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'Appalachia to Atchafalaya' by canoe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Earlier this week, Ned Savage and Clark Chapman stood along the banks of the Kanawha River, near the state Capitol. The next time they see the same area, it might be from the middle of the river.

In about a week, Savage and Chapman will begin a 2,200-mile canoe trip at the beginnings of the New River near Boone, N.C. They'll head north to where the New meets the Kanawha at Gauley Bridge, then follow the Kanawha to its junction with the Ohio River at Point Pleasant.

At Cairo, Ill., the Ohio flows into the Mississippi River. Savage and Chapman will travel down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where they plan to stay for a couple of days, before completing their journey by canoeing through the bayous south of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.

"It will take us 74 days, if we average 30 miles a day on the rivers," Chapman said.

"We haven't found anyone who has ever done this before," said Savage, who works for AmeriCorps VISTA on Charleston's East End. "It might be cold, rainy and miserable up in the mountains, but we are geared up for it."

"I've wanted to do this as long as I could read maps. I started talking about this in second grade," said Chapman, whose family grew up near the Ohio River around Huntington.

"The New River is the oldest river in the country. All these rivers have been navigable for hundreds of years," he said.

Savage said, "Cities grew up because of the rivers. And dams and locks were built in places like the Kanawha River during the New Deal. We want to get people to think more about rivers near them, their recreational uses and environmental conditions."

Savage and Chapman are creating a Facebook page, called "Downstream: Appalachia to Atchafalaya." The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest wetland and swamp in the United States, located in Cajun country south of New Orleans.

The two met when they were students at Hampden-Sydney College, 70 miles southwest of Richmond, Va.

Chapman, 29, studied history, religion and philosophy while earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Hampden-Sydney.

"My family has lived within this watershed for 200 years. It is a good time for me to connect with them," said Chapman, who spent the past year working in a scrap yard in Columbus, Ohio.

Savage, 27, grew up in Salem, Va., near Roanoke. "I grew up near Craig's Creek, a little creek that flows into the James River, ending up in the Atlantic Ocean," he said. "Just over the mountain, Sinking Creek River flows into the New River, ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.

His father, Lon Savage, wrote "Thunder in the Mountains," a history of the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Savage and Chapman are taking cameras and recording equipment to preserve images and their conversations with people they meet during the 2,200-mile voyage.

"We plan to ask people what role rivers play in their lives," Savage said. "Rivers used to be such an integral part of society."

Savage believes people should become more aware of some environmental problems. "In Virginia, 17 tons of toxic materials flow into the New River, 15 tons of which comes from the Radford Munitions plant."

The pair will start using an 18-foot canoe that was owned by Savage's father. "When we reach Charleston or Huntington, we will begin using a larger canoe during the rest of our trip," Savage said.

They plan to camp in many places along their journey. "There are lots of state forests along the way. The New River is a lot more remote than the other rivers. Along the Ohio River, there are towns every few miles," Savage said. "We will also stay with some folks we know in cities like Huntington, Ironton, Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis."

Savage and Chapman are taking one tent and two hammocks to help them at night. They also will have food, water, rain gear and flotation devices.

"Hopefully, we will not get hit by a hurricane," Savage said. "We also have a solar panel, to hook up our cell phones to recharge them."

They want to continue studying the history of the rivers and towns along their journey. "The New River was a big channel for the Underground Railroad that helped free slaves before and during the Civil War," Savage said.

The two plan to stay for a night in Charleston during their long journey, probably on Oct. 29.

"My dad was from Charleston," Savage said. "This town has been very good to me. After New Orleans, I could see myself making my way back here."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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