My father handed his waiver to our whitewater rafting trip leader, a red-haired giant with waist-length braided pigtails and mutton chops that spread across his neck who referred to himself as Dougie-Doug. He paused, giving my dad a double take. “Hey bro,” he said, leaning in to whisper. “You got your wetsuit on backward.”
I came around the corner. “The knee pads go in front, Dad,” I said, pointing to the legs of my own Star Trek jumpsuit.
While he returned to the locker room, I explored our whitewater outfitter’s base camp in The New River Gorge of the Appalachian Highlands. The unfinished wood and vaulted ceilings made it feel like an oversized hunting lodge. I felt out of place among all the grizzly guys. The few other women on the campus were sinewy and makeup-free, sporting ball caps and Patagonia duds
Our trip marked the first day of Gauley season, the three weeks when the Summersville Dam releases a torrent of water that roars down nearly 700 feet of rugged canyon to create 28 miles of raging rapids. Whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world flock to West Virginia every fall to paddle the river. The rapids rank one-five on a scale determined by force and risk. A six indicates a 50 percent survival rate. A seven is suicidal.
As newbies, we’d be rafting the less intense Lower Gauley rather than the brutal Upper Gauley, which has five back-to-back class five rapids. If Dad had his way, we’d be going down the mild and scenic New River. However, we’d received an involuntarily upgrade when the company canceled the trip he originally signed us up for. The high school age limit for this more intense excursion explained why beer-guzzlers outnumbered the church youth groups.
After we buckled our helmets and life vests (which the staff referred to as pfd’s), we filed into a blue and white school bus for a one-hour ride to the Gauley River deep in the mountain gorge. Doug started the ride rattling off a stand up routine of farm animal jokes.
We stopped smiling when he transitioned to the safety lecture. He warned us of the importance of holding our paddle grips during even the most aggressive of rapids. “Let go for a second,” he said, “and that hard plastic handle will knock out your teeth or bash in your face.” I imagined my new braces lacerating my lips when we hit a violent wave.
Then he ordered us not to swim upright if knocked out of the raft. “The river’s 500 feet deep in some spots, but other times we’ll be grazing rocks,” he said. “Tread water, and your feet will hook between rocks or an ’86 Chevy. You’ll be snapped while we’re reeling ya in with the rope or the waves are pullin’ ya.”
If we fell out and our guide motioned us to come on but then turned away to lead the raft in the opposite direction, it would be because his responsibility was to pull the crew to safety first. “That’s when you do your best impression of an Olympic swimmer,” he said. “And remember, when you hit a rapid never stop paddling.” He closed his speech with an offer to bus any of us who’d changed our minds about the trip back to the parking lot.
I stared out the window the rest of the ride. I had begged for this trip, insisting that I couldn’t leave West Virginia without rafting its world-class rapids. Dad was quiet too, looking like a petrified, nerdy astronaut with his retired ‘90s eyeglasses and white helmet sitting high on top of his baseball cap. What had I gotten us into? It would be my fault if the rapids knocked one of us unconscious, pinned beneath an undercut boulder in what Doug referred to as the washing machine of a monster rapid. I pictured a split helmet and ripped life jacket spewing out four hours later.
We met our guide Ray when we arrived to the river. He’d waited in line at dawn in hopes of surfing on our trip. With hopeful guides from all over the world heading to the Gorge, snagging a gig can get competitive during the 20 days of Gauley season.
After we shoved our raft in the water, short, buff and bare-chested Ray told us get off the middle cushions, which he called ejector pads. Instead we had to sit balanced on the raft’s outer edges, bracing ourselves with our feet. “Three paddles forward. Break,” ordered Ray as we set off on the big-water river. “Now four paddles back.”
Before each rapid Ray instructed us where to swim if our brace failed and we fell out. “Don’t go left — there’s a gnarly rip current by that third rock over there,” he’d say. “But don’t veer too far right either or you’ll get caught in that twisting hydraulic.” Soon my calves cramped from the ferocity with which I sandwiched my feet in the crevices of the raft.
I sat behind Tim, staring at the XXL scrawled on the collar of his too-short wetsuit rental. Tim was about 6-foot-seven and provided commentary throughout the trip, with statements like “I learned to tell time with my thumb” and “When Ray says technical he means difficult.”
I clenched my paddle grip with white knuckles as we bounced through our first class five rapid. The rest of the group hooted while we pounded down the steep run. “Woohoo!” “Bring it on!” “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” they shouted. When the waves splashed my face I squinted, lips pursed in silence, paddling for dear life and squeezing my legs to the raft with all my might. “Stop hollering and start paddling!” I wanted to scream during the aquatic roller coaster. I kept rowing even when the water launched us so high that I paddled air. I remember my dad waling “Ride ‘em dogies!” when he surfed the waves on a boogie board during beach vacations. Not now. Not a peep out of him either.
