Wednesday, July 22, 2015

STONES UNTURNED--CAVING IN WESTERN VIRGINIA

Fog and vapor hangs thick in the air as we drive westward towards the rugged, veiled peaks of the Blue Ridge that shield the view of the highlands beyond.  Long sleeves and pants wear heavy in the summer heat.  Threatening clouds stall on the horizon, but weather doesn’t matter when your destination is underground.

    David Small, student government and outdoor adventure teacher at Fluvanna County High School; three Fluvanna grads, Travis, Chris, and Small’s daughter, Erin; and I exit a road-seasoned Subaru at the “trailhead” for the day’s adventure around midday.  After a two-hour car ride, we are ready to mobilize.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Packs are filled with food, water, extra batteries, maps, first aid supplies, and cameras.  Headlamps are double-checked for functionality.  Boots are laced, and some tape their ankles and wrists.  Hardhats and gloves for safety and tact are distributed and donned with firmness—a muted excitement and acknowledgement of the risk involved with venturing underground.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    “The most dangerous part is getting to it!” Someone exclaims. 

    At the foot of the short foot trail marred by mud puddles and root systems towers a rock face.  Only a small opening of about two feet offers advancement.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Wriggling through the cave entrance, “breakdown”—a collection of chunk rock indicative of the cave’s mouth crumbling—greets us.  It is clearly visible in the twilight zone, making footing easy—mere practice for what’s to come. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Deeper we advance.  Daylight fades.  The ceiling drops.

    “Three points of contact,” Small announces encouragingly. 

    The ground becomes slick with mud; the footing, technical. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Hand.  Hand.  Foot.  Swing.  A mental checklist becomes subconscious.  Footing is not hard to come by in most circumstances, but lose balance or place a foot too far and you may take a hard fall or break a leg in a hole.

    Small is comfortable with his knowledge of the passages—comfortable enough to navigate pitch dark with just a headlamp and a map.  However, for safety, we leave a bread-crumb trail of yellow marking tape, placed directionally on visible rocks at points of intersection.  There are countless opportunities to get lost here.  Even more in the dark.

Small checks the cave map.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Such is the allure of caves.  Unlike the first cave I ever explored, the entrance to this cavern is tight.  I have seen holes of equal and larger size in my wanderings in the mountains on multiple occasions.  Only this one is a portal to miles of underground passages, and there are countless more within the cave, presumably unexplored.  There is great potential for virgin, unexplored territory.

    We reach an intersection.  The main passage swerves to the left.  A crag steeps to the left.  A length of mud-crusted para-chord used for navigation extends into the crag, limp.  Where does it lead?
    
    We proceed without discovering the answer.

Freddy the Cave Frog.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    If I had any prior inkling of the bowels of the Earth where we tread, I would be referring to these sights with reference to specific locations, officially dubbed on the map.  But I am a newcomer in this venue.  Each new encounter is a hard, muddy, and slippery obstacle and I love it.  It’s a physical challenge to the other half of the body’s muscles—the ones not used on an everyday basis.

    “The Pit.”  That toponym does stick with me, if only for its blatant expression of struggle.  The main passage extends up, through a tricky tunnel of boulders and sharp rocks.  A pack will catch, and must be thrown or handed up.

    As is the case in many spots, the map indicates two possible routes to the same end.  The one that Erin and I choose is an underground creekbed that travels underneath “The Pit,” but requires a tight initial squeeze that soaks you to the bone with spring water. 

    On the other end, we are met with what now seems like a foreigner—a plump toad positioned at the mouth of the creek.  The troglobite—or cave dweller—was assumed blind for its habitation deep in the dark zone of the cave, and for its lack of hopping reflexes when confronted.



Chris Markham attempts a tight squeeze.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Checking the Cave Map at Short Man's Shortcut.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    As we pushed on, the passage began to tighten.  Eventually we found ourselves at what seemed to be an impasse—“Short Man’s Shortcut.”  A dead-end offered only a 9-inch tall tunnel for advancement.  None of us fit, and none wanted to push their luck nearly a mile from daylight and under hundreds of tons of earth.  But as we sat there in resignation, headlamps fixed on the cave map, rumors of an underground river accessible through the cave and the tight passage before us fueled our sense of adventure.  There is always more to discover.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

LAND & WATER CONSERVATION FUND SET TO EXPIRE IN 30 DAYS

Chances are good that the last time you spent time in your favorite outdoor setting, you spent it on land purchased by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is set to expire in 30 days.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Created in 1965 in a bipartisan Congressional agreement, the LWCF is a motor that carries with it the mission of protecting America’s natural areas, natural resources, and historical and cultural sites.  The initiative called for $900 million—a small fraction—of fees paid by offshore oil and gas mining companies to be appropriated into the fund annually.  The fund, then, was to be used to protect wilderness areas, national parks, working ranches, greenways, wildlife corridors, and riparian lands, and to assist in the building of parks, recreational sport fields, and trail systems in all 50 states.

