THURMOND, W.Va. - Six Virginia men attempting to recreate Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's historic 1812 river-scouting journey tackled the toughest part Wednesday, plunging into the whitewater of the New River Gorge.
The Marshall Expedition, funded by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant, entered the water in their wooden batteau around 9:15 a.m., traveled about 5 miles and took on the most dangerous set of three rapids at midday, outfitter Dave Arnold said. By 3 p.m., they'd made it through.
In a telephone interview at day's end, expedition leader Andrew Shaw was exhilarated.
"Double Z was the best rapid I've ever run in my life," he said, referring to the last of the three.
"There were a few places where I was thinking, `We're going to drop this boat in here and I don't know how it's going to respond,' but it did great," Shaw said. "It was actually a little easier than I expected."
The river was flowing at 7,700 cubic feet per second, or what outfitters consider a medium volume, and the crew's friends, family, fellow paddlers and National Park Service officials watched from other vessels.
Marshall and his crew started their journey to the Kanawha River 200 years ago in Lynchburg, Va., and got as far as Kanawha Falls in Glen Ferris, in what is now West Virginia. A Virginia native, Marshall served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 until 1835, when he died.
The new crew is retracing the route in the Mary Marshall, a replica of the justice's flat-bottomed boat.
They began April 5 in Richmond, Va., paddling up the James and Jackson rivers. The News & Advance of Lynchburg ( http://bit.ly/JYrcna) reports they covered 138 miles in 10 days.
They're now about 10 miles from Kanawha Falls, but Shaw said the journey may have to end before they get there. A power company that controls the river flow is lowering it and hasn't said whether it will give the team access.
Even if the journey ends at the Hawk's Nest Dam, Shaw said, he and his team are happy about what they've achieved.
Shaw organized the expedition with friend Wesley Andrews, quit his job as a cook in December, emptied his savings, and applied for grants to build the batteau _ a light, flatbottom riverboat _ from white oak and pine. It's patterned after vessels unearthed in a 1980s excavation project.
The pair then recruited four more men to join them _ brothers Dylan and Isaac Schumacher of Lynchburg, Ford Prior of Richmond and commercial fisherman Kevin Ferrel, who lives in both Alaska and Lynchburg.
Veteran rafting guide Brian Hager, who's made more than 3,000 trips down the New River, said watching the wooden vessel navigate the rapids was a thrill, and he was impressed with its maneuverability.
"They did exceptionally well," the Fayetteville resident said. "It was really cool. I feel blessed and privileged to have been there."
John Marshall was commissioned by Virginia's General Assembly to explore the waters west of Lynchburg, and he was among those who laid the groundwork for Virginia's canal systems and railroads.
Oxen pulled his boat over the Allegheny Mountains and to the New River, which begins in North Carolina and flows north until it enters the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge.
Marshall described the gorge as "an almost continued succession of shoals and falls, from which the navigator is sometimes, though rarely, relieved by a fine sheet of deep, placid water."
Arnold said batteaux have been running it for years. Marshall made it, he said, and 50 years later, so did a family named Dempsey. But the last attempt, in 2004, ended when the Rosa Nelson sank at the Dudley's Dip rapid.
The Marshall Expedition: http://www.vacanals.org/marshall/
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)