We crashed and swirled through rapids dubbed Pure Screaming Hell (which included two deadly holes called Purgatory and Hell Hole), Heaven Help Us and BFR (an acronym standing for your first guess). When not maneuvering the torrential chutes and their ferocious waves, we coasted by waterfalls and boulders through a tunnel of rock wall and forest.
“Come on,” Dad said to me when we floated to a less turbulent pool that Ray declared safe to swim. Without thinking, we jumped overboard to flail down the Swimmer’s Rapids. I yelped as soon as I hit the 50-degree water. “It’s cold!” I shouted. I tried to keep my toes in view as I glided down the river. Dad fought to swim to our boat as the current swept him toward craggy ledges. He felt panicky and hypothermic, he later told me. Jim, one of our crewmates who’d also gone for a swim, suffered an asthma attack as the chilly waves pounded his face. That’s why Ray left me floating out there on my own. I feared he’d deserted me to body surf the next round of rapids.
When the boat made its way over to pick me up, Dad leaned overboard to thrust me up by the armpits with all his might. When that didn’t work, he held onto me and flopped himself backward. I shot into the air and slid across the floor of the raft to land on top of him.
Not long after our slapstick performance we parked ashore to end our 12-mile, five-hour run. I shivered in my soaked layers, dreading the hour-long bus trip back. I had jumped in the river wearing my jacket, wetsuit, long-sleeved Under Armour tee and swimsuit under my life jacket. I couldn’t imagine peeling all that off to use one of the portable toilets. I curled up in a cold, wet ball against a window in the middle of the bus. Sputter. The bus didn’t start.
Our bus arrived more than an hour later. Doug felt responsible for the holdup and entertained us on the way back with stories of the local Fayetteville police force, more Dukes of Hazzard than Mayberry according to him.
Back at base camp, Dad and I met outside the locker rooms ready to drive the 20 minutes to our campsite at Babcock State Park. He already had his headlamp strapped across his balding head. I wonder what Doug and Ray thought when he tipped him while wearing the contraption. That night we roasted hotdogs and then crawled straight in our sleeping bags.
After breaking camp the next morning we headed back to the whitewater outfitter for our Treetop Canopy Tour. Outside a group of tattooed guys in board shorts smoked cigarettes and spoke to a couple of park rangers holding clipboards. “Must have gotten busted for something,” Dad said. Then our zip line guide Heath informed us that their friend had died rafting the Upper Gauley an hour earlier. The 40-year-old man had fallen into the water and suffered cardiac arrest.
I couldn’t stop contemplating the sobering scenario as we geared up in our harnesses and helmets before hitting the new, state-of-the-art course. We began by perfecting our technique on a zip equivalent of a bunny slope. Then we moved up to the platforms built around Eastern Hemlocks and White Oaks connecting the network of cables. The real zips were long. And fast. And high. And as we proceeded they got longer and faster and higher.
We assumed the jokester guys in our group were ball players on a team-bonding trip with their coaches. Filming the perfect YouTube documentary interested them as much as the thrill of whizzing along at 30mph while hanging 110 feet in the air. They surprised us when they revealed they were a bowling team from Raleigh.
Our guide Heath the wild-haired mycologist and Dad the doctor bonded over Latin terminology. They pointed out the red fungi crawling across the trees and the lethal white Amanita Verosa Destroying Angel mushrooms sprouting below as we wobbled across Indiana Jones-style bridges. My apprehensions eased after getting double clipped to double steel cables. I focused on sitting back in my harness and tucking my legs into a cannonball to increase my speed like Heath suggested. Dad maintained a death grip on his trolley that slowed him down. His fear of heights kept him from appreciating the sweeping views of the rocky Mill Creek and rhododendron patches below the forest canopy. I found swinging my body around the platform edge to rappel to the ground at the end the most nerve-racking part of the three-hour tour.
That weekend Dad kept pretty quiet. I fretted that he regretted letting me drag him on the extreme adventure. But after he bought the DVD of our whitewater trip and compulsively checked to see if our zipping pictures had appeared online, I realized I was in the clear.
As for me, revealing I’m a West Virginian is easier now that I don’t have to sheepishly admit to incredulous audiences that I’ve never rafted my state’s world famous whitewater. After trekking the Andes, wandering Tuscan hillsides and hiking through Argentine rainforest, I’m getting around to conquering my own state.
On the way home from our weekend adventure we stopped at the Tamarack Best of West Virginia restaurant for pan-fried fillet of rainbow trout, kale and fried green tomatoes. I strutted in smelling of campfire, rocking river-water waved hair and wearing Vasque hiking boots. And for once, I felt like a native mountain woman.