Forward! Back! Forward Right! Hold On!

Published: December 22nd 2011
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Today is the day I raft the New River.

I signed up for the trip with Wildwater Adventures, which is the oldest outfitter in West Virginia.

While no raft guide will deliberately dump guests in the river and keep their job, a number will not go out of their way to keep guests in the boat either.

They run riskier lines through rapids, which can provide a thrilling ride but also a harrowing one.

I wanted a guide service that was known for keeping this type of risk to a minimum (the rapids are already risky enough!)

Wildwater fit the bill nicely.

They also have a great reputation for customer service.

In order to take this trip, I had to deal with some personal history.

Four years ago, I rafted this river in early summer, and nearly drowned.

A combination of factors led to the near tragedy.

I had severely underestimated how long it would take to drive to the site, so I arrived late and tired.

The campground was party central that night, ignoring the quiet hours, so I got very little sleep.

Probably most importantly, I went down the river with a yahoo rookie raft guide who hit seemingly every rock in the river.

Finally, I was relatively inexperienced with Class V rafting.

The first three factors virtually guaranteed that I would fall in the river at some point.

It finally happened in a class IV rapid.

The last factor meant I had no idea how to handle this.

I ended up doing the second worst thing you can do when swimming a rapid, which was to panic (the worst is to stand up in the river, which ensures feet get caught on the rocky bottom, followed by drowning).

My lungs filled with water and I could barely breathe.

When the boat finally fished me out, I coughed up water for several minutes afterward.

Still, something about that trip stuck in my head because I've wanted to go back ever since.

Bridge Day Means Long Nights

The trip had a very early start time.

I dislike being up early, so I planned to get as much sleep as I could the night before.

Things did not go as planned.

A large group of recent college graduates was also staying in the campground that night.

They brought four cases of cheap beer with them.

The party lasted until 3:30 AM!

Keep in mind that I had to be up at 6 AM for the trip.

Calling me sleep deprived the following morning would be putting it mildly.

About the only thing keeping me awake was the cup of hot chocolate and breakfast I ate.

Thankfully, I had both a much better guide and much more experience on my side to avoid a repeat performance of my last New River trip.

Still, I started feeling the fatigue by the third rapid of the run.

When we stopped to watch the Bridge Day festivities, I could barely keep my eyes open.

After lunch, I passed out for several hours.

I found out later that every campground near the bridge on Bridge Day turns into a party, and quiet hours are all but unenforceable.

I give the staff of Wildwater a great deal of credit.

Once it became apparent that their campground was unsuitable for my needs, they found another place for me to stay and paid the fees since my fees at their campground were prepaid.

I still wish they had informed me of the noise at the time I had made the reservation so I could have booked alternate accommodations ahead of time.

I stayed the next two nights at Babcock State Park.

It is the closest campground to Bridge Day that actually gets quiet at night.

This is mostly because the park prohibits alcohol and enforces it pretty strictly.

The park was still 30 minutes from the rafting base, which meant an even earlier start the next day.

New River Rafting

The trip itself was very different from my last trip down the New, and not just because I managed to stay in the boat.

I now understand why fall trips on the New River are not done very often.

The water level was almost two feet lower than my trip in early summer, and this changed the nature of the rapids.

Rapids that had been full of waves were now mostly filled with rocks.

Rapids that had been filled with rocks now became rock mazes requiring precise maneuvers to get through.

Several times, the boat got stuck.

Overall, it was a great deal of work for not much fun, until the bridge itself appeared.

The scariest moment of the trip was in Middle Kearny rapid, when the boat after us got caught on a rock and flipped.

We were the rescue boat, so we paddled furiously to pick everyone up.

Afterward there were twice as many people in the boat for a short stretch, and I half expected it to sink.


Anyone planning to do this trip someday might not want to watch this (from a different raft guide).

Bridge Day

At the tail end of the trip, the New River Gorge Bridge finally appeared.

The bridge is huge and high, and from below looks even more so.

BASE jumpers fell from the bridge in a continuous stream.

From the river, they looked like ants, until they opened their parachutes.

The organizers of the event have a sense of humor, because one of the options for jumping off the bridge was a diving board.

Very few participants used it though.

Under the bridge was a fleet of rescue boats, to pick up jumpers who landed in the river.

The official target is a beach located next to the river, but falling in the river is preferable to ending up in a tree.

The top of the bridge was packed with spectators and vendors

Unfortunately, after the raft trip I had no energy to join them.


Someone posted video of what I missed:

And this is what the jumpers see!

Dinner that night was a steak prepared by the Wildwater catering staff.

It was quite good.

I spent an hour talking with people I would be joining on the Gauley the next day, and then made the drive to Dohart.

I passed out soon after arrival.

After all, I had to be up early the next day and had a sleep deficit to make up.


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