    Around the financial and legislative power of the LWCF formed the LWCF Coalition, a grouping of over 1000 conservation groups across the country united for a common cause.  “My land trust, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, is a member because we realize that in order to protect fragile lands along the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway we need a steady investment to meet our goals,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy who enjoys hiking on and around the Appalachian Trail near his home in Asheville, North Carolina.  “Collectively we hope to raise our voices to tell the story that land conservation is a bipartisan no-brainer.  Everybody loves clean water and places to hike and camp.  But not everybody knows how much work goes into securing even a single acre of protection for future generations.”
Virginia, specifically, has received about $283 million over the past 50 years from the fund, protecting such cherished natural environments as the James River and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuges, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Jefferson/Washington National Forest. 

    However, the LWCF is much broader in its efforts than these nationally-recognized settings.  “A lot of the funding flows directly to Virginia so that local communities can create bike trails and greenways, and even soccer fields,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy who enjoys hiking on and around the Appalachian Trail.  “In Virginia there is a real challenge to create wildlife corridors and buffer historical sites from suburban sprawl.  LWCF is the best tool for protecting the places we all cherish.”

    Unfortunately, that tool has been underutilized over the course of its five-decade life.  “Dishonest budgeting” has been rampant—over $19 billion has been wrongly diverted from the LWCF account and utilized elsewhere over the last 50 years.  “That money would have gone a long way to fixing some of our half-finished national forests and state parks,” said Leutze.  “When landowners inside our national forests and along the routes of the Appalachian Trail are willing to sell for a fair price, we really need the funds to be available as intended.”

    Now, the LWCF is facing expiration on September 30, 2015, leaving only 30 days of Congressional work periods for action to take place.

    What’s more, Congress will not consider reauthorization of the LWCF as a stand-alone bill, only as an amendment to a more substantial piece of legislature.  In February 2015, Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina introduced Senate Bill 338, which is getting the most attention as a reauthorization vehicle.  The bill requires a minimum of 1.5 percent of the annual funding amount allocated to the LWCF to be used for improving public access to federally-owned public lands, while calling for the original LWCF Act of 1965 to be amended, making the fund a permanent program.

    The corresponding bill in the House, House Bill 1814, currently has over 100 co-sponsors—primarily Democrats.  Republican Representatives are hearing grievances from the dogged, right-wing, Cliven Bundy-type constituents who believe that the federal government has overgrown its borders and acquired too much land already.  Considering the Republican majority in both houses of Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the reauthorization of the LWCF which is the sportsman’s most valuable asset. 

    From the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia, to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Canyon in the West, the LWCF is responsible for the protection of the special places that outdoor recreationists form strong ties with.  Economically, those lands support 9.4 million jobs and $730 billion of revenue annually nationwide, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.  The beauty of the program is that the funds are acquired from offshore drilling fees, not taxpayer dollars.


    Reauthorizing the LWCF is truly a “bipartisan no-brainer.”  Contact your representatives to let them know your wishes, and act fast.  Let’s preserve this conservation superpower while we still can.  

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, June 21, 2015

REVIEW: SIGMA 15mm f/2.8 DIAGONAL FISHEYE LENS

Last fall, during a gap semester before college that I personally dub my "East Coast Adventure,"  I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with the intriguing world of fisheye lenses.  Thanks to friend Gary Farber of Hunt's Photo and Video, based out of Melrose, Massachusetts, getting my hands on one was no problem.

The fully-stocked Nissan Versa in Fontana Village, North Carolina.  My first application of the Sigma fisheye lens.
Photo by Matt Reilly

    My tool of choice was the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 autofocus diagonal fisheye lens that fits the mounting ring on my Nikon D3200.  It performed well, with little in the way of a learning curve due to the fixed focal length and auto-focus features.



