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Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Professional rivermen Dave Vicenzi and Matt Miles are at opposite ends of their careers.
Vicenzi is deep into his fourth decade running New River Canoe Livery in Pembroke.
Miles started guiding fishermen full-time in March.
This spring they’ve been in the same boat a lot, figuratively.
And that boat hasn’t been on the water.
Rainy weather that has often blown out the region’s big rivers has been frustrating to recreational paddlers and fishermen, who have had to change plans when water conditions have been unsafe.
The stakes are higher for those whose livelihoods depend on getting people out on the water.
Miles has been frustrated.
“I have two great rivers I can be on in no time,” Miles, who lives in Lynchburg, said of the James and Staunton rivers. “I haven’t been on them since the first of June.”
Vicenzi is a bit more used to this.
“It’s the name of the game,” said Vicenzi, who admits he still frets about high water. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
It’s been a wet year, with rainfall totals already well above normal for this part of the calendar .
The heavy downpours that swamped our region in recent days just added insult to injury.
On the New River in Radford, the river height gauge monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey typically reads about 4 feet in early July.
At midday on July 4 the river crested at over 14 feet, just over designated flood stage.
The river flow at that time was 50,000 cubic feet per second. The normal is about 2,000 cfs.
What does 50,000 cfs really mean?
A cubic foot of water is about 7 1⁄ 2 gallons. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. So even at normal flows you’re talking about a pretty good mass of water — about 125,000 pounds of it — moving downstream.
At a flow of 50,000 cfs, that mass of water has grown to more than 3 million pounds.
That those kinds of conditions are supremely dangerous for boaters is a no-brainer.
It’s the borderline conditions that can prove tricky.
Dangerous for some paddlers can be fun for others.
Decades of experience have helped Vicenzi figure out at what point he is comfortable putting customers on the water.
He looks at the river to see where water is hitting familiar landmarks. He also watches upstream river gauges, and weather forecasts and radar.
“Any thunderstorm upstream is going to bring in more water,” said Vicenzi, who said about half of June and all of July have been a washout in terms of river trips.
Thunderstorms are a summertime norm around here, of course. The difference this year is that we’ve already had so much rain that the ground is saturated.
“There’s nowhere for the rain to go,” Vicenzi said.
He said he errs on the side of caution when it comes to customers. “I don’t want to have to worry about them,” said Vicenzi, who pulled a Boy Scouts trip from the river recently because he was concerned about the possibility of high water arriving during the planned five-day trip. “I won’t put them out.”
Expectations and experience among potential customers play a part in whether or not a river trip is feasible.
For an experienced boater , robust flows are often desired. If the water is murky with mud, no big deal.
When a river is safe but rolling, there’s another issue: time. When Vicenzi puts customers on the river for what is normally a three-hour trip and they are done in half the time, customers might feel shorted.
The upside of safe-but-robust flows is that kayaks and canoes take less of a beating because there are fewer exposed rocks to scrape.
Fishing adds another twist.
Sometimes, moderately high water can lead to great fishing action.
Facebook pages for Tangent Outfitters and New River Outdoor Company, two outfitters in Pembroke, both show pictures of some big smallmouth bass coaxed from the New in June, on days when river conditions were moderately high but safe for fishing.
But even for an experienced paddler, fishing from a canoe or kayak in moderately high water can be difficult because it requires vigilance in boat handling, and stopping or slowing in good fishing water can be tough.
For a guide such as Miles, who focuses on a fly-fishing clientele, high, murky water can be a hindrance. Even if river conditions are safe for fishing from a raft, he doesn’t want to take clients out if the fishing is going to be poor.
“I might go broke doing it,” he said. “But I’ve been having to cancel trips and move trips.
“And it seems as soon as I get things figured out, well, here you go, more rain.”
One couple from Greensboro had three trips booked with Miles in June and early July. All have been rescheduled for August.
The Jackson River tailwater, its flow regulated by Gathright Dam, has been a saving grace for Miles, allowing him to at least get out on some trout-fishing trips.
“It’s been about my only option,” he said.
Still, smallmouths are the summertime bread and butter.
“I have clients just waiting for me to call,” Miles said. “I wonder when that will be.”
Vicenzi has a different kind of dilemma.
He’s 65 and hoping to retire when his fleet of about 20 canoes and kayaks wears out. But with limited use, and those rocks covered by water when the boats are out, the canoes and kayaks remain in good shape.
“The river,” he laughed, “doesn’t want to let me go.”
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