
After a day of paddling, indulge in unexpectedly fine dining at The Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston. The Palisades successfully balances haute cuisine and a big city vibe with small town hospitality and local music. I nearly forgot I was in a town with a population of 170 people until I stepped out into the quiet mountain air to return to New River's Edge, where visitors to the New River can camp or stay overnight in a rustic wooden lodge by the water. There are a few Bed and Breakfast options in the area too, including the Inn at Riverbend (with an amazing view of the river valley) and Mountain Lake Lodge. For those of you Dirty Dancing fans out there, the ’87 classic was filmed at Mountain Lake Lodge, and there is a Dirty Dancing museum on top of the mountain. You can run around recreating the movie, though be warned that the lake where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey danced was drained by natural causes (which might make for easier dancing!). Click HERE for more information on lodging and dining in Giles County.
So what's next for the serene mountain river towns on the New River Water Trail? For a place that already has hiking, biking, paddling, birding, fishing, and you name it, it is not a matter of increasing recreational amenities but a focus on increasing resources and access to those amenities. Currently only 37 of the 360 miles of the New River are designated as a water trail and managed for camping and recreation. There is a push to expand the water trail and offer even more recreational amenities for residents and visitors, including connecting the water trail to hiking and biking trails in the region. Giles County received financial support to invest in sustainable tourism to help transition from a coal-centric economy and is wisely focused on its greatest asset: the New River.
If you're looking for a quiet getaway to reignite your love of the world around you, look no further than the peaceful New River in Giles County. Add your own story to the flow of the water and join a family of river lovers who return to the river for lessons in love and compassion, for themselves and for the betterment of humankind. As Paul Moody from New River's Edge says, "Let the river love on ya!"
Each month, Natalie Warren will highlight a different North American town making positive strides toward community and infrastructure developments catering to recreational paddling. In 2011, Warren was one of the first two women to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, recreating Eric Sevareid's route from Canoeing With the Cree. The journey earned a nomination for the Canoe & Kayak Awards' 2012 Expedition of the Year. Since then, she has paddled the length of the Mississippi River and won first place in the women’s voyageur category in the 2016 Yukon River Quest with the Aurora Collective team.
Warren works with communities across the country to increase paddlesports tourism and paddler amenities. Currently a River Steward for the St. Croix River Association, Warren has also worked with the River Management Society, finding ways to increase awareness about the economic benefits of water trails, and with it, paddlesports tourism.
Check out Warren’s previous installments of the (Next) Best Paddling Towns:
— Explore the country’s second largest delta near Mobile, Ala.
— Lively access to the Kansas River National Water Trail in Lawrence, Kan.
— Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.
— A bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.
— Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland
— A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan
— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns