Camping on the New at the Blue

Great fishing–check. Cool camping in a real tipi–check. Canoeing, kayaking and tubing down the second oldest river in the world–check, check, check. Donnie & Janie Turner are the couple who have it all. They own Blue Cat on the New, an outfitter on the New River in Draper, Virginia.

I know, I know–most people go tubing or canoeing and camping out with a bunch of friends. And you can find cool stories that happy campers have submitted to Donnie published on his website, But I had to be different. I had to test Donnie’s place by myself. And I guess I was testing myself at the same time.

Oh, I’m no kayaker, or canoe-er–the inner tube is more my speed. I don’t fish, but I like the idea of it. I bought a pole and a pre-made tackle box from that big chain store last year, but I only bought a North Carolina license, so I didn’t bother bringing my gear when I stayed at Blue Cat. I thought I would concentrate on my camping experience and my tube ride.

It was September of  ‘07 on the night of a full moon, if I remember correctly. When I arrived, Donnie was mowing the bottom, the large parcel of land running alongside the river where he has two tipi, a shower/bath house with His and Hers facilities, six well separated campsites and a sandy bank upon which to launch oneself onto the river. This is all in a secluded spot down the hill from his home.

I was blown away by the beauty of the gently-flowing river, and across the river there was a large outcrop of rock that was just stunning. All around me, birds twittered and I could have sworn I saw some kind of crane flying low across the river. The cows across the fence on the neighbor’s land bellowed a friendly hello.

I was the only one staying there for the two nights that I had booked a camp spot, a Sunday and Monday night. Donnie had just entertained a full ‘house’ over the weekend, as well as tons of tubers, kayakers and canoe-ers.

How deliciously quiet, I thought. Two whole days for me to think about nothing, drift for a couple of hours down the river, do little more than build a campfire, roast a hot dog and sleep.

I have oft been accused of laziness. “Né Cooke,” my father would say with a sweet and loving smile on his face, “you are the laziest person I know” Well this was one little trip I planned on fully claiming my title instead of trying to argue that I was not as lazy as I appeared to be.

On Sunday afternoon while I was setting up my tent, Donnie came by and brought me some wood for my fire. I have known Donnie for quite some time now and have always found him to be one of the nicest and accommodating people I know.

After I set up my tent and my dining canopy, I checked my rations. “Oh yeah,” I mumbled to myself. I had planned on being vegetarian for the couple of days. I had only packed fresh fruit, yogurt, and carrot sticks. “Well that won’t roast on the fire! What was I thinking?!”

I hopped in my car and fled to the nearest little store. Donnie’s place is on Rt. 100, a spiffy little road that can take you from Hillsville to Interstate 81 in only twenty miles, a curvy shortcut I have driven many a time in my life. But there aren’t any super food stores or even any not-so-super food stores out on that twenty mile stretch.

Much to my surprise, I found Hilly Haven. Not only do they have a full service deli but fresh cut steaks, pork and chicken.

The owner is a butcher and the cuts are wonderful. They will even cook the food for you. It really is neat for a country store and sort of famous in the river community. Some of the river guides will drive 20 miles out of the way just to eat their tenderloin biscuits before they go out on the river for a day.

By the time I got there, though, I guess all the good stuff had been sold out. They did have a pack of hot dogs left, and so ended my pre-planned vegetarian quest.

At this point, Dear Reader (as Jane Eyre would have said), you are probably thinking this is not much of an adventure story, and how much fun will it be reading about a lazy girl floating down a slow section of the New River (it’s no Man vs. Nature tale), eating hot dogs around a campfire by herself (it’s no Man vs. Man tale), going to bed early and sleeping a lot? Well okay, maybe it’s not all that much fun. This tale is a Woman vs. Herself story.

Now remember, there was no one else camping down by the river but me. It was a Sunday night. All the groups have had their fun and have gone home to prepare for a Monday kind of work week. Since I work for myself, I have chosen the slow night so I can be alone. After building my fire and sipping a few glasses of white wine–oh yeah, I forgot to mention I did remember my Vidal Blanc by Chateau Morrisette, the winery just up the road in Floyd. I decided to conquer my first fear and loathing: my self-image.

Hopefully Donnie won’t shoot me when he reads this. I would never have done this around other guests! Now don’t think badly of me–right now you are my shrink and I am sharing a deep dark secret—but I stripped down to my bare and danced around my fire with wild abandon.

