My mouth gets dry when we're about to tackle a new river in our canoe, I've noticed. On the banks of West Virginia's Cheat River, it was so dry I could hardly swallow.
We weren't supