The Now River
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Spring is singing in West Virginia, but I can't hear a bit of it. The sun is beaming off monstrous rock faces, but looking up right now wouldn't be a good idea.
I'm paddling for my life through whipping crests of whitewater rapids in a bouncy rubber raft . . . and loving every minute of it. It's mid-April, and for the next six weeks the New River will be in prime season for big waves, big water and big fun.
The New is a 320-mile Southern Appalachian treasure with headwaters in North Carolina's High Country. It's an old river and one of the few that flow south to north, meandering through a calm valley in southwestern Virginia and making its way into the Mountain State. Here, in the old coal country of south-central West Virginia, the river shows its wild side. For 53 miles it ruts through massive rock cliffs, creating the New River Gorge National River, designated a national park in 1978. Within its steep confines, the free-flowing New bustles with pounding rapids of tumultuous whitewater. This is Mother Nature's roller coaster.
My wife, Megan, and I take an annual trip on the river, two of the 250,000 people who come each year to ride the wild rapids in a whitewater raft. The first commercial rafting trip in West Virginia took place in 1968. Today more than 30 companies serve an industry that generates $40 million a year. Commercial rafting skirts an interesting band on the vacation spectrum. It certainly provides the stomach-dropping excitement of any theme park ride, but there's a bit of extra adventure attached to the primitive exposure of it.
A reminder of this hits us like a standing wave as we sign papers in the log cabin outpost of Adventures Mountain River, in the speck-on-the-map town of Hico, W.Va. Any sense of security that might be assumed in a guided trip disappears in words like "inherent danger" on the liability release forms.
My confidence bounces back when we meet Bob Pugh, a 12-year veteran raft guide who will lead us and three other thrill-seeking saps through a rowdy nine-mile stretch of the Lower New. Pugh is stocky and gruff, with a 12 o'clock shadow that bleeds into a thick gray goatee. He speaks with the authority of a bohemian drill sergeant.
"Get your gear on, people," he says. "This water's gonna be high and cold."
It's a sunny 72 degrees, but we're armored thickly with black wet suits, bootees and nylon splash jackets to combat a water temperature that's hovering around 50. Next we address the two essentials of safety: helmet and personal flotation device, which Pugh straps tightly enough to choke the wind out of me. And last, we receive our battle sword, a four-foot plastic paddle with a solid T-grip.
Uniformed and ready for action, we board an old school bus. Accompanying us in the S.S. Pugh is a trio from Cleveland: Jim Elek, a 29-year-old sales representative; Darren Sokol, also 29 and a captain in the Air Force; and Sokol's quiet younger brother Jason, 28.
Elek is an enthusiastic rafting veteran who makes the New a repeated outdoor sojourn. Regulars know that in the spring, this is the most rambunctious river in the East, and the only nearby place to get a taste of the big water out West. "This is one of my favorite things in the world," he says. "It's an ideal combination of adrenaline and nature."
As the bus takes off toward the river, Pugh stands at the front to explain what we're getting into. Spring water levels on the New are extremely high from the melting snow. We're looking at three Class IV and three Class V rapids (the toughest whitewater runs tackled by rafters), standard fare for the river through April and May.
"You got to be on your toes and paddle hard," Pugh barks. "If your legs are in the air, that means you're swimming."