Kayaking in Nelson Co | Q&A with Gordon Dalton
Kayaking was never more exciting to me than when I was a teenager. Living in Richmond, playboating was what it was all about because inherently, the James is a playboat river. Meanwhile, I was also getting interested in 'creek boating' after watching kayaking films from Falling Down Productions, LVM, and plenty of others. Creek boating refers to a style of kayaking that involves complex moves on waterfalls & steep boulder filled streams that are found in the depths of mountains and gorges. My initial search for creeks in Virginia unveiled a photo of a rapid called 'Cushion' on the North Fork of the Tye by Gordon Dalton. I was in awe, it looked so beautiful! This was the real kayaking experience I had dreamed of and was stoked it was close to home. That picture was (and still is) the most inspirational image of kayaking from the James River Watershed and pushed me to continue researching the American Whitewater website for more beta on Virginia creeks by Gordon. Creek after creek, the images looked so fun and exciting. At that point, it was clear kayaking in Nelson was a goal of mine and over the years it has become one of my favorite destinations to paddle. I share this background story because like myself, Gordon has inspired a lot of kayakers to paddle for all the right reasons. He is an incredible athlete (one that I look up to) and an amazing advocate for Virginia kayaking. I had the opportunity to interview Gordon for Home on the James and am excited to share his stories of Nelson County exploration with you. (It just so happened, that directly after finishing this interview, it rained 5 inches and put an end to a prolonged period of dry weather. Coincidence? I think not.) Thank you Gordon for your dedication to the sport and awesome interview!
Photos by Gordon Dalton
Gordon, you have been spearheading the creek boat scene in Nelson County for a while now. When did you start having interest in paddling some of these small creeks that drain the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge?
Thanks for asking about this, Hunter! My interest in these creeks started in the mid-1990's when I went to college in Lexington, VA. My friends, Glen Piegari and Kevin Batteh, and I got asked to join Greg Gil and Jeff Schnelle on the 1st or 2nd descent of South Fk Tye (Greg and Jeff were the "hot" boaters in Charlottesville at that time. Greg is who "Greg's Hole" on Manns Creek is named for). There is a video from that day on YouTube by the user "tubbomio."
After that day we started scanning maps for more of these steep, little gems. Pretty soon after that (late 1994 or early '95) we did a mission to the North Fork Tye and, right away, I knew we had a winner. Greg Gil, Kevin, and Glen joined me on that run. We only put on about half-way up - that is why "Entrance" was named that - it was the first of the "bigger" drops we came to that day. Also, the rapid we all call "Glide" was actually called "Glen's Glide" since Glen ran it first. Later, as we scouted one of the biggest ones, Greg Gil shook his head and said, "Anyone who runs that drop has lost his marbles." Kevin stepped up and ran that one first, and so it became "Marbles." It was on a subsequent day that we put on at the mouth of White Rock Creek and ran the whole section - including the biggest drop, which I ran and named "Cushion Convector," after the Phish song (hey, I was young and in college. Don't judge!).
What creeks, do you feel, are the staples of creek boating in Nelson County?
The North Fork Tye seems to be the "go-to" creek run for most folks in Nelson County. It is roadside, accessible, and high-quality if the level is right. The rocks on the "NFT" are generally rounded and smooth, compared to the mank of the South Rockfish, for instance. And you have the SOUTH Fork Tye right there, sharing the same take-out; so you have options for lap #2!
I have a theory for why the Nelson Creeks stand out as some of the best paddling in the state: Hurricane Camille. In 1969 the remnants of that hurricane dropped record-book rainfall of 27-30" (unsubstantiated claims of 40") of rain overnight in the Tye, Piney, and Rockfish drainages. The resulting flooding brought the Tye up to around 200,000 cfs (!) and caused the James to flow upstream toward Lynchburg. You can obviously imagine what that flow does to a creek that is around 50-100 cfs most of the year. I think Camille scoured these drainages out and that is why these creeks are unique in Virginia. Statons Creek used to be one of the most-regular destinations but I think the wood situation has gotten bad again recently.
At what point did you and friends start to focus attention on micro creeks like Shoe Creek, NF of the Piney, Adrenaline Alley or Pauls Creek? What events inspired you to look beyond the normal creek runs at the time?
In ~1997 I did an exploratory run of the upper South Fork Tye (Montebello to Rt. 56) with Joey Beck and "Hairy Gary" Ward, another "hairboater" from back then. (Do people even use that term, "hairboater," any more?). We had to walk a lot of the bigger drops because there was so much snow on the ground it was hard to scout stuff. Then we explored the Piney drainage - starting with the South Fork. We had a big crew, including the Roanoke Crew (Joey Beck, Randy Boush, and Ricky Showalter) to do a section of the South Piney one day but it was in flood. The low-water bridges were all boiling death traps. An old guy in a beater Buick flagged us down and told us his cousin would shoot us if he saw us in the river, then drove off (probably to call his cousin). The river was huge and brown; Glen and I decided to bail out and drive shuttle. We dropped off the crew and before we could drive a 1/4-mile half the crew had swam, someone had a broken arm, and multiple boats were gone. That was a learning experience. Around 2003-2004, I noticed the upper-upper section of the NFT had a short, very steep part that look possible. That led us to the first-descent of the "Adrenaline Alley" section - the hardest and steepest runnable part of the Tye drainage.
