Putting the Wild in Whitewater

The New River
  |  Gorp.com
West Virginia whitewater rafting new river gauley river
New River Gorge Bridge, the longest, tallest single-span bridge in the world and home to the globe's largest BASE-jumping festival (Nathan Borchelt)

If the Gauley is whitewater in high compression, then the neighboring New River is the mellow older sibling, its Class IV and V rapids interspersed with relaxed stretches of flatwater that allow you to catch your breath and appreciate the natural surroundings as you descend 250 feet through a narrow, 1,400-foot-deep canyon lined with sheer rock faces and the occasional abandoned mining outpost. Ironically, the New is the second-oldest river in the world (after the Nile), beginning in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina and flowing northwest into West Virginia where it joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha River. As with the Gauley, most outfitters divide the New into Upper and Lower sections: the Upper, which runs from Hinton to Thurmond, is the calmer stretch, and is ideal for families, seniors, and novices. Below Thurmond, the river funnels into the nationally protected New River Gorge, which froths with a series of Class IV and V rapids before crossing under the impressive span of the 867-foot New River Gorge Bridge (the largest, tallest single-span steel arch bridge in the world) near Fayetteville.

The Lower New would serve as our Gauley stand-in that day. And, as it turned out, it was the perfect way to get my feet wet. We got the safety speech, signed our lives away on the requisite waiver, and were divided into six-person crews, assigned a guide, and told to grab a yellow helmet and a PFD. Then we climbed aboard a Bluebird school bus for the hour-long drive to the put-in at Thurmond, a flyspeck of a town with six permanent residences.

On the way, the guides assuaged the customers’ nerves in the tried-and-true manner of telling jokes and making stuff up. Most guides make a modest salary, and pull much of their money from tips. By default they’re part salesman (even though the experience does sell itself); part stand-up comedian; part storyteller; and part flora, fauna, and local history expert—whatever the topic, they give you the impression that they know what they’re talking about, even if they don’t.

“How can you tell if a river guide is lying?” Rob asked me while one of his employees related a tale about talking his way out of a speeding ticket. “His lips are moving.”

The guides’ easygoing demeanor continues on the river (guides in West Virginia naturally specialize in…well, jokes about West Virginia), but when it comes to the dangers of river, the joking stops. Their knowledge of the rapids is encyclopedic and reliable. They may not remember the name of the rapid, per se, but they know how to run it. And if you fall in, they know where you should swim to avoid a nasty undertow, a menacing hole, or a section littered with leg-entangling fallen trees—and that information can save your life.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 20 Apr 2004 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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