    While the Sigma Fisheye Lense was tucked away safely in my Lowepro camera bag, another field-test product was enjoying a position as my new favorite and go-to fly rod--the Scion Series Tycoon Tackle fly rod in a 9' 4-wt. model.  The Sigma lens enabled me to capture a few quality shots for my review, while emphasizing one of the novel considerations that shooting with a fisheye lens poses.

  
The Tycoon Tackle Scion riding shotgun.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    In case you didn't notice in the photo above, the photo above has dark corners, and when I tried to crop them out using Photoshop, it negatively altered the composition of the photograph.  This taught me a valuable lesson about fisheye lenses.

The Scion flexin' on a Rose River rainbow.  Photo by Mat Reilly.

    There are two types of fisheye lenses--circular and diagonal (or "full-frame").  Both lenses achieve the same end--a wide-angle, barrel distortion to images.  However, they achieve this end by different means.  A circular lens features an image circle that is smaller than the sensor.  A diagonal lens's image circle is larger than the sensor, and thus the resulting image is captured with dark edges.  I had the latter.

Marabou Roadrunner jigs made for an exciting evening of fall crappie fishing, and a tasty dinner too!  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Now I know.  After a full-immersion crash course in fisheye lenses, I now have a slight clue as to what I'm looking for and how to use them.  Regardless of what lens I purchase in the future, the Sigma is a solid option and performs well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

AMERICAN PUBLIC LANDS A SPIRITUAL TRADITION

Modern society has convinced the outdoorsman in me that I was born too late.  The rivers that I frequent are suppressed in spirit, their wonder restrained to their actual dimensions by urban sprawl, highways, and water treatment plants.  When I take to the field, I thirst for the refreshing experience of new waters; but I lust for those places tucked away, out of sight, lost in nature—where their essence extends for miles through some black hole of the mind, never threatened by development or the idea that they might, in some dimension, end.

The mighty Saco River at low water, crawling through a White Mountain valley.  Photo by Matt Reilly

    Development.  My parents know what it means.  Their age is told in their memories.  There was a time when Charlottesville, Virginia was not a city, but a town.  Before Walmart and Sam’s Club took their anarchical perch above Route 29, farmer Matheny tended to his cows on the grassy pasture behind a blackboard fence and an illusion that things might never change.  The Rivanna River, in the gulley behind Walton’s culturally-obese babies, coursed higher and stronger through the rolling hills of the Piedmont, its lifeblood not yet stolen by the host of housing developments to come, its finned inhabitants still unrestrained by dams.

    I hear these memories as a young child.  Fear briefly enters and exits my mind.  What will the world look like when I am grown?  But at 8 years old, as far as I know, things don’t change.

    I eventually learned my lesson.

    The woodlot that was destined to be subdivided behind our newly-furnished house was just large enough to be reminiscent of Maine’s “Big Woods” that I had learned of in Field and Stream.  If I walked along the length of the creekbottom, in the shadows of towering ridges, I could escape with the perception of total isolation.

    One spring, I happened upon a stream of moderate girth.  I returned countless times in following seasons, slinging spinners and flies to feisty panfish and pickerel. 

    One day I was startled by the sight of two houses.  Both were under construction; and their backyards had torn into the woodland veil protecting my secret gem, revealing it for all to see, eroding the banks, and slowing the current.

    Sour and cynical over the soiling of my stream, I retreated into my mind to a place where rivers run free and woods seem endless, where constant human activity does not hamper the wildlife activity, and the flora is ornamental by God’s design, rather than that of a landscaper.  It was from this experience that I began to crave wild lands removed from human occupation.

    By the time I earned my driver’s license I was a passionate fly fisherman, completely lost in the sport; and my search for new water took me to where my childhood fantasies existed in actuality—the Shenandoah National Park, where my dad had taken me to grouse hunt and trout fish at a very young age.  Now, with the means to transport myself, I set off into the Blue Ridge when I yearn for the tug of a sprightly brook trout.

    I drive west; and as the roads turn from pavement to gravel to dirt to nothing, and the hardwoods close in above my head as I’m intertwined into the deep, meandering hollows where the freestones run, the shackles of society and modern, complicated life disintegrate into the air.

    I can fish my way through the gorge that the Rapidan River flows through in consensual ignorance.  In my mind, the Park does not end, but extends forever in every direction, as does the river; and the fish in its watery depths are virgin natives—refugees, like me.

