Katie has been trying to convince me to go whitewater rafting for weeks. She insists that it’s a positively benign undertaking and not the river deathtrap I envision it to be. After both reading positive reviews and viewing some harrowing videotape footage (big mistake) we decided to just speak to the rafting office after we got down to Fayetteville and decide on the spot.
I was starting to get used to the hilly roads that overrun West Virginia, and was doing moderately better at turning my truck-the-size-of-a-bus without veering violently into the oncoming lane. Making good time, we got to Adventures on the Gorge in time for the half-day afternoon rafting trip. I looked at the attendant in moderate terror as I was slowly suckered into signing my “if I die” waiver.
“We send 9-year-olds on this thing”
After inhaling a slice of pizza to quell my anxiety and fishing a spider out of Katie’s hair (hello, country), we met our rafting guide who informed us that due to the current water level of the river, we would be tackling several level 5 rapids. I signed up for levels 2-3, so it’s safe to say that I chose not to speak to Katie for the next ten minutes. I listened with feverish intent as the guide described what to do once we boarded the rafts, and pretended to be relaxed as he joked on the bus ride to the launch point. Katie tried to take a selfie at one point and I almost tossed her phone out the window. I needed space to reflect on how I was going to fish myself out from under the boat.
We suited up (aka, I tightened my life vest to near asphyxia) and began to drag our inflated raft towards the water. Sneakers in, sitting on the perimeter of the boat (safer than the middle, which absorbs the shock of hitting rocks, supposedly), and we were off. We learned how to row in sync for a few minutes and all of the different commands our guide would yell—the number of rows he wanted, and when to go “forward” (row continuously and quickly to get through a rapid). Apparently, the last command is particularly critical in tricky rapids. Best believe I was ready to row.
Amazingly, it only took 2 rapids for me to get used to it. We plowed through a level 3 followed by a level 4 in quick succession. I watched the swirling water ahead of me cut over rocks and glide into small waterfalls with laser focus. The boat dipped, turned and then plowed straight into a rapid, sending a wall of warm water over all our heads. The water cleared, and I was still in the boat. It was kind of a rush.
The scariest part of the ride was probably the little level 1 rapid that our guide told us we could hop out and swim through. I hit the water and promptly swallowed a cupful just before tumbling through the waves. After emerging awkwardly and gasping for air (water in your lungs is no joke), I was yanked back into the raft by my life jacket straps like a flapping fish. My vote is to skip that part.
The rapids got bigger and more complex as we went, with a narrowed riverbed and funkier rocks. Our guide told us that the level of a rapid as doesn’t always correspond to its size but to its hazard level. He told us that you could blaze through a level 5 correctly and feel like it was easy.
“But if you do it wrong, you’ll see why it’s a level 5 pretty quickly…”
One of our final rapids was the “Keeneys”, which required rowing through two z-shaped pathways of water sandwiched between jagged rocks and whirlpools. Before every rapid, our guide told us which way to swim if we fell out. His instructions for this one were something like:
“If you fall out in the beginning, go to the left, but if we’re past the first rock then go right, and past the flat rock off to the side, then you stay in the middle. Further down, look for an Eddy (calm whirling patch of water where you won’t get sucked under)…and if I say get down, you GET DOWN into this boat”
We got down. And hit a water wall so big it nearly tossed the boat. But it was a pretty awesome ride.
Back on the bus—achy, damp and energized—we were handed beers. My review for the company probably doubled in that moment. We drove back over the New River Gorge Bridge that hugged the hillsides hundreds of feet above the river we had just rafted in. Our guide later told us that his boat once flipped going through one of the final rapids and tossed 8 Girl Scouts into the water. Nobody in our group, however, took an “involuntary swim”.
That night, we celebrated my success at immeasurable bravery with a beer and fancy pizza at Pies ‘n Pints in Fayetteville, known as the “Coolest Small Town”. Blink and you’ll miss it, but the pizza was pretty awesome. We left our soaked rafting clothes to dry in the bed of our truck overnight.