Clinch River ~ Saint Paul to Miller’s Yard
- 13.52 miles
- 6:15 duration
A few weeks ago, LakeBum (Rob) texted to say there was a float trip planned for June 28 and asked if I was interested. I quickly replied that I was, but only realized later that this was a Friday. Oh well, work has been very busy lately with preparing for and attending our annual conference, data entry due, and mission teams to assist with insurance and funding. I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to close the office for a day and go have some fun.
Our destination for this trip was the Clinch River in Virginia. We first paddled this river two years ago and it immediately moved to the top of our favorite list. Because there is a longer drive to get there, and a lengthy shuttle between start and finish, we had paddled it only one other time. That second trip was almost exactly a year ago.
On the two previous trips, we had paddled from Burton’s Ford to Miller’s Yard, a distance of about nine miles. However, we decided on this trip to start four and a half miles further upstream in the town of Saint Paul.
I met Richard and Rob at Richard’s house at 7:30 am. We loaded my boat in the back of Rob’s truck, and Richard’s on top, and then Richard followed Rob and me to Miller’s Yard near Dungannon, VA.
As we drove along the gravel road leading to the river access, Rob and I spotted a deer with a tiny fawn beside the road. The doe went in one direction, and the fawn in another. I hope they were reunited after we passed by.
At the river access we met Ben, Richard’s co-worker, and loaded his boat in the back with mine. For this trip we would have two canoes and two yaks. For once I wasn’t outnumbered; at least in the vessel department. I WAS the only female and the oldest in the group. While the guys decided where to park and moved gear around, I wandered the area checking out the river flow and taking photos of some flowers.
The drive from Miller’s Yard to Saint Paul was just a little longer than driving to our usual launch point at Burton’s Ford. As we arrived, I noticed a red caboose sitting by the river. It has been repurposed as the office for a business that rents kayaks and tubes for floating the river.
As we parked, I checked the geocaching app and announced that there was a cache hidden under the caboose. Rob affirmed that, saying he had noticed that when doing some online research before the trip. We were all eager to get on the river, however, so didn’t take time to look for it.
The launch area here is very interesting. Rather than a boat ramp, it is a set of concrete steps. Down the middle of the steps are concrete “rails” to allow you to easily slide your boat or tube into the water. We readied all of our gear, put our boats in the water, and started our journey at 9:45 am.
The blue skies were dotted with white, puffy clouds. There was a light breeze making the warm temperature more bearable. Almost immediately after starting our journey, we passed under a highway bridge. The loud sounds of trucks rumbling overhead drowned out the sounds of nature, but we soon put that behind us.
Ben was the only member of our group that had paddled this stretch of the river, and had told us there were a couple of ledges along the way that we would need to navigate. In his research, Rob had read that portaging around them was recommended. We passed under a railroad bridge and then reached that first ledge less than a half mile into our trip.
Since we were unsure what to expect, we all pulled over to the side of the river and climbed out of our boats to check it out. It looked as if staying river left was our best option. Ben went first, promptly overturning his sit-on-top-kayak. Richard followed in his white canoe named Casper and also got dumped.
I dug my helmet out of the stowage area in the stern of my boat and donned it before heading through the rapid, just in case. Of course, I always have my life jacket on when I’m paddling. I had a brief moment of trepidation, but it was quickly quelled when I remembered that I have never flipped in Huck. I believe this is more due to the low center of gravity and the stability of my boat than skill. And, even if I did flip, I would simply get wet. And, maybe hurt my pride a bit.
I paddled toward the chute we had picked out, and prepared for my trip over the ledge. About 10 feet from the drop my boat hit a rock with a bone-jarring crash, bounced off and continued with the flow of the river. Then I plunged over the short drop, with the front of the boat nosing under a wave that completely drenched me from the waist up. My boat suddenly tipped violently toward the left and I let out a “Whoa!” rather than my usual “Woohoo!” Just as quickly, I righted myself and was free of the rapid and able to shout “Yeah!” I had made it across.
I pivoted around so that the camera on the bow of my boat captured Rob’s attempt at the ledge. He steered his yellow boat named Minion as far left as possible, and made a perfect run over it. Ben told us later that a fisherman standing nearby had told him. “Watch this guy. He is going to turn over for sure.” He obviously thought Rob was going too far left, but instead he had found the sweet spot, making it look easy.
One thing that I always look forward to in June is the blooming of mimosa trees. I have long loved these trees since they seem to bloom right around my birthday. I saw them in several places along this river, although the bright pink blooms were starting to fade a bit. Another reason I love mimosas is that up close in the right light they look like fiber optic filaments.
As the temperature rose, I took of my helmet and fastened it to the strap of my spray skirt. It was somewhat in my way there, but if I lifted my arms high enough while paddling it wasn’t too bad. I followed Rob’s lead and scooped water in my ball cap before putting it back on my head. It was a bit chilly as it ran down my face and back, but very refreshing.
We felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere as we paddled along the river, but suddenly heard a voice call out from the shore. It was then we remembered there was a walking trail that follows the river. A woman greeted us and asked us to be on the lookout for a new rose gold iPhone she lost the week before. We assured her we would, but laughed at the possibility we would spot it.