    When a brook trout comes to hand, my suspicion is upheld.  The fiery brilliance that adorns its belly and pectorals, the olive river rock along its back, accented by strong blue and red bull’s eyes make me believe that they are a purity in nature, a stronghold of all that has been lost in the world, safeguarded, hidden in the bottom of a mountain stream. 


    But alas, I know this illusion is false.  The trout in my hand is a species endangered by a host of man-made threats; and its range retreats into the mountaintops yearly.  However, unlike the Piedmont stream of my childhood, this one is protected, forever sealed from peripheral development by 197,000 acres of federally-protected land.  To the brook trout, and to me, that thought is full of hope; as it is a symbol of like-minded individuals concerned with the state of the environment doing their best to secure recreational areas and wildlife havens for future generations, to preserve our spiritual haunts.  In a word, it is a promise:  For as long as I, and my children, live, places like Shenandoah will be protected and cherished by sportsmen.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, June 7, 2015

HIT THE TRAILS FOR NATIONAL TRAILS DAY

As I pen this column, Virginia’s trails are no doubt overrun by Memorial Day hikers, and for that very reason I have resisted the urge to visit my favorite spot in the Shenandoah National Park.  Next weekend should be no different; as the first Saturday in June is officially designated “National Trails Day,” a celebration of the wonderful system of paths veining our beautiful country.  In honor of this event, I’ll detail a few places I’ve developed a soft spot for in and around central Virginia.


Saint Mary’s Wilderness


    The Saint Mary’s is a special place to me and a popular and well-known destination for hikers and fishermen alike.

    This federally-designated wilderness of almost 10,000 acres is situated in southeastern Augusta County, surrounding the upper Saint Mary’s River.  About 17 miles of trail negotiate the rugged gorge that guides the river, from the lower end of the property near Raphine up to the southern edge of Big Levels at Green Pond.

    The Saint Mary’s Falls Trail begins at the lower parking lot, accessible via Forest Service Road 41, and, moving northeast, fords the river before dead-ending at the wilderness’s dominating feature—Saint Mary’s Falls.  This is by far the most popular hike; the plunge pool below the falls is usually full of cliff-divers during the warmer months.

    The Mine Bank Trail descends into the gorge from the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Fork Mountain Overlook near Milepost 23, following one of the River’s largest tributaries, Mine Bank Creek.  Roughly two miles of downhill trekking will land one at the intersection of the lengthy Saint Mary’s Trail, just within striking distance of the river.  There are a handful of quality camp spots at the base of the hollow where the waters converge, making this trail popular among backpackers.  Keep in mind, though the hike in is relatively easy as it is all downhill, the reverse trip is strenuous.  Plan time accordingly. 

    The Saint Mary’s Trail—the property’s longest trail—begins at Green Pond.  Forest Service Road 162 branches north from the Parkway at Milepost 22.2 at Bald Mountain Overlook and leads to this trailhead, which is probably the least-utilized.

Sugar Hollow, North Fork of the Moormans River


    I’m not giving away any secrets here.   Much to the chagrin of Charlottesville’s brook trout fishing crew, the parking lot at this trailhead near the upper end of Charlottesville’s Sugar Hollow Reservoir is rarely devoid of a car, but it has earned respect from me, both for the experiences I’ve had in the Hollow and for its closeness.

    Follow Garth Road west from Charlottesville and continue on Route 614 until reaching Sugar Hollow Reservoir.  The trail departs from the parking lot at the upper end of the reservoir.

    Three river fords and 2.3 miles of trail separate the parking lot and the Big Branch spur trail on the left that ascends to the Skyline Drive at Black Rock Gap in 3.7 miles.  The main trail continues past the spur, generally following the river.

    If you arrive at the trailhead and the parking lot is slammed, you may achieve a bit more solitude by opting to hike the South Fork of the Moormans River instead.  A yellow iron gate bars the head of this trail on the downstream side of the parking lot.  Ford the river in the first few yards, then continue up the trail to the famed “Blue Hole”—a seemingly bottomless swimming hole.

Humpback Rock


    Again, this is no secret.  The Humpback Rock trail is easily one of the most popular hikes in Virginia thanks to the beautiful panoramic view of Shenandoah’s west slope and the Shenandoah Valley, but if you’re looking for a short, fun hike with a great reward, you can’t beat it.

    At Milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the base of the Mountain Farm Trail, there is a 19th Century interpretive farm setup.  This marks the trailhead for reaching Humpback Rock.

