Sometimes when you travel you have to face your fears. At least that’s what people say. At the moment I’m sitting on a rubber raft bouncing and bucking like a bronco with my son, Ross, and six other passengers—and I’m not sure I agree.
Our river guide, Chaz, a droll African-American with a dry wit and muscular arms, tells us we’re going to surf the rapids, and I envision riding mellow waves downriver. Before I know what’s going on, Chaz points us upstream (i.e., back toward the rapids we’ve just bounced down) and tells us to paddle like mad toward a particularly intense rapids area called a hole.
Following orders, we commence to paddle right into the whitewash. Somehow I’ve ended up in the front of the raft, and now I’m getting clobbered by thousands of gallons of water while my feet (and the front of the raft) have disappeared under foaming, swirling currents. My nose is full, my mouth’s full, and I’m leaning backwards and sideways clinging for dear life to the woman sitting across from me, who’s also getting clobbered.
Behind us everyone else in the raft is whooping and hollering with excitement. All I can think is “Get me outta here!”
Ross and I escaped the coast for a few days recently and headed to West Virginia and higher, hopefully cooler elevations. Our destination was River Expeditions, an outfitter in Fayetteville that offers packages including lodging, meals, and of course adventures on the river.
As we drove up into the Appalachian Mountains, I remembered spending a summer at Radford, between my junior and senior years, and how stunning the mountains are in summer. Somehow I feel rooted and connected in the mountains. Along the beach, where I’ve spent most of my life, everything feels transitory, as if the sea breeze might suddenly switch direction and bring abrupt change. In the mountains, a feeling of timelessness takes over.
River Expeditions is located near Fayetteville in the midst of a geographic wonderland known as the New River Gorge—a.k.a. the Grand Canyon of the East. But instead of barren red rock, the New River Gorge is characterized by forested mountains thousands of feet tall, below which, deep in the valley, the New River, ironically one of the oldest rivers in the world, slices through West Virginia bedrock on its way to points northward.
The New River Gorge is all about adventure sports: rock climbing, zip line tours, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, ATV tours, golf—you name it. But the area is probably best known for its whitewater rafting along both the Gauley and the New Rivers. I’d always wanted to try whitewater rafting, but was intimidated by the sheer force of Mother Nature.
I’m not a risk-taker by nature, preferring instead to remain in control of my physical trajectory as much as possible. OK, I’ll admit I enjoy horseback riding, snow skiing, and the occasional hot air balloon ride, but whitewater rafting always seemed so intense. Luckily, Ross came along for moral support. He’s fearless and couldn’t wait to hit the rapids.
Depending on the time of year and the level of adventure you want to experience, you can choose to ride either the Gauley or the New River. The former has more Class IV and Class V rapids, and the latter is the tamer of the two, or so the literature said. Spring and fall, when the rapids are at their highest, tend to attract some of the most hard-core rafters, those adrenalin junkies who thrive on getting thrashed about by nature’s fury. Summer’s a good season for first-timers, and the trip we’d chosen—called the Lower New River—was River Expedition’s signature trip. I felt confident that this was something I could handle.
GO WITH THE FLOW
Our trip started out sedately enough. Chaz invited all of us to introduce ourselves. Besides Ross and me, there was a family of four from Herndon, as well as a father and daughter from the Richmond area. Chaz checked our life vests and helmets to make sure everything was secure before we boarded and then taught us paddling techniques.
Sitting in the back of the raft, Chaz guided us, shouting orders like a coxswain: “Two forward. Three right. Two back.” He encouraged us to paddle in unison, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’re in the front of the raft and can’t watch what everyone else is doing.
The rapids all have names like Pinball, Upper Railroad, Lost Lunch, Piece of Cake, Double Z, Hook 99, Teacher’s Pet, and Thread the Needle. Our surfing adventure occurred somewhere around the Upper or Lower Railroad—near the beginning of our three-hour trip—and after surviving that episode, Chaz said there wouldn’t be any more surfing. Ahhh, now I could relax and enjoy the gorgeous scenery and the thrilling rapids. We stopped for lunch after about an hour and hung out on a small beach, eating sandwiches and salads as the New River splashed and frothed beside us.
Back on the raft, Chaz masterfully guided us through the thickest crops of rocks as we funneled along narrow rushing passageways. After shooting through, we’d all whoop for joy. Happily, no one in our raft fell overboard, but we did spot a few unfortunate souls who took a spill.
Occasionally Chaz invited us to jump in the river in between rapids and “go with the flow.” With our life vests on, we bobbed like corks downriver. Only when it was time to climb aboard, did I realize that getting into a rubber raft while drifting in a swift current might be a challenge. That’s when Chaz reached down, grabbed my life vest, and hauled me into the boat like a trophy fish.
A favorite stopping place near the end of the run is Jump Rock, where brave souls climb a path to the top of a 20-foot rock that juts above the river for an exhilarating jump. Ross was game, but I opted to sit in the raft and watch. Most everyone jumped with little fanfare, but there were two girls who chickened out. I’m not sure what I would have done up there, but I think I would have jumped. When Ross’ turn came, he executed an amazing 1 1/2 somersault dive, landing with such force that both of his water shoes blew off.
Back at River Expeditions, the rafters all gathered in the Red Dog Saloon to watch a video of our whitewater adventure. Filmed by one of the guides who kayaked to vantage points along the route, the video captured us navigating many of the rapids as well as great footage of the brave souls who conquered Jump Rock. Much to my dismay, it also included a few embarrassing frames of me getting pummeled while surfing at Upper Railroad. The audience roared as they watched me holding on for dear life.
Lorie Dobbins of Herndon, who shared the front of the raft with me during those frantic few moments, sat with her family at a picnic table outside the Red Dog after the film ended. This was also her first time rafting, and she “absolutely recommends it.”
“These guys know what they’re doing,” she said. “I appreciated that it was a safe environment.”
Her daughter, Ashley, 15, said, “I was definitely worried at first, but it turned out to be really exhilarating.” Her brother, Taylor, 12, said, “The Jump Rock was the best part. I was really shaking.”
Jump Rock. My nemesis. OK, next time I will give it a go. Because if there’s one thing this trip taught me, it’s that overcoming your fears only makes you stronger. And besides, adventures like this one are a whole lot of fun!
River Expeditions offers a range of accommodations including camping in your own equipment, rustic cabins, and deluxe cabins. Ross and I stayed in one of four Luxury Cabins, gorgeous 5-bedroom homes with fully equipped kitchens, flat screen TVs, and front and back porches, the latter featuring a bubbling hot tub that Ross and I took advantage of. www.raftinginfo.com
For more family travel ideas, visit www.tidewaterfamily.com/travel.