Updated: Apr 30
Rachael is a brilliant trip designer. It has nothing to do with her day job. She is simply fearless, full of wanderlust and often heads off to find adventure. Lucky for me, she is one of my closest friends and I have tagged along a couple of times.
Her latest crazy idea was whitewater rafting on the Gauley River in West Virginia during the fall dam releases. Twenty-six miles, 48 whitewater rapids. I had never been on serious whitewater before. It sounded like a great idea, in the abstract, several months out.
As the date approached, reality hit. That great idea was actually terrifying.
We checked in at ACE Adventure Resort late Saturday afternoon and camped overnight in a tent that was pitched on a platform with a roof. Camping mattresses provided. It was warm and incredibly comfortable for camping, but sleep was sparse. I may have been a little nervous.
The next morning we filled out the “it’s not our fault if you die” and “there might be pictures” paperwork. Then we were off to get our gear (life vest, paddle, helmet).
Did I mention that this was an overnight trip? We were going to paddle 13 miles downstream, camp for the night, and get back in our boat for the second half of the trip on Monday morning. We loaded our overnight gear (and a cooler full of craft beer, care of Rachael—a brilliant move, given what we were about to do) into a truck, then boarded a bus for the 45 min. ride to the Summersville Dam.
There were only two boats on this trip, two guides and 9 crew (5 in our boat and 4 in the other). Captain Cogle was at the helm—the rest of us, a ship of fools. Or maybe not so foolish. Unlike Socrates’ analogy [1,2], there was no sign of mutiny. We were all quite clear on who should be in charge.
The first whitewater was class III, at the entrance just below the dam, then Initiation—class IV. Fair enough. But it wasn’t long before we hit Insignificant—class V. Someone got it wrong naming that one.
We were a dedicated crew. “Forward 2!” We paddled forward, all together. “Back!” We paddled back until we heard “Stop!” Lean forward, paddle in, lean back. Don’t paddle with your arms, your biceps shouldn’t be tired. But no one told me how much my abs and lats would be screaming on Tuesday.
And when there is an accessible giant rock, why not climb out of the boat, to the top of that rock and jump?
Captain’s warning: “The only way down is to jump.” Maybe we should have spent a moment to consider why he would say that.
And from the top of that rock we’re thinking, “Well then, it didn’t look quite so high from the water.” Don’t think, just jump. Rachael reported transitioning from feeling terror to having fun 2/3 of the way down. It must have been pretty high to have time for that.
Somehow, we stumbled upon perfect timing, and overlapped our first day of rafting with the last day of Gauley Fest weekend. We had lunch at Sweet’s Falls, watching a non-stop procession of kayaks and rafts boof, spin and dive over the falls.
Four more rapids then we hit camp.
We had a full spread for dinner. Then campfire stories of rivers and creeks, Harper’s Ferry, St. Thomas, the Caribbean.
No misty taste of moonshine or sweet paw paw wine, this time. Maybe next year. But that beer Rachael brought, delightful.
Campsite by the river, rushing water, sandy beach. And a sky full of stars.
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
—John Denver [3,4]
The morning dam release filled the gorge again while we had breakfast, sitting by the campfire to take the edge off the chilly morning air.
Twenty rapids to go, starting with Fuzzy Box of Kittens (I’m not buying it) and ending in Pure Screaming Hell.
That’s right. Pure. Screaming. Hell. Fully equipped with the Death Slot and the Hell Hole. Finally, truth in advertising.
There were tense moments, moments of pure joy, and quiet stretches to take it all in. That’s when we would hear, “Look around y’all and see where you are.”
The leaves were turning muted red and gold, falling slowly to the river just beyond my reach. The mist settling over the trees in the distance took the shape of a karamon gate. Almost heaven, indeed.
1. Plato. Plato's The Republic. New York :Books, Inc., 1943.
Coming soon: How a little craziness and creativity can help you see things from a new perspective and inspire your science and your writing.