Wild Wet West Virginia –
Its 40 degrees and dark when I arrive at the outfitters. I exit the truck to see my breath creating billows of fog when I breath. I hear, oddly, a crowing rooster. He is getting an early head start on daybreak. I’m shivering and start to wonder what have I gotten myself into. Other rafters appear on the scene and quickly I realize I’m the more senior of the bunch. Picking raft mates that I may bond with seems to be a mere luck of the draw, so I begin summing up the guides in hopes that I find one I’m comfortable with.
There are a couple of millennial guys that have an Abercrombie catalog outdoorsy look. They have about 3% body fat, sport a quaffed beard, man bun, and North Face or Patagonia gear. Braided hemp ankle bracelets, Birkenstock sandals and piercings complete the uniform. If I were a betting man, I’d say the Prius with the Bernie Sanders bumper sticker belongs to one on these guys. I imagine that if the raft takes on water they’ll look to me for a bail out. I’ll keep looking.
Then there is the earthy gal who, bless her heart, is incredibly insecure. I can tell because her speaking voice is about 20 decibels louder than required for any normal conversation and every sentence starts with “I” and ends with “ that was crazy maaaan”. I’m sure she is a competent guide, but there is no way I can sit through that for 2 hours.
Then there was Jim. Oh Jim. He stood out, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, no front teeth, and mysteriously trendy glasses. He donned a faded blue bandanna with a long protruding ponytail, and a beard that would qualify him for the Duck Dynasty family. A true looking West Virginia river man. Except he sported flannel pajama bottoms with Superman logos and a baggy Walmart Ocean Pacific bathing suit (I know this because I have the same suit) pulled over them.
This is to be my guide. I sense if there is trouble he’ll be the first one in. The van ride further confirms he is the guide for me. I am eavesdropping as he chats with the aforementioned Chatty Cathy guide en-route to the launch site. He has a very dry subtle wit and folksy knowledge. Such as, predicting weather by the number of cows in a local farm pond and the acidity level of dung from cows versus sheep. Conversely, he also quotes Philosophers like an Ivy leaguer. He is an enigma; I like him.
Once in the raft and afloat, I notice on the raft floor a single pocket for foot placement. I had never seen this before and proceed to put my right foot in. This tiny action did not go unnoticed by Jim, and he quickly corrects me. If your on the left side of the raft your left foot goes in on the right side the right foot. This seems to be an awkward position for paddling, but I am pleased to see others make the same mistake I do.
Before any further instruction, Jim inquires if we had heard any more of the celebrity stabbing that had taken place the night before. He continues, that an actress had stabbed her boyfriend in the chest 17 times. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of this news but listen intently for more details. He stammers and mumbles “Oh what’s her name?” no one says anything and further he adds, “Oh it’s Reese or something like that, she was in the Johnny Cash movie”. Surprised that no one says anything, I proudly blurt out Witherspoon? He looks at me and strokes his beard as says “Naaaaw, it was with her knife”. The raft silence is broken, by laughter, at my expense. I’m not in the raft 60 seconds and twice draw unwanted attention to myself.
Paddle Right, Paddle Left faster
I have spent a fair amount of time on the water including a couple rafting trips with my buddies. These trips included copious amounts of alcohol and I survived those fine and only lost one cooler and a pair of sunglasses. With a guide, this should be a piece of cake right?
Jim gives instructions on how to hold the paddle and how to follow voice commands. I am not overly interested and am more concerned about getting my GoPro on and envisioning the great video I’m about to get. Jim, informs us of the Class 3 rapids ahead and says something about swimming away from the slanty rock. I thought he was being funny again. Fool me once….
Quickly the torrent begins, I’m not exactly sure what happens but my worry and wondering about getting wet is soon answered as a wave crashes over the bow of the boat into my face. The raft spins around and my back is to the rocks and crashing current. I’m tossed back and I’d say if not for the foothold I’d be trying to swim away from the slanty rock. If the foothold didn’t save me, my crew mates from the other side of the raft being tossed into my lap had to help.
The ship rights itself, and I notice the rest of the crew has that deer in the headlights look too. Good ol Jim doesn’t even get his cigarette wet and takes a long draw as if he were sitting on a bar stool. My confidence in him is confirmed.
Plan C – Don’t drown
My anxiety ratchets up when informed of the Double Z; a Class 5 rapid up ahead. The seriousness in Jim’s voice doesn’t go unnoticed. No longer is he just talking about slanty rocks. Instead he’s warning of hydraulics, undercut rocks, boil lines and reversals. I listen with much more consternation when he details Plan A, B and C when falling out of the raft.
To my liking, this rapid proved to be less traumatic than the previous one. In fact, though we run about 30 rapids this day ranging from Class 3-5 none are as life threatening as that first one. This however doesn’t detract from the overall exhilaration and euphoria after tackling each one.
The trip winds down with a lunch stop slightly upstream of the New River bridge. I find the biggest flattest rock in the sun I can find. Much like a cold blooded lizard, I bask in the sun and watch the BASE jumpers leap from the bridge as part of the Bridge Day celebration. I feel a kinship as a fellow thrill seeking, life risking, adventurer.
My raft mates begin talking of rafting the New Gualey River in search of more Class 5’s. Even though listed for beginners, this raft outing is a thrill of a lifetime and plenty for me.