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Dam Nation

I thought of that as my raft drifted toward Pillow Rock, where the river runs full-force ("volume") into a house-size boulder that has to be sidestepped ("technicality"). From up close it resembles the killer wave in "The Perfect Storm."

Rafting companies deploy a man atop the boulder with a rope to drag ejected rafters to shore, and a dozen others -- mostly hot-shot kayakers who run this river many times each fall -- congregate like vultures, eating their lunches and enjoying the carnage. There's plenty of it. Kayakers flip with regularity, only to pop back up with an Eskimo roll.

Many rafters say West Virginia's Gauley River dam releases create the best one-day ride in the country. (Gauley Fest)

Rafts also lose passengers; occasionally a whole raft-load will go over. Despite its fearsome appearance, Pillow Rock is a relatively safe place for an unintentional swim, and guides gather dismounted passengers in the calm water below with an ease bred of long practice. Our guide, Mike Hanford, says we've already survived the most dangerous part of our Gauley trip -- the drive.

That doesn't calm the tingling in the pit of my stomach when Hanford announces his plan to take the "splat line," meaning he'll drive our seven-person raft straight down the fastest tongue of current and into the roaring whitewater. If we're lucky, and our guide is as good as he claims, we'll come close enough to tap the boulder with our paddles and our raft will balance on the edge for a giddy moment, then skid safely into the eddy below.

"This is no Disney ride," he shouts above the roar of the current as it grips us and flings us toward Pillow Rock. We slam into the pillow, teetering sideways to manic shouts of "High side! High side!" -- our cue to throw our weight to the side of the raft rising inexorably on that churning pile of foam. The three of us on the low side stretch to the high side and the raft begins to stabilize. In an instant of clarity I realize we're going to make it -- and I reach with my paddle for the rock. My friends do the same, clattering an uneven victory salvo on the suddenly less-menacing face of Pillow Rock. Now we'll have something to talk about at the Gauley Fest.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: It's about 330 miles from Washington to the Gauley River Festival grounds in Summersville, W.Va. Take I-66 west to I-81 south, then I-64 toward Charleston, W.Va. Take Exit 156 onto Route 60 west toward Sam Black Church. Follow Route 60 for 35 miles to Route 19. Nicholas County Veterans Memorial Park is 15 miles north on Route 19.

BEING THERE AND RAFTING: Gauley Fest camping opens Sept. 24, and the festival runs full-throttle Sept. 25 and 26. Admission is $10 per person and $5 per dog; camping is an additional $5 per person (and dog) per night. Info: 866-262-8429, www.americanwhitewater.org. Whitewater releases are scheduled every Friday through Monday until Oct. 11, and Oct. 16 and 17. Raft trip prices start at about $95 for the Lower Gauley on Fridays, Sundays and Mondays, and about $115 on Saturdays. Most outfitters require paddlers to be at least 12 years old. Trips on the Upper Gauley are a little more expensive, starting at about $115, and about $140 on Saturdays. The minimum age is typically 16, and most companies ask that their clients have prior rafting experience.

Overnight trips also are available. Two of the best outfitters are Appalachian Wildwaters (800-624-8060, www.awrafts.com) in Oak Hill, W.Va., and Class VI River Runners (800-252-7784, www.800classvi.com) in Lansing, W.Va.

STAYING THERE: Camping at the Gauley Fest is the heart of the action, but claustrophobics and light sleepers should look elsewhere. Rafting outfitters provide camping for about $10 per person. With Rivermen Whitewater's "cabin tent," our group of six slept in rustic splendor for $16 each. Info: 800-545-7238, www.rivermen.com. Summersville has a wide selection of hotels, including a Best Western (1203 S. Broad St., 800-780-7234; rates from about $56), Hampton Inn (5400 Webster Rd., 800-HAMPTON; from about $72) and Country Inns and Suites (106 Merchants Walk, 800-456-4000; from about $69, suites with Jacuzzi $119). Groups looking for quiet comfort will find it at Lost Paddle Lodge, a three-bedroom cabin with a hot tub and hardwood floors, all an easy stroll from Summersville Lake. Info: New and Gauley River Adventures, 800-759-7238, www.gauley.com; $160-$200 per night with a two-night minimum.

EATING THERE: Summersville isn't known for high-end dining, but boaters rave about the $7.95 all-you-can-eat buffet at Peking Chinese Restaurant and the fajitas tejanas at La Carreta Mexican Restaurant next door (both at Merchants Walk Plaza, Summersville). In Fayetteville, try the Cathedral Cafe (134 S. Court St.), a coffee shop/bookstore in an old converted church, or Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit (310 Keller Ave.), where pork ribs cost $11.95.

INFO: W.Va. Division of Tourism, 800-225-5982, www.wvtourism.com.

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