Rail Fans and Rivers

a train rolling through Thurmond on the New River Gorge West Virginia

People sure have strange ways of having fun. Some folks stomp through the woods looking for birds. Others paddle tiny boats down raging rivers. Some even watch NASCAR races. But one of the strangest has to be watching trains.Yep. People called “railfans” travel all over the country and gather at spots where lots and lots of trains go by. I have to confess to being a railfan.

For me, it’s not just the trains, it’s the people, the other train-watchers. Some just sit around in a beautiful place and watch the trains go by. Many take pictures. The real fanatics keep a log of every train movement for an entire 24-hour day. Being a raft guide, I’m the type that just sits around and does nothing but chat with the folks.

One beautiful sunny day, I was sitting around in Folkston, Georgia, reveling in the 70-degree sunshine while West Virginia was getting hammered by snow. In conversation, I confessed to being a raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers. One railfan, obviously deeply involved in his sport and schooled in geography, asked if the New River was the one where the old Chesapeake & Ohio main line ran along the river through the deepest gorge in the east. I told him that it was and that, on any given raft trip, we usually spot three or four trains rolling through a gorgeous, inaccessible, rustic setting.

“Wow,” says he, “I’ll bet you could get some phenomenal pictures there, pictures that nobody else has ever shot.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “There aren’t any roads into the gorge and the only way you can get there is by rafting a serious whitewater river.” The man got all excited, especially when I told him that ACE Whitewater could custom-design a trip just for him and his friends, where we stop along the river in the prettiest spots and wait for the next train.

He immediately called ACE’s reservation office and booked the trip with a request for me as his guide. A couple of months later, he and five of his friends arrived with their cameras and radio scanners and off we went.

The moral of the story is that these folks (and me) had the time of our lives and got some unique pictures. In between trains, I gave them a tour of some of the old ghost towns in the gorge. For me, just another great day on the river. For my new friends, a day they’ll never forget.

The New River Gorge is an incredibly rich area, both historically and culturally, and the best (and often only) way to see it is from a rubber boat. Anybody out there got any ideas for some kind of custom trip? Want to tour some ghost towns? Ever see a coke oven? Want to know how coal mining was done a hundred years ago, or how the miners lived? Ever just want to stop and check out the birds? What would be YOUR perfect river trip?

Thanks for your ideas.

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