By Jedd Ferris
Special to The Washington Post
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."
We have a little time to let those instructions sink in during a creaky half-hour ride down winding backcountry roads as we descend into the gorge. On the riverbank, we unload our vessel from the top of the bus. The large rubber raft is surprisingly heavy. Two wooden oars are attached to the back seat, where Pugh will sit as high commander.
Butterflies churn in my stomach, but the bright sun, clear green water and blue sky are comforting. This day is too pretty for disaster. We're seated around the outer rim of the raft, our feet tucked snugly in the creases in front of us. Right away Pugh has us working on our paddle strokes. He takes us through the basic forward and backward, but the more urgent command is next.
"When I say dig it in, you paddle as hard as you can," Pugh demands. "And remember, if I'm yelling at ya, that means I'm loving the hell out of ya."
Up ahead I can see whitecap ripples. The gorge hovers above on both sides of us with awesome presence, craggy ledges speckled with spurts of green brush. Being on top of a mountain makes you feel mighty, but being in the grasp of a deep canyon makes you humble. Suddenly it's time to focus. Pugh is telling us to brace ourselves. We're heading into the Class III rapid known as Upper Railroad, a proper taste of whitewater and a preview of what lies ahead. Oceanlike waves are bouncing the raft. I'm flailing like a madman, but I can't help looking up to watch the boat catch brief stints of air off each crest.
I let out a quick "Whoohoo!" as we coast back into gentle waters. It might have been a bit premature, but I couldn't help it. More screams follow as we flow toward the Class V series of the three Keeney Brothers rapids. With a minute or two to spare, Pugh explains that many rapids were named for the unlucky first paddlers to take a nasty spill there.
Pugh gives us our first real danger warning: We'd be going by a hydraulic, a formation above a sudden drop in the riverbed that creates a powerful circular force at its base.
"You don't want to go in there," he says sternly. "If you do, curl up in a ball and hope it spits you out. But I've got a better idea. Paddle like hell and keep those beautiful butts in the boat."
Charging into Upper Keeney, it's instantly apparent that this rocking ride deserves its Class V distinction. We're screeching by big boulders on the banks as the raft gets pummeled from all directions. My paddle strokes are jarred off rhythm as mouthfuls of river smack my face. We blow by the deadly hydraulic to the right. Everybody is hollering like a bunch of kids. "This is awesome," shouts one of the guys up front.
We cruise out of the rodeo. Adrenaline buzzes as I try to catch my breath. For the remaining seven miles, it's much the same: two hours of exhilaration, some more extreme than others. Finally, we hit a set of rapids near Kaymoor, the last mining town in the gorge to shut down, in 1962. I finally take in the immense granite corridor that has unraveled us for the past three hours. This is the rustic epicenter of Appalachia. Sure, it's a little stripped in patches, still recovering from the scars of mining. But that recovery is visible as the hardwood forests steadily fill in among the vast canyon walls.
Finally, after the rumbling Fayette Station rapids, we float under the New River Gorge Bridge, at 3,030 feet the longest single-span arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Every October the roads are closed for the annual Bridge Day festival, when more than 200,000 people have been known to converge on Fayette County to watch professional stunt jumpers sky dive from the bridge 876 feet below to the riverbanks.
Soon we are pulling the raft out of the water, still beaming from the wild river romp. On the ride back to the outpost, Pugh offers a perfect reward: "cheap American beer."
With the late afternoon to spare, Megan and I take a recommended hike out to Diamond Point to catch the sunset over the gorge. We can see the river more than a thousand feet below. Although the view ahead of us belongs in a frame, we both agree it's much better from the water.
GETTING THERE: Hico, W.Va., and the Fayetteville rafting area are about 4 1/2 hours from Washington. Take Interstate 66 west to I-81 south to I-64 west. At Exit 156, take Route 60 west for about 35 miles. Adventures Mountain River will be on your right.
RAFTING THERE: At Adventures Mountain River (800-822-1386, http://www.rafttoday.com/ ) you can pick from a variety of options. The Lower New has the more adventurous Class III-V rapids, with very high water levels in spring and trips suitable for ages 12 and up. A full-day, 14-mile trip on the Lower New runs $77 Sunday-Friday and $97 on Saturday (with continental breakfast and riverside deli lunch). You can also try the Lower New Surf-Sun-Express half-day trip, a two-hour, nine-mile run with no lunch included. Cost: $55 Sunday-Friday and $81 on Saturday. For a milder, family-friendly trip, try the Upper New, suitable for ages 7 and up. Full-day trips, which include breakfast, lunch and a hot dog cookout, cost $67 Sunday-Friday and $87 on Saturday. Discounts are available for youth in certain age groups. A list of other rafting companies in the area can be found at http://www.newrivercvb.com/whitewater.cfm . Notable outfits include ACE Adventure Center (888-223-7238, http://www.aceraft.com/ ) and Class VI River Runners (800-CLASSVI, http://www.class-vi.com/ ). To explore more, including some of the best rock climbing on the East Coast or a sunset hike, stop by Water Stone Outdoors (304-574-2425, http://www.waterstoneoutdoors.com/ ) in downtown Fayetteville just off Route 19.
SLEEPING THERE: Cap off the rustic experience with a night at one of the Country Road Cabins (Sunday Road, Hico, 888-712-2246, http://www.wvcabins.com/ ). Deluxe one-, two- and three-bedroom hideouts are tucked back in the woods just a mile from the Adventures Mountain River outpost. Our two-bedroom ($215) was big with a fireplace and a hot tub on the back deck. The cabins range from $155 to $500 a night, with cheaper rates during the week. If your budget calls for something more economical, Fayetteville has the Quality Inn New River (Route 19 and Laurel Creek Road, 877-424-6423).
EATING THERE : Your best bet on food is also in Fayetteville. For breakfast or lunch, a must is the Cathedral Cafe (134 S. Court St., 304-574-0202), a converted turn-of-the-century church that offers amazing blueberry whole-grain pancakes, omelets and panini sandwiches. Two can eat well for $20. For post-river release, head to Pies & Pints Pizzeria (103 1/2 Keller Ave., 304-574-2200) for gourmet pizza and more than 30 select domestic and imported brews. A large plus a couple of beers each ran $35.
INFO: New River Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-927-0263, http://www.newrivercvb.com/ .