ROANOKE, Va. – Earlier this year, USA Today named the Roanoke River the third-best urban kayaking River in North America.
If that seems like high praise for a relatively small river once considered too dirty to play in, those who use it regularly say you need to look again.
During a day of paddling with four certified paddling instructors who have taken their boats all over the country, it became apparent that Roanoke’s waterway has a lot to offer.
Afloat on a 2-mile stretch near Explore Park in Roanoke County, just downstream from the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge that traverses the river at mile marker 114.7, showed that the wildlife and the river features are more than ample. Especially when you consider you are less than 15 minutes from downtown.
As we paddled downstream, six blue herons flew repeatedly out in front of us, jumping from the river’s edge and settling another couple hundred yards downriver. The smaller green herons were common and a bald eagle stayed seated on a dead limb even as we gawked directly beneath it.
Even the most casual observer of nature would have noticed.
The float was a bit of a test to see whether experienced paddlers felt the river was worthy of its national ranking.
Preston Pettengill paddled a whitewater canoe while Lucas Gomez and Steve Wiegandt piloted small play boats designed for serious rapids. Beth Wiegandt, Steve’s wife, brought her stand-up paddleboard and I joined in with my 11.5-foot sit-on-top kayak designed primarily for fishing.
“I love how accessible it is. It just has a lot of different flavors to it. And I really like that,” said Beth who is an instructor trainer with the American Canoe Association for both canoeing and kayaking.
She also serves as the chair for the introduction of paddling committee for the Association, which sets standards for paddle sports across the world.
“I do a lot of curriculum building and just making things more accessible and easier to understand for the general public,” she explained.
Wiegandt said the Roanoke River is just hard enough to make it worth it, but admittedly will not satisfy some thrill-seekers. “(It’s) cool for recreational people to go out and enjoy the space in a different way, as opposed to the adrenaline junkies and the people who like to huck off waterfalls,” continued Weigandt.
Steve Wiegandt, also an instructor with decades of experience touted the river’s availability.
“I’ve paddled all over the United States and especially the East Coast for the last 20 to 25 years and the Roanoke River is special because it allows me to get out very quickly after work or on a weekend,” Wiegandt said. “I can get out and escape to nature be in a very natural setting but also have a little bit of white water and some features so that I can have a little fun on some rapids.”
Gomez, who is younger, is admittedly more of an adrenaline junkie. “I really love play boating. I like to be vertical, and upside down more than I like to be flat,” he said smiling, moments after flipping his boat upside down on purpose, then turning right side up again.
Yet even he felt the river provided more than enough challenge for an outing after work or on a Saturday afternoon. “I really love how on the Roanoke there’s plenty of good waves to surf. And deep eddies, so you can do tailies or whatever you want and just have fun on your boat,” Gomez said.
All of the paddlers referenced the fact that the river is so close, running through Roanoke County, the City of Roanoke, and Salem. “You’ve got public parking and access points. Around that, you’ve got the greenway. There’s just so much that makes it a huge destination,” Pettengill said.
More evidence of the River’s rise is the fact that two outfitters are now serving clients who want to play in the river’s rapids and riffles, although tubing is more popular than kayaking.
“This is a popular spot that everyone can access no matter how experienced or not experienced you are,” said Rachel Barnhart of Blue Mountain Adventures which serves about 2 miles of river near Explore Park in Roanoke County.
“I was born here. I love it. I love to see the river being used and enjoyed,” echoed Willie Richardson, general manager of Blue Mountain Adventures.
With the expansion of Explore Park in recent years, gravel roads have been developed to serve the park’s numerous campsites. A small camp store serves day trippers while iconic old vans, one with the words “The Beast” spray-painted on the side, allow the outfitter to shuttle paddlers and tubers upstream. Park regulations require that visitors accessing the river through Explore use the outfitter’s services, though they will transport you and your own craft for a fee.
Despite the river’s rising level of respect, the world is not beating a path here to paddle.
“You won’t ever pack hundreds of people in here at any given time,” surmised Jeff Todd, owner of Roanoke Mountain Adventures in Roanoke, who described the river as just above entry-level. “The designation hasn’t changed anything perceptibly,” he said referring to the ranking in USA Today.
But, Todd said, that doesn’t mean the river is without merit. “I think it’s ideal for an urban kayaking river,” he said. “It’s a low river and you can always be near the bank. It has spirit but it’s very approachable.”
Todd believes the river is “still on the upswing.” He moved his family here less than two years ago and said amenities like the river and the trails on Mill Mountain, which are rare inside any city, “made Roanoke immensely appealing to me and my family.”
Roanoke Mountain Adventures offers regular trips from Rotary Park in Salem to Wasena Park in Roanoke, a drift of about 7 miles. Todd said it can take an hour and a half when water levels are high, compared to several hours in the summer months when there is less water in the river. He cautioned that some days in July and August the river may not have enough water to make a go of it.
In 2013 the Roanoke Valley Alleghany Regional Commission established the Roanoke River Blueway to help people find their way to and along the river. The organization’s website offers information on river levels, as well as put in points, information on fishing and wildlife. In addition, the site provides information on places to stay and history along the river.
“There are lots of people across the country that they look for blueways. That’s how they spend their vacation. And so, being listed as an urban blueway that’s paddleable and in the top 10, that’s really exciting,” Beth Wiegandt said.
Back to our trip
Part two of our trip on the Roanoke included a launch under the greenway bridge that connects Wasena Park to the greenway section near Black Dog Salvage. Though typically busy, we found parking in front of the small dirt path that leads to the river.
We dragged our boats to the river, while kids on bikes circled the park and splashed in the nearby water. But thanks to an immediate riffle we were quickly back to solitude with the greenery along the riverbank buffering out the sounds of humanity just on the other side.
We passed within 20 feet of an adult blue heron which seemed content to stand and watch us pass, and I scoped out more than a few places that seemed fishable.
A small wave had the more experienced paddlers surfing – a technique where you balance your boat between a standing wave and the downstream flow, allowing the paddler to stay in place without paddling in the onrushing current.
With a bit of practice and coaching, I was even able to do it in my sit-on-top.
A few hundred yards downstream we had to portage around the low water bridge in Smith Park, where we suffered some of the worst trash on the trip - an eddy filled with debris the river collected during recent high water. We paddled under bridges with steady traffic, while an earth mover worked on a project at the rivers’ edge. A bit further downstream the Carilion Clinic complex came into view before we exited on river left at the kayak and canoe launch dedicated in October 2016 after a successful crowdfunding campaign led by the Roanoke Outside Foundation raised $80,000 for the project.
The consensus is that the Roanoke River has been hidden in plain view for many years. Perhaps because many remember the days when it wasn’t deemed clean enough to enjoy safely.
It’s important to remember the word “urban.” The people interviewed for this story cited the same positive attributes you might identify with anything in a city. Accessibility. Community. Usability. Convenience.
“It’s so accessible to so many people, to such a large group of people. It really is a tremendous resource that we have,” Steve Wiegandt said.
Many Thanks to Beth and Steve Wiegandt, Lucas Lopez and Preston Pettingill for taking their time to float with me and help evaluate the river from an expert’s perspective.
Thanks also to Preston for providing the drone and footage for the story on 10 News.
If you are interested in joining the paddling community you may want to check out the Roanoke Paddlers Facebook page.
Also, you may want to check out www.roa-store.com for additional information on gear and trips.
Another good Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/roapaddle