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A Flow Learner

The river outfitters make the adventure easy, especially if you are a beginner or have no gear of your own. They haul you and your boat to your chosen starting point on the river; for us, that point was Burners Ford, between mile markers 20 and 21.

Although we didn't get very much instruction on how to use the kayaks, we did get a map and safety tips from our bus driver about how to ride out the two rapids we would hit, both designated Class II, with up to three-foot waves and clear channels.

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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I made sure one of the more experienced kayakers in our group went first, watching her craft bob and dunk as it went through the churning river, then tightened the straps on my water shoes and braced myself for the first rapid. I got more of a thrill on the final drop of the water log ride at Six Flags.

The drawling countryside and forests rim the river in bright greens, and although on a busy day you're not going to be alone to enjoy it, you will find solace when you stop paddling, lean back and tilt your face toward the ample sky.

You might also try to bond with your brother, 21 months your junior, and patch up a childhood of squabbles. Or you can fill your own water pistol, sneak up on him, shoot him in the forehead and paddle like mad to get away.

The river trip is a journey through the best of the Shenandoah, a sampler of the lazy flatlands and the towering Blue Ridge Mountains. About a mile into our ride, we passed the heights where a Civil War skirmish took place in 1864, according to a notation on the handy map with which the outfitters had outfitted us. Farther "up" the river -- the Shenandoah flows north, not south -- grazing cows clomped right in, joining us in the brown water.

By the end of the trip, we were soaked from extracurricular splashing, so we gave ourselves up to the sun until we were dry enough to head back to Luray for dinner.

This is river country, so most of the restaurants are used to slightly soggy, river-scented adventurers who show up for some country cooking. We found ours at Mama's Country Kitchen on East Main Street in downtown Luray, where we chowed down on grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, fries, smothered turkey and mashed potatoes and a round of sodas for $38, including the tip.

Our cabin was a 20-minute drive from Luray, on a dead-end road at the river's edge. Although it was hot, we built a fire to keep the bugs away and sat outside in the stuffy air until one of the gal pals decided she needed cookies and milk.

We headed back into the night, our car rolling along paved and gravel roads until we were again in Luray, darting in our pajamas into Elaine's Old Fashioned Ice Cream for dessert.

You can get away with that sort of thing in Luray after a day on the river. And when you've had your fill, you can head back to the tent pitched under the canopy of trees behind your cabin with a peace offering for Timothy David Spinner -- a slice of homemade apple pie.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Shenandoah River outfitters tend to cluster around Front Royal, Bentonville and Luray, Va., about 90 miles from the Beltway. Take Interstate 66 west to Front Royal, Exit 13. Follow Route 55 west into Front Royal. At the third traffic light, go left onto Route 340 south.

PADDLING THERE: It's best to book your trip in advance, particularly if you're bringing a large group. Check with Front Royal Canoe (540-633-5440, www.frontroyal canoe.com), where canoes rent for $30 to $48 a weekend day; kayaks $18 to $28; Downriver Canoe (540-635-5526, www.downriver.com) in Bentonville, with canoes for $49 and kayaks for $32; or Shenandoah River Outfitters (540-743-4159, www.shenandoahriver.com) in Luray, with canoes for $48 and kayaks $30 per day.

STAYING THERE: Don't be a wimp. Grab a sleeping bag and spend the night by the river. You have your pick of more than a dozen campgrounds between Front Royal and Luray. For a list, see www.campnetamerica.com. If you're not the camping type, rent a cottage or cabin for the weekend. Check with your river outfitter or go to www.svta.org/lodging/cabins.asp to find out what's available. If you must have creature comforts or you're not comfortable sleeping with the creatures, Front Royal is full of familiar hotel chains.

EATING THERE: Pack a lunch for the river ride, but make sure it's sealed in a plastic bag just in case you go for an unexpected swim. After you're back on land, check out Mama's Country Kitchen (42 E. Main St.) in downtown Luray, which serves cheap and tasty homestyle eats. Locals also rave about Brookside Restaurant on Route 211 east in Luray. And save room for dessert at Elaine's Old Fashioned Ice Cream (2 E. Main St.).

INFO: Shenandoah National Park, 540- 999-3500, www.nps.gov/shen, or Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce, 888-743-3915, www.luraypage.com.

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