For those who like to do more than go with the flow
By Kris Coronado
Friday, Sept. 2, 2011
"I would like everyone to know that I love you, if I don't get out of this alive," Shanice Jones says with a smile. Moments later, the 22-year-old from Temple Hills and her four gal pals squeal and cheer. The rubber raft they're sitting in has just dropped into the day's first white-water rapids.
A half hour earlier, they and 40 other adventurers stood on the shore of the Shenandoah River near Millville, W.Va., to get safety tips from River & Trail Outfitters trip leader Artie Badger. After the brief tutorial, the paddle-wielding and helmet-wearing herd was divided among seven inflatable rafts, each with a company guide at its helm. The pros would handle the steering and navigating, while the Joes and Janes followed their instructions.
As the paddlers of the lead boat, Jones and her friends are the first to reach the turbulent water. Badger's directions come fast: "Let's back it up! A little harder! Take a break. Let's go forward! Take a break! Back it up!"
When the women reach a serene current, it's time to celebrate. "Good job, guys," Badger says. "Paddle high five!" Seven plastic oars raise in the air and smack together in triumphant glee.
One rapid down, 10 more to go.
The water gets rougher - the next dip is a Class 3, the most difficult level to be tackled today - but with each plunge comes more excitement, whoops and hollers. Passengers cheer on nearby rafts, filled with teenage couples and families, as they navigate the foamy waters, and bounce off slippery rocks in dramatic fashion. During Class 3 runs, the rafts easily fill with water, and riders become adept at bracing their legs against the boat's sides for leverage, lest they fall in.
After such hard work, it's easy to become ravenous. Just after noon, at the halfway point on the six-mile trip, the boats pull alongside a gravely shoreline for a picnic lunch. The guides pass out plates of fried chicken and potato salad and offer up hunks of watermelon. Forty minutes later, everyone's back on the water, including two 20-something troublemakers who revel in spraying other boats with a giant water gun.
The historic Harpers Ferry shoreline appears on the river's left bank, and Badger tells of abolitionist John Brown's raid on the West Virginia town in 1859. It's one of many tidbits offered by the 26-year-old who clearly knows his stuff. On a stretch of calm water, he stops paddling to inform the group they are floating at a point where Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, as well as the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers intersect.
Intriguing, yes. Exhilarating? That's next. On the day's final Class 3 run, named White Horse, Badger asks whether anyone would like to "ride the bull." A feisty blonde, 22-year-old Jeannette Wheeler from La Plata, eagerly volunteers before Badger has finished explaining what that entails. He passes her a line of rope to hook inside the boat behind the raft's nose.
"Sit with your feet over the front edge of the boat, and you hold onto that rope with one hand," he instructs. "You put your other hand in the air like you're riding a bull, and you try to stay on."
It isn't long before Wheeler is sitting proudly on the raft's bow, waving to other rafters before the boat reaches the rapids. When the boat plunges into the frothy current, however, she soon falls backward into the raft, legs akimbo. Laughing, she sits up, and then immediately loses her balance and goes overboard. There's a stunned-yet-smiling look on her face before Lindsey Mitchell grabs her friend's life vest to pull her back in.
When the raft's run concludes at 1:50 p.m., everyone is soaked but ecstatic. Jones, who at first thought her days were numbered, is already planning her next rafting trip. She looks at Badger: "When can we do a Class 5?"