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Where the New River Disappears

new-river-bridge-boatsIt’s called The Dries.

Between Hawks Nest Dam and a power plant just upriver from Gauley Bridge, the New River almost disappears. Most of the river is diverted into a three-mile long tunnel dug in the 1930s to provide power for a chemical plant. Hundreds of workers – mostly blacks recruited from the Deep South and immigrants recruited as they landed in America – died building that tunnel. Silicosis. It’s often described as the greatest industrial disaster in West Virginia history.

If you know much West Virginia history, that’s saying something.

The water comes back into the river at a hydroelectric plant just above Gauley Bridge. That’s where we planned to put in the last morning of the New River Expedition. The only time there’s enough water in The Dries to paddle it is during a release from the dam. The whitewater that generates is for experts only. We’d planned a short paddle over the flat water that connects the New to the Gauley and creates the Kanawha. But it rained the night before. It rained a lot. It rained enough to turn placid creeks upstream into raging torrents – enough to put water in The Dries.

I’d never seen that before.

When we put in just below the power plant, we turned upstream.

We saw boulders. House-sized rocks piled on top of each other. Car-sized rocks wedged against canyon walls. Courthouse-sized rocks undercut by centuries of river current. We paddled into coves with tiny sand beaches and giant overhangs with gaps that funneled breezes the way they funneled water when the river was taller.

Some boulders were scarred and dented – a story or two above the water that day – as if they had been pummeled by giant drills. I imagined rocks thrown against those stones by an ancient current, bouncing and pounding and cutting away until the smaller stones disintegrated, settling to be become part of the sandy terraces at the feet of the behemoths.

It was like paddling the bottom of the river, looking up where the rapids would rage if it still flowed freely.

Eventually, the river became too shallow and the current too swift for us to continue up stream.

The power plant was giving the New back as we paddled back downstream, releasing water that had fallen more than one hundred and sixty feet as it rushed through that tunnel. It created a powerful hydraulic, churning the current that should have been heading to Gauley Bridge across the river’s natural flow and back toward the power plant.

I had to paddle a little harder to get past it.


The National Committee for the New River organized a float this summer from Boone, N.C. to Gauley Bridge, W.Va., where the New joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha. Tim Thornton paddled along and dropped a line whenever he found a wireless connection; this is his last installment. Thornton's work on the river was made possible in part by a grant from The Arts Council of the Blue Ridge.



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