    This is a short trail of about a mile that gains roughly 800 feet in elevation.  The first portion of the trail is graveled and very steep, but the remainder is rugged, steep, and somewhat muddy.

    The namesake outcropping at the peak is well worth the expended energy, though there is an astonishing amount of writing on the rocks from past hikers. 

    Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the trail, pack your headlamp and camp out on the peak to watch the sun set over the Valley.



    Now that I’m through with this column, I’m excited to go exploring in the days to come.  I’ve only named three, but there are countless other hikes of equal or greater challenge and reward within a short trip from Charlottesville.  Get out and take advantage of the miles of trail within our very own Shenandoah National Park this weekend!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, May 28, 2015

BROOKIE FEVER

The outdoor lifestyle is ruled by the seasons, and the seasons by traditions.  There is no tradition that enraptures me more than spring on a native brook trout stream.

A sprightly Virginia brook trout.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    Trout do, on occasion, live in ugly places, despite the popular sentiment.  Sewage-contaminated rivers and spillways thick with ground up baitfish and full of big brown trout come to mind.  Brook trout, however, do not—at least in my experience. 

    Their necessary fondness for clean, healthy, and cold water predetermines for them a life in the Appalachian Mountain streams, where they serve as groundskeepers of natural beauty and ecological vitality.  Their absence from such streams is a sure sign of a declining environment.  They are a product of their surroundings; and so it is no wonder that they are the most beautiful of fish. 

    In the dead of winter, when trees lie dormant, the ground hardens, the air chews at your extremities, and the vibrant color of a mountain empire is a faint memory tumbling somewhere downstream, brook trout hold fast to the pigments of God’s generous paintbrush from the bottom of the streambed.  Life resides within the river.

A picturesque plunge pool in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    As spring arrives, the air livens and color springs from water.  Dogwood, redbud, rhododendron, magnolia, mountain laurel, trillium, bluebell, and bloodroot take over the understory, accented by the faint green of budding hardwoods.  Grass, mountain daisies, and ferns cover the sunlit stream banks as the water warms.  Insects hatch and embark on their life’s journey; the brook trout become more active.

Mountain Daisies.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Anglers from Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge, and all over dream of these first signs of spring.  For spring is a strong emotion in the mountains—a sharp contrast to the doldrums of winter.

    It is during the spring months that brook trout will readily take a well-presented dry fly, and it is perhaps experiencing the combination of such pleasant purity and the overbearing gamut of hues and aromas present in the mountain landscape, culminated in the brilliant flanks of a quivering trout, that so accurately summarizes our reason for being anglers in the first place.  It is, at least, why I declare the beginning of the year on a brook trout stream.  I hold few stereotypes, but I can safely assume that where there are brook trout is home to me.

    Those with brookie fever are many, varied, and seemingly unlikely. 

    It is no secret that brook trout are a small quarry.  Three and four weight fly rods are common tools.  Streams are often just a few feet wide, and the fish rarely exceed 10 inches in length, though there is the ever-alluring opportunity for fish in excess of 12 inches.

    Regardless, it is mostly true that anyone with an inkling of Appalachian heritage has a fondness for the sprightly brook trout.  Even the most dedicated of big fish nuts can find excitement in the fish, both for the challenge and the opportunity.

    Though they are not especially selective feeders, brook trout are renowned proponents of the old Reverend Maclean’s philosophy on fishing, allowing no person lacking the particular set of skills required to catch them to do so.

    These skills include--first and foremost--stealth.  The vast majority of brook trout streams are skinny, clear, and full of pockets of water holding several fish.  Keeping a low profile, minimizing false casts, maintaining drag-free drifts, and walking softly are necessary skills.  Successful brook trout fishermen are bona fide Blue Ridge ninjas first, anglers second.

Approaching the fish from behind a boulder shield.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    The typical brookie fisherman spends more money on flies and tippet material over the course of the first two months of spring than the total worth of his or her own rod.  The tightness of cover and challenge of presentation is just another aspect of small stream fishing that adds to the fun.  There are no official testaments to my sanity, but I have often caught myself (on a good day) chuckling when my fly wraps around a limb on my last false cast.

    Gas and energy are equally expended resources.  For the small trout, a dedicated angler’s vehicle is stocked with marked gazetteers and guidebooks detailing even the smallest of mountain trickles, and the “good” fishing often doesn’t start before at least a half-hour hike upstream over rugged terrain.