I did spot some flowers along the shore nearby, and paddled over to get a closer look. They appeared to be some type of phlox.
We had been on the water for about an hour when the river became wide, deep and slow. The water was so calm that it was like glass, reflecting the green trees along the shore, the blue sky and white clouds. This was a sure sign that something was damming it up downstream.
We soon arrived at the second ledge that Ken had told us about. I have seen this ledge referred to online as Clinch Falls or St. Paul Falls. It is nowhere near a waterfall in my opinion; more like a three foot drop. The rocks reach all the way across the river, which is about 300 feet wide at this point. Not knowing what to expect here, I put my helmet back on for safety.
We paddled back and forth across the river above the ledge until we located the likeliest looking spot to cross over. We chose a route on river right and took turns crossing, with me the last to make the plunge. I scraped along exposed rock as I crossed wobbling a bit at the bottom, but once again made it without overturning.
From the bottom we could take pictures of the expanse of rock crossing the river, but only from a distance or at an angle. It was too wide to take a closeup photo head-on. Richard proclaimed that he wanted to plan a future trip that included stopping here for an extended visit and lunch.
Before continuing downstream, I took my helmet off again. This time I attached it to the shock cords behind me on the deck of my boat. This worked much better than in front of me on my skirt.
A few minutes later we came to a large island. Richard stayed with the main channel while Rob, Ken and I chose to paddle a more narrow route to the left of the island. I was happy I went this way because it was beautiful. The overhanging trees lent some welcome shade from the hot sun, and created a peaceful, yet mysterious atmosphere.
After paddling for an hour and forty-five minutes, we passed Burton’s Ford. This is the area where we had started our two previous trips on the Clinch, so everything past this point would be familiar territory. Rob was ready to take a break from kneeling in his canoe, but found the bank here too muddy. We decided to continue the short distance downstream to Russell Creek where we would take a break for lunch.
Russell Creek was a pleasant surprise on our first Clinch River trip. We had heard there was a waterfall here, and had nearly passed by it since a large, noisy group of kayakers had stopped just ahead of our arrival. We were glad that we did stop, because that waterfall is amazing.
The upper section of Russell Creek Falls is a drop of about 60 feet. There is a pool at the bottom of this drop that drains into a narrow, spiraling chute which dumps out into the lower pool.
It was a perfect place to have lunch. We left our boats near the mouth of the creek and walked upstream to the falls. Butterflies flitted around next to the pool.
I took a couple of quick photos and then sat down near Rob and Richard next to the lower pool to eat a quick sandwich. I complained to them that the maître d’ had seated me where I could not see the waterfall. They agreed that we were in the cheap seats.
As I ate, I could occasionally feel mist from the falls. I hurried through my meal and jumped up to enjoy the falls and the water. I had seen Ben swimming across the pool below the falls, but lost sight of him after that. Once I had moved to where I could see the falls again, I saw him above the lower chute. He had climbed up through it to investigate the upper falls.
I had taken my waterproof camera off the front of my kayak and carried it with me into the pool. The water was COLD! Bravely, I waded deeper and deeper, toward the base of the falls. When the water was up to my shoulders, I counted to three and dunked my head underwater. Yep. It was definitely cold!
Once we had all finished eating and had our fill of the scenery, we went back to our boats and continued our trip. Just a short distance downstream is the one rapid on the second half of our trip that is somewhat technical. We knew from previous trips that there is one spot that we could safely navigate through it.
As we approached, we noticed a huge log lying across the river. It appeared to be blocking our one safe route. The closer we got, the more evident it was that we would not be able to go our usual path.
We paddled to shore and got out to investigate the situation. I thought I might stay in the boat and let the guys check it out. I listened to their shouts for a few minutes as they pointed at different places we might go through the rapids. I finally decided I needed to get out and see for myself so that I would know the proper route to take.
I stood up out of my boat, and stepped onto the muddy bank. It was steep here, sloping straight down into the water. I took one careful step, and then a second, using my paddle as a walking stick to steady me. On the second step, my feet suddenly slid out from under me and down I went. I slid a few feet through the mud and over a rock, stopping at the edge of the water against my boat.
Of course, the first thing I did was look around to make sure no one had noticed. The guys were all looking at the river and hadn’t seen my clumsy fall. Whew!
I had to scoot along the ground for a bit to a point where I could get safely get my feet back under me and stand up. My left leg was feeling a bit scraped and bruised, but there was no blood and no bones protruding so I was good to go.
I carefully made my way across the rocks to where Rob and Richard were standing. Ben had made his way over to a rock in the middle of the river to investigate the situation. As we watched, he stepped on the large log that was blocking our way and bounced up and down a couple of times. When it moved, it seemed to spark an idea in him.
He labored for the next five or six minutes, moving the log a few inches at a time. He went from one end to the other, crouching down in the water to lift and roll it. Finally, he had maneuvered it so that it was parallel to the current rather than across it.
