Taming the scary beast is great fun
A morning steam rises from the see-through river surrounded by endless green mountains. Gigantic boulders protrude from the depths of the clean water creating a ripply effect in the eddy.
This is when the journey begins.
Six miles of rock-filled, rapid-crazed fun lie ahead for rafters at the Gauley River in West Virginia.
During the summer months, only one rafting company has the guts to run the Gauley River. ACE Adventure Center in Minden, W.Va., takes the 45-minute bus ride north and leads guided ducky trips (single-person inflatable kayaks) down the adventurous waters. The Summer Upper Gauley is the absolute best rafting trip ACE has to offer.
A challenging, technical ride leaves first-time rafters blown away but somehow wanting to return. According to John Cornwell, ACE Gauley raft guide, "Rafting for the first time on the Gauley River is like learning to drive at the Indy 500."
This is my first-time experience:
A rush of freezing water fills my being as the rapid continues to crush my body against a huge rock in Lost Paddle, a Class V+ rapid.
Finally after what seemed like forever, I surface -- in the dark. Panic sets in and I fear for my life as I sink. Again I surface realizing my ducky raft is above me. I hear a voice say "Relax."
Suddenly the rapid lets go and I float to calmer water and manage to squirm my way back onto my raft. Breathing heavy, cold and filled with adrenaline, I begin following the others to the next rapid.
Ready for more
Already I can hear the fourth leg of Lost Paddle rapid raging in the near distance, its water rushing at speeds that should scare me. I can't wait to take it on, hoping I can fight its force to eject me. I look to my husband smiling, silently signaling to him what a great time I am having. I think he agreed.
As the morning passes and the excitement of the river takes a back seat, I begin to look around at the beautiful landscape. Mountains surround the river, a sight I am not accustomed to seeing. The trees are a shade of green northeastern Ohio hadn't seen all summer.
Gigantic canyon walls go up for 30 feet, the stone textured and multicolored showing its many years of evolving. Somehow I feel so small surrounded by nature at its best.
Following the river to another class V+ rapid, Shipwreck Rock, our guide warns of the swim ratio on the rapid. Over 60 percent of all rafters go under. Knowing this, I brace myself for the worst.
One at a time our group begins taking instruction from both guides positioned for our safety in the rapid. Successfully, I am in the 40 percent not to swim.
Watching from the eddy, I see a yellow raft flip in the air, spilling its occupant. A helmeted head pops out of the water, eyes wide open. It is this person's second spill of the trip.
Docking our boats on a huge, flat rock in the riverbed, we all stand to stretch and warm up in the afternoon sunshine. A sandwich lunch, including appetizers and dessert, awaits us on a make shift table. John, a raft guide for ACE, had arranged the meal from coolers he carried with him down the river.
'Flume of Doom'
After a brief search for copperhead snakes and rattlesnakes and the end of lunch, the guide leads us to the "Flume of Doom." A climb over some boulders and to the top of a rock overlooking the next rapid, I am amazed at what our female guide is suggesting we do.
"Just scoot off this rock into this narrow passage way [about 6 feet across] that is going to circle around and spit you out at the bottom. I'll go first."
Doing exactly what our parents told us never to do, we follow her despite our better judgment.
Sitting on the small ledge, I prepare to scoot, thinking "I am going to hit my head on that rock." A small hesitation and I push off, sinking into the river with water a good 5 feet above my head. I surface with the help of my PFD (personal flotation device).
As the fun continues, I am met with the rushing water over my head and shoulders, laying me flat as I am pushed out of the flume. Swimming to a rocky safe zone, I pull myself out of the water and scurry like a child to the top of the big rock to go again. It was like sled-riding, only better.
We return to our rafts. Familiar with the next rapid, Iron Ring, that contains the "Flume of Doom," the guide warns us of the possibility of rafting into the flume and "tacoing."
The inflatable raft will literally fold in half, with you in the middle like meat and cheese.
My approach to Iron Ring, not knowing the force and length of the rapid, was not enough. Ending up going down backward and sideways, I went in, luckily never coming close to the flume. Gushing water on all sides blocked my view of the rocks surrounding me as I continued down the rapid without a raft. Later in the journey, a guide noted that I had a great swim, and she had a great laugh.
At the end of a long and exciting day, I reflect on the experience of the Gauley River.
The force of nature is a scary beast. It is amazing how humans curiously explore the possibilities and take advantage of the potential excitement we can take from it.
I am glad for my curiosity and the recent experience.
I looked forward to rock climbing the next day, not knowing the obstacle I have to overcome in a new day of adventure.