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A Flow Learner

It took this canoe fan some time to appreciate kayaking. But soon she was immersed in the joys of a Shenandoah float trip. Really immersed.

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2003; Page C02

The blue kayak hit the silted water of the Shenandoah River with a slap, shattering the calm rustle of trees weaving under a cloud-filtered sky. I grabbed my white-finned paddle and climbed in, tucking bug spray and a bottle of water under the rope mesh attached to the back of the kayak. I had to paddle against the current like a caffeinated salmon to keep from being flushed downstream while the rest of the group plopped into the water one at time.

The river was running high -- perfect rapids, the canoe outfitter had told us when we arrived one Saturday in July in Bentonville, Va., for a lazy afternoon kayak ride, a last-minute trip to get us out of town and out-of-doors.

Maria Laura Astrada of Washington, in the blue kayak, paddles down a small rapid on the Shenandoah River with a party of canoers. (By Jackie Spinner)

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The river has had a delicious summer because the river loves the rain. The river doesn't care that your softball league was 12 games behind schedule by the Fourth of July and that you have seen every summer blockbuster release, including "Finding Nemo" just because you heard it had a great scene with an animated sun.

This far into summer, we should be tanned from the rays and itching for the coming season of wool sweaters. But this summer we look like we are from Seattle, and mildew has made us bitter.

So our little group of adventure-seekers -- five city-slicker gal pals from Washington and one little brother visiting from the Midwest -- has come to the river not to conquer it but to salvage a washed-out summer. By God, if we're going to get wet, it's going to be because we decided to get wet.

I had never been in a kayak before this trip. I am a canoe person. Canoe people are different from kayak people. Canoe people like the outdoors, but they anticipate danger at every bend. Canoe people make their friends swear they will not let them die.

Canoe people also do not like to be shot with a stinging spray of river water by their water-pistol-packing brother when it is clear that the upcoming rapid with a natural two-foot drop would make any canoe person anxious.

In fact, the river experts have told us that in high water, a kayak is less likely to tip than a canoe. But I yelled anyway in the direction of the spray, "Timothy David Spinner, you better cut that out right now." Some things you cannot escape.

We had left Washington early that Saturday morning, taking Interstate 66 west and then jumping off before Front Royal to take a longer route to the Shenandoah via Gainesville and Warrenton. The narrow, winding mountain roads added a half-hour to the trip, but it was a scenic drive, with a national forest that enveloped us as we made our way to Luray. The quicker route is to take I-66 to Front Royal and then zigzag over to Route 340 south.

A kayak trip is the perfect adventure for anyone who isn't averse to the outdoors. You don't need to be in great physical shape, and you don't have to have a lot of experience. In fact, many outfitters cater specifically to novice paddlers.

The outfitters offer a range of trips varying in length and difficulty, although you're not going to hit any really rough white water on this part of the river, which cuts through Shenandoah National Park to the east and George Washington National Forest to the west. You can ride the river 28 miles from Luray to Bentonville, and you can ride it any way you like -- canoe, kayak, raft, even tube.

Opting for medium-level adventure, and something we'd never done before, we rented kayaks ($32 a day) from Downriver Canoe in Bentonville. For our water trail, we picked Downriver's most popular run, a 71/2 -mile trip that includes a good swimming hole and a quiet side jaunt under low-hanging branches that force you to duck or get slapped in the face.

Downriver operates a campground on the river if you decide to stay the night or make a two-day trip of it. If the gal pals had not staged a revolt, we could have pitched a tent for about $8 per person a night.

Instead we rented a two-room cabin from Shenandoah River Outfitters in nearby Luray for $130 a night. It was air-conditioned, which would have made Timothy David Spinner quite comfortable had he not been forced to snore outside in a tent with his water gun for protection.

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