Wild, beautiful fish in a wilderness setting is the essence of brook trout fishing.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Brookie fever is an affliction difficult to justify or explain except by the emotions experienced in the act of discovering it.  Such an unlikely target is the drive behind hundreds of miles of anxiously explored dirt roads; miles of rough mountain hollows navigated on foot; countless around-the-next-bend expeditions; and bruises, skinned knees, stubbed toes, thorn bushes, and mosquito bites sustained.  It is the focal point of our momentary distraction from civilization, and the medium through which we comprehend the grace of the natural world as it was meant to be.


*Originally published by The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A FEW REMINDERS FOR PLANNING AND EXECUTING A SAFE FLOAT TRIP

As of this week, I am officially released from the grip of school.  Summer is officially here, and if you’re anything like me, your soul craves nothing more than river mud- and sand-crusted feet, a timeless journey down a coursing river, and tangling with the resolute will of a river smallmouth.  So, in honor of National Safe Boating Week and everything that summer is, I’ve put together a short list of tips—a refresher—for keeping your float trips safe and enjoyable.

The iconic Massanutten Mountain from Low Water Bridge on the Shenandoah River.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

Check the Weather, Plan for the Worst


    Three years ago I was floating a short piece of the upper South Fork Rivanna River with my brother after work.  It was a last minute plan.  We were just going to be out for a few hours.  The skies were bluebird.  We didn’t even glance at the forecast.

    In this case, what we didn’t know bit us—hard.  We had paddled about a mile upstream and were just about to stop and begin to fish on our float back when an audible roar started to grow in the air.  I rounded a bend in the river to see--like black and white—dark, roiling storm clouds pushing back quickly on a bright sky that had previously seemed unconquerable.  As fast as we could paddle back wasn’t fast enough.  The storm overtook us in a matter of minutes, bringing branches tumbling haphazardly into the water along our path.  We made it back to the truck unscathed, albeit soaked, frightened, and humbled.  Read about that encounter HERE.

    The moral of the story?  Check the weather—always.  Summer is characterized by late-afternoon low pressure systems caused by warming air over land.  Know that, and plan and pack accordingly.

Limit Alcohol Consumption


    A study conducted in four southeastern states concluded that alcohol is a contributing factor in about 51 percent of motorboat fatalities in those states.  If your summertime boating activities involve operating a motorboat, understand that it requires dexterity, awareness of boating traffic, and the ability to make and execute quick decisions. 

    Alcohol also increases the danger of drowning by decreasing one’s ability to swim by reducing their ability to hold one’s breath and by disorientation. 

    Moreover, alcohol should not be utilized as a source of hydration, as its consumption can lead to dehydration.  Alcohol limits the body’s production of an anti-diuretic hormone, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb water.  Putting your body in this situation while on the water, in the sun, is not a healthy choice, and can lead to minor dehydration or a more serious illness.

Know Your Course and River Conditions


    It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time required for a particular float.  I have listened to many a story from people who fallaciously equated the length of the paralleling road to the length of their intended float, or otherwise bit off more than they could chew in a day and ended up on the river much after dark, to ever consciously make that mistake. 

    If you plan to tackle a new stretch of river, do your research.  Know its length in terms of river miles.  On average, eight to 10 miles makes for about four to six hours of relaxed floating.  If you plan to fish, cut that time in half.  Current speed should also be taken into consideration.  An eight-mile float on a fast-paced river will go by much faster than on a slow, meandering river.

    Similarly, it pays to do research on the water type present along the stretch you intend to float.  For instance, the Shenandoah River is a river of many ledges and a few rapids, namely Compton’s Rapids, while the Rivanna River has little in the way of sharp ledges in its lower reaches.  Know these character traits so that you can be on the lookout for them and know how to handle such obstacles when they are encountered. 

    Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, always check streamflow levels before floating a river.  The US Geological Survey maintains a detailed, real-time set of tables fed by river gauges across the country that serve as an invaluable resource for river-goers and fishermen alike.  Utilize that resource to avoid the stretches of slow, flat water where you might have to drag your craft during low water; the tight rapids that will be more dangerous during high water events; and to know when to stay home when the water is at flood stage or a remarkable low.


     Keep these tips in mind while planning and enjoying your times on the water this summer.  Nothing puts a hamper on a great day on the water with friends like an accident, and most can be easily avoided with forethought.

    See you on the water!
                 

 *Originally published in the Rural Virginian