“Goodbye old fraidy cat me,” I shouted to the sparkling flames and rushing wind. “Goodbye to the me who hates her body and hides from the world!”

After a few runs around the fire, I realized what an idiot I must look like, so I ran to my tent and got dressed and fell asleep with a snicker on my lips. Donnie may not ever let me go camping down there again, but I had to share.

The next day, Donnie sent the guy who picks up and drops off the water goers. I hitched a ride in the van just a couple of miles up the road. I was rather excited about my tube ride down the river that would take me right back to the campground.

The last time I had tubed down the river, I was about thirteen and I was with a group of people: really cute French exchange student boys, a guy I had a crush on from school who was my friend but not more, and some other kids my age including my mom. (We joke that she is more like my sister.) That was a lot of fun. Lots of splashing, talking, floating, swimming around.

How different a river can be to a 35 year old–I waded out in the water, dragging my inner tube behind me.

Donnie had said it was a very slow section of the river. It was so slow in fact; I thought maybe I had hopped on my tube too close to the banks. I kicked and splashed like a maniac, trying to get further into the middle, where I assumed there would be a moderately reasonable current that would pick me up and run me back to my campsite.

It was like I was sitting still! Oh, I know I was moving, as I would pick a reference point on the banks, check it a few minutes later and see that my vantage point had changed. But oh, the agony! It was slow. Wait a minute, I started thinking. Maybe I am not as lazy as I have been led to believe! Surely a lazy person would enjoy barely moving down the

New River floating on an inner tube!

See, this is the Woman vs. Herself section I warned you about. It was driving me absolutely nuts going so slow. I kept kicking my feet off the side, flipping my hands around in the water trying to make it go faster. Then like an idiot, I started thinking about one of those fish they say are so prevalent here in the New River–one guest even wrote about it and submitted it for your reading pleasure on Donnie’s website.

Surely my flailing hands and feet would be an attractive draw to the muskellunge, or Esox masquinongy, or “muskie” as he is commonly called. Mr. Muskie suddenly took on Jaws-like proportions to me. I just knew he would come driving up the water and throw over my tube or maybe nibble relentlessly on my bare feet dangling in the water.

Wasn’t I supposed to be pondering life, relaxing, enjoying the feel of the warm sun on my face? Instead, I kept thinking maybe I should have tried my hand at the canoe. That would have provided me with more control over my destination. And it would have allowed my body parts to remain muskie free. But then my arms would have been really

tired. Okay maybe I am lazy.

Suddenly, in the midst of my worries, I realized I had passed under the big bridge and was actually moving along. Okay, I thought, I’m moving. Just chill. To the left of me, I saw a herd of cows wading in the water by the banks.

These belonged to Donnie’s neighbor. They looked peaceful and serene. Hey! Was that cow doing Tai Chi? No.

My mind was playing tricks on me.

“Be the cow,” I muttered to myself. “Be one with the cow.”

I closed my eyes, just letting myself feel the way my body floated, rocked and swayed like a baby in a crib. “This is good,” I said to the winds whisking over my body. “You are warm,” I said to the sweet sunshine smiling down upon me.

Then I started opening an eye and peaking over to see if I was at the camp entrance/exit. What if I missed it? I couldn’t tube UP the river. How would I get back to the campsite? Relaxation: short lived.

“To hell with the muskie! I’m getting out of this water,” I screamed inside. I started paddling like a mad woman with my hands, hurrying my pace. I don’t know myself at all, I thought. I sure might be lazy, but I sure can’t relax! I finally made it to the bank, worried to pieces that I might miss it and float right past.

There it is! I saw the bank, a beacon like a lighthouse shimmering in my mind’s eye. I hopped off the tube and waded onto dry land, hauling the tube behind me. Wobbly-kneed, I walked back to my camp spot.

Later that night, fully dressed, sitting in front of my fire, I started laughing. “Now that was a fun tube ride down the river! I’ll have to come back and do it again”  Lazy? I don’t think so!

To make reservations at Blue Cat on the New for canoeing, kayaking, tubing, guided river tours, fishing, camping or tipiing, just call Donnie Turner at 276-766-3729. Map it! The address is 2800 Wysor HWY, Draper, VA 24324. Or visit for stories and more!

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Penelope Moseley