Putting the Wild in Whitewater

The New, Continued
  |  Gorp.com
Page 5 of 7   |  
West Virginia whitewater rafting new river gauley river
The Call of the Wildwater: A guide barks commands as the river gets nasty (courtesy, Wildwater)

We reached Thurmond around nine that bright Friday morning, the bluebird sky unblemished save for a few wisps of gossamer cirrus. The river here was calm, and our raft and the six other Wildwater boats were the only ones in sight. We hopped in and shoved off, drifting as our guide Bill gave us the quick lowdown of life on a raft: Sit on the side of the boat, not in the center. Anchor your foot underneath the center pontoon and paddle by rocking your entire body back and forth so that you don’t turn your arms into rubber after five hard strokes. Keep your back hand on the oar at all times, lest you whack someone with an errant paddle. Other instructions—full forward, full back, right side back, left side forward, etc—were self-explanatory and soon our novice crew was pumping along the river through a few full-on all-forward moves.

Despite the slew of safety instructions we received as we cruised the early part of the river, falling out of the raft during the first four-odd miles was mainly voluntary—an effort to cool off from the sun that had risen over the lip of the gorge. Bill pointed out climbing routes within the gorge, and told us a long, meandering joke about a West Virginian looking for a backwoods vasectomy. The other rafts in our Wildwater flotilla were scattered like leaves along the river, with video-camera-wielding Rob cruising between the boats in a kayak, shooting footage for posterity (and later commerce once back at the Wildwater HQ). To our right, the Amtrak Cardinal Express kept pace before picking up speed. I’m sure a window seat on the train would offer a stellar view of the gorge, but passengers en route from Chicago to New York can never get the vertiginous effect of actually floating through the canyon’s wide chasm.

They also miss out on that sudden rush of adrenaline that floods your senses as you approach your first serious rapid, the aptly named Class-IV Surprise. At first it looked like an aquatic version of a roller coaster. But mid-way through, the water funnels you into a spin cycle of foam that converges on a huge mountain of a double wave. I braced myself, and when Bill called out “full forward” I ignored instinct, dug my paddle right into a wave as it crashed over our bow, and found that pushing against the sheer force of the water kept me planted on the raft.

I screamed with glee, and in a flash it was over…and it had also just begun. All told, the Upper New has over ten Class III+ rapids. We took every one full on and with an almost juvenile gusto, vaguely aware of our own mortality (especially at the Keeney Brothers, a series of three churning Class IV-V rapids frothing in the high waters), yet too enthralled to be truly humbled.

Midway we stopped on the banks for a relaxing lunch. Wildwater had strapped coolers to each raft, and in the duration of time it took to secure a spot to answer the call of nature (women in the thickets upstream, men down), a makeshift sandwich and snack bar had been set up.

We got back to Wildwater HQ at around three that afternoon. I felt worn and weary, my shoulder muscles in knots, my arms and neck sporting a mean farmer’s tan. As I pitched my tent on the field adjacent to the main building, Rob Dobson and a slew of other river guides were loading their kayaks onto trucks.

“Where you heading?” I asked.

“Work’s done,” he said with a grin. “Now we’re going to play.”

Seemed that, while the Upper Gauley was running too high for commercial rafting, it was prime for those veteran river rats ready—and crazy enough—to paddle into the froth.


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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