Richard finally shouted to him, “Is it enough out of the way?” “It looks like it,” Ben replied. “About the best I can probably do.” As he looked more closely he confirmed, “It looks wide enough… about four feet,”
We thanked him for his heroic efforts and everyone made their way back to their boats. I waded into the water to wash the mud from my leg and butt, climbed in my boat, and donned my helmet. In the meantime, Rob had successfully navigated through the rapid and positioned himself below to shoot video of the rest of us.
I went through next without any problem. The log was indeed out of the way. This rapid is fickle. Depending on how you hit it, the strong current will either carry you to the right or the left of a rock just below it. There is really no steering to do. The river will take you where it wants. On this trip through, my boat dropped over, made a sharp right, and skirted the rock in that direction. I always worry about hitting it, but never have.
Ben followed me and once again wiped out. It made me glad I did not opt for a sit-on-top kayak when I was ready to buy. He went to the right of the rock and his overturned yak went left. I paddled over to stop it while he swam toward shore gripping his paddle.
I then got back into position in time to capture video of Richard making his way through without a hitch. I shouted, “Excellent job!”
As we continued downstream I began seeing more and more mountain laurel blooming along the shoreline. Soon we stopped off at a rocky beach for a break and so that Richard and Rob could bail water out of their boats. They had collected it going through some fun, wavy rapids. After they finished, Rob and I paddled across the river to a spot where I had hidden a geocache under the laurels on our trip a year earlier. It had not yet been sought or found, so it would be an opportunity for a First to Find for Rob.
I sat in my boat while Rob looked, but then climbed out to help him when he couldn’t locate it. While we searched, Richard and Ben waded upstream so that they could float through the rapids sans boats. We spotted a shy turtle under the laurel bushes.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the cache. It apparently had washed away during flooding. I had posted a spoiler pic on the cache page, but none of the rocks in it looked like what we were seeing.
I went back to my boat and dug a bison tube out of my dry bag, let Rob sign the log, and hid it. He suggested I use the large tree nearby as a landmark, and I agreed, hanging it from the limb of a laurel bush directly behind the tree. If another geocacher floats this stretch of river, hopefully they will be able to find it there.
By the time we were done, Richard and Ben had body surfed the rapids a second time, and were ready to continue our journey. We continued to enjoy small rapids along the way. There are a couple of areas along the river where there are high cliffs towering overhead that plunge below the waterline. The scenery is endless.
We made another stop at the confluence of the Clinch River and Guest River. We snacked and stretched our legs for a bit before continuing downriver.
Soon, we were passing under the remnants of a swinging footbridge, and knew that we were nearly to the end of our journey. At some point along the way, we had spotted another doe with her baby, this time along the shore. They had run into the woods before I could take their photo. However, just after we had passed under the swinging bridge, I spied a deer watching us from shore. This one did not have a baby with it, but stood still so that I could take its picture.
Our float ended at Miller’s Yard where we had met seven and a half hours earlier. Our exit from the boats was a muddy one. We then had to carry our boats and gear a few hundred feet along the muddy road to the trucks. While the guys were carrying the canoes, I shouldered my yak and made it most of the way to the truck with it before running out of gas. I then gratefully accepted Ben’s offer to help, letting him grab one end while I carried the other. It’s amazing how much heavier it feels after a full day of paddling.
Ben had an appointment to keep that evening, so left us as we finished loading our gear and boats. As we worked, I heard a distant rumble and noticed that the wind had picked up. I said, “It’s going to rain.” I don’t think the guys believed me at first, but soon they heard the thunder as well and I noticed dark clouds rolling in over the river.
The guys loaded both canoes on top of the SUV, and then discussed how to load my kayak. Rob thought it should be right-side up on top of the two canoes. Once it was up there, Richard worried about how much it rocked, and suggested turning it upside-down. Rob reluctantly flipped it over, and then nestled it between the two canoes. Ratchet straps across the top held it down, and we used the painter line on my bow to tether it to a hook below the front bumper. Richard provided an additional line to tie it to the back of the vehicle.
We climbed in and started the drive toward Saint Paul where we had left Rob’s truck. As we drove up the gravel road, the rain started. Perfect timing!
Richard joked that the blue rope crossing in his line of vision was the “kayak status indicator.” If it disappeared, we needed to stop and pick up my boat.
It was still raining when we got back to Saint Paul, so I didn’t mention looking for the cache under the caboose. We all agreed that it was time to eat dinner, and I checked Google Maps for restaurants nearby. When I read off Ma and Pa’s Restaurant, Richard said, “That’s it! That’s where we need to go.”
We drove just down the road to Castlewood and found Ma and Pa’s. It was an interesting place. I believe that Ma and Pa have sold the place. It has a decidedly South of the Border motif, and my credit card receipt read El Primo.
The guys had hamburgers and fries, while I enjoyed a delicious club sandwich. I then decided that I wanted to follow it up with a peanut butter milkshake. Richard had a huckleberry milkshake and Rob opted for cookie dough ice cream in a waffle cone.
We left the restaurant just as the musicians were arriving for the Friday night show. I’m sorry we missed hearing the music, but it was time to head for home.
If you have read this far, you deserve a bonus. Click here to watch video highlights of our adventure.