We all woke up pretty early Friday morning to some warm oatmeal before we got "mountain ready," as opposed to "river ready," to start our hike on Balcony Falls Trail. I'll speak for myself, and I'm not sure how many others, when I say that I slept great at Wilderness Canoe Campsite; and although it was not Jimmy's, it was a great spot all the same. The students were go-getters this morning, breaking down camp with efficiency and thoroughness, which was great to see from a leader's standpoint. These ten young men and women had certainly stepped up into their leadership roles over the course of the week and had learned independence!
After having everything packed and ready to go upon our return, we four adults and ten students made our way towards the Jefferson National Forest a bit down the road. We followed the Balcony Falls Trail, beginning our hike around 7:45 am, hoping to make it to the end before the sun was too high with the plan to overlook the Balcony Falls rapids we would be going through the following day. To say the hike was steep and tiring is certainly no small understatement. The countless switchbacks and dense fog made keeping up with the fast-paced student leaders even more difficult. We ended up hiking a grand total of 12 miles, and two students - Nick and Connor - saw an adult black bear! There were some beautiful views, but the hike was more exhausting than anything, and we were all ready to chow down on our daily tortilla.
Thank goodness we'd been keeping in touch with Georgia, because she had lunch all laid out for us by the time we returned: such a relief to the fourteen weary travelers! Students took turns relaxing a bit, playing the card game Capitalism, and loading the canoes until it was time to start paddling downriver again.
I had gone to drop the trailer at our take out location (Snowden), having been warned that the parking lot was tiny and we needed to have the trailer and truck already there Friday afternoon so we could seamlessly pack up gear Saturday after the Expedition's conclusion. JRA's Upper James Outreach Coordinator Rob Campbell was very sweet to drive me to the Glasgow boat landing, where the canoe-ers made a pit stop to pick me up!
After a short paddle, we stopped at a beach just above some Class 2 rapids Rob had told me were called "Hungry Jack," and that "they were extra hungry because the water level is so low." With this in mind, all of the students prepared themselves and watched some of the leaders go down first so that they knew which route to take before stopping at the very next beach - our campsite for the night. Several students got stuck on their way down, but all made it out without help!
Stopping at our final spot on the river was surreal. The campsite was absolutely beautiful, and the terrain change upon entering the James River Gorge was unmistakable. We took a few moments to relax in the water and climb onto the rocks slightly downriver to scope out Balcony Falls and just take in the scenery around us. Shortly thereafter, we set up camp before the sky darkened, including the throne!!
Several students explored around the area after all tents were pitched and the kitchen area was ready only to find a freshwater stream with trout and a waterfall! It was certainly a cool find, but after exhausting what energy we had left, we returned to camp for some no bake pizza set up by Mason and Hugo (who forgot the cooking binder, and still did fantastically, so I hear). Post-dinner, we had our usual reflection period, but it was a bit different this time. Knowing the trip was coming to an end led people to really think about the week as a whole, and how they may have had different perspectives, feelings, and skills between day 1 and day 7. It was pretty cool to hear the Thorns and Roses everyone had to share that night. But with that, it was off to bed to rest up for the big run in the morning, what we'd all been eagerly chomping at the bit for, Balcony Falls.
The morning of Saturday, we all rose fairly late, so rushed to pack up camp and grab breakfast and snacks for the rest of the day we'd be spending together. Dominion's photography crew Dave and Mark joined us via raft with Rob as their captain, and then we were ready to take on Balcony. Dave and Mark shot some truly incredible footage of all of the students going through the rapids, using their drone, and after everyone had had a perfect run, I joined Rob and the Dominion crew in the raft to go down myself. Terrain 360˚ followed closely behind, trying to get all of their gear through the rapids as well whilst in the process of mapping the James' entirety. It was so much fun to go through with them, and it was such an honor to have our Expedition group be a part of the filming!
Proceeding through the Class 2 rapids following Balcony proved to be a bit of a challenge, as "sleepers" (rocks that were harder to see, and made the water very shallow and could tip the canoe if you weren't careful) took down Claire and Autumn's canoe. We were very fortunate to have so many assisting hands between Rob, Kyle, Dan, Georgia, and JRA's Justin Doyle to help them out. Otherwise, the paddling went super smoothly, and we entered the flatwater of the James just above the Snowden takeout. As one last powwow, the students linked boats and had a final purely Roses session, sharing what they had learned and loved about the experience. It was great to hear from everyone!
We got to the Appalachian Trail footbridge (which is actually the lowest point of the entire AT! And the James River claims it! Pretty cool!), and families were lined up across ready to see their son or daughter's smiling, but filthy face. It was certainly a bittersweet goodbye for the JRE Upper family, but such a happy reunion with all of the students' families, making a great end to our first leg of the Journey on the James!