Mason Basten and I had been independently eyeing Statons Creek for awhile but it was totally full of fallen hemlock trees. It seemed too clogged to even attempt to clear it. But Jeremy Laucks and I got motivated and spent a few days in there chainsawing "notches" through the log jams. When we suddenly had a chance to paddle Statons, Jeremy was late and missed most of the first-descent; but Luke Hopkins, and a good crew joined me for that high-water Statons day. Back in those days, Statons ran much more often. I don't know why that changed.
By then we were looking beyond Nelson, and "found" Hays Creek and the Marl Creek "Teacups" (there are several "Marl Creeks" - this is the one between Lex and Buena Vista) in Rockbridge County. We'd been running Laurel Creek (Maury tributary) in Rockbridge for years by then.
Do you have any stories you are most proud of in terms of descents?
I guess I'd say I'm most proud of finding Pauls Creek. Pauls may be the steepest, runnable creek in Virginia and it is all runnable. There aren't many rapids around where you can get the kind of air you catch on the biggest slide in Pauls.
I was at work one day and heard someone telling a coworker how she'd taken her kids to "the waterslides" on Pauls Creek. My ears perked up when I heard that and I asked about it. I got the beta and hiked-in there. I couldn't believe what I saw. After Hurricane Francis hit in 2004, I talked Mason Basten and Josh Sandage into the Pauls Creek first-descent. As we hiked-in I told them, "Yeah, this creek may just be a 'novelty' run that we hit once and not again." But then we put-on, and realized we'd found something really cool. That is why the biggest slide was actually called "Novelty." But it felt odd doing a first-descent without one of our usual partners, Harris Haynie; so we joked that we should name the drop, "Where's Haynie" instead. Another drop was named that day; "Rochambeau" got its name after the three of us played rock-paper-scissors (roshambo) to decide who would run it first. I "won" but I wonder if the others just let me win so that I would have to probe the drop. It is not a "good" looking drop!
Why do you love creek boating in Nelson County and in the James River Watershed?
I love creek boating anywhere, but Nelson County is "home." After grad school I ended up moving here, partly to be close to these creeks (and a ski resort!). Like I said before though, these creeks are some of the most fun streams to paddle in the state. And they are all within a 30-40 minute drive of each other. You can get a "Full Nelson" Day, hitting 4 different class V creeks. Or go for the Triple Crown: paddling something from each of the 3 "Nelson" drainages: Tye/Piney/Rockfish. And the James River Watershed overall has to be Virginia's premier river system - the Maury has been a major part of my life for 2 decades, and we love to paddle several sections of the Middle James to fish, float, and be with family. The easier, lower sections of the Tye and Piney are the favorite "family floats" for the Daltons. And we try to do a "Friday Float" on the Upper Rockfish with a bunch of friends, as often as possible in the spring. We've got it all here - from class V to "class fun." Heck, even driving shuttle in Nelson County is a beautiful experience.
Do you think there are any First Descents left (although we don't expect you to give up any beta)?
For sure there are still legit first descents ready to be tapped in Virginia! As recently as 2011 I talked Trafford McRae and Trevar Bennington into trying the North Fork Buffalo and it was good (but low that day). We also did the first-descent of a great slide ("Tatanka") on the West Prong North Fork Buffalo that day. There is more potential in that area - between the Piney and the James, and over into eastern Rockbridge. I still have a list of stuff i'd like to check out in the Shenandoah National Park - and I know you do too. I also have been looking loosely at some streams around Covington/Clifton Forge, VA. I am not too worried about folks racing to these creeks. It takes some map work, creativity, motivation, and usually some hiking, to make these more-remote missions go off. There just don't seem to be many folks making those steps. That is why I am so happy to have a core group of friends who will go into these situations with me again and again. Harris Haynie has been one of those stalwarts - he is always ready to go, with a smile on. Harris has been with me on most of these missions - we did the South Rockfish first-descent in 2003 after-work, in about a half-hour as darkness fell, running the entire creek blind and fast. And he loaned me his boat to do it in. He also did the North Fork Piney first-descent with me and Pete Morey, in 2006. For that one we had to take a 4WD trail into the National Forest, clear a few downed trees, then navigate our way into the creek as we hiked the last bit into that remote, wood-choked, gnar. Josh Sandage and Trafford McRae were also the usual suspects I'd call for any creek boating, and especially questionable first-descent missions. 'There's gold in them there hills' if you want to go looking for it. Think Rain!