By TRAVIS HANDY
Tucked away in one of the many bends of one of the oldest rivers in the world, Bluecat on the New is a gem, offering outdoor enthusiasts and campers unique experiences from March to November.
Bluecat has two locations: Draper and Fries. Draper, boasting 17 acres, is in its ninth season. Fries is in its fifth. Each location has similar offerings, from primitive campsites to tube and kayak rentals to make an outdoor weekend getaway unforgettable.
“We’re very customer friendly,” said owner Donnie Turner, pointing out that his favorite part of his job is the people he meets. “Anything the people want, we try to make it available for them. We try to work with them and gear the experience to what they want to do.”
Turner is a former tourism director for Carroll County, and he eagerly expressed his enthusiasm for sharing the beauty and majesty to be seen along the banks of the New River. A lifelong outdoors enthusiast and self-professed “river rat,” Turner didn’t exactly choose his current profession. It kind of found him, instead.
Some business owners Turner knew in Austinville were ending their partnership and Turner wound up buying what was left of their equipment, but not the business itself. The Bluecat brand started out with only four canoes and six kayaks. Today they offer a large number of canoes, kayaks, river tubes, and bicycles for rental and use along the river and the New River Trail.
Along with rental comes free shuttle service and the appropriate safety and peripheral equipment, such as paddles and life vests. Shuttle service is also extended to guests who bring their own bikes, kayaks or canoes. Visitors can also learn kayaking and canoeing from the Draper location. Visitors might even wish to take guided fishing tours along the river.
Camping options range from familiar, primitive campsites in both Fries and Draper, to tipis and yurts at the Draper location. Turner says the tipis are a huge draw for visitors looking for a unique stay. The tipis on Bluecat’s Draper property were built by Sioux Indians, with lodge pole pine supports and canvas outer coverings. The structures are built by the same company that made the tipis for Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves.”
Turner believes he has hosted visitors from all 50 states and a handful of foreign countries in South America and Europe. He recalled a couple from Venezuela who stayed in Draper for a time, drawn there by the uniqueness of the New River itself.
Tipis go for $45 a night; primitive campsites for $18; rental of tubes is $12 a day; kayaks, $30, and canoes, $45.
In addition to the rentals they offer, Bluecat also conducts tours and has campsites at Gatewood Reservoir in Pulaski. They also give wine tours, and hiking and antiquing tours to anyone interested in seeing areas other than just the New River or New River Trail. The Fries location offers guided tours of the New River Trail, complete with golf carts for those who are unable to walk or hike the trail, or for people with small children.
Turner’s education includes a Master’s degree in parks and recreation, including leisure services, and degrees in philosophy and religion and tourism. He blends the two backgrounds to come up with words to entice people to get out and enjoy the beauty of the New River and the surrounding area.
“The river is my soul,” said Turner. “What can you say? The closer you are to nature, the more you can become yourself. If you’re out in nature, and especially around rivers, you can find yourself if you listen and watch.”
Find yourself at Bluecat on the New, whether for a one-day adventure or a leisurely weekend. Contact Bluecat by calling the Draper location at (276) 766-3729; Fries, at (276) 744-2027; visit them online at www.bluecatsnewriveroutfitters.com, or the Turners would love to see you at their Draper campground, located at 2800 Wysor Highway, Draper, Va. Take I-81 exit 89A south on Route 100, about five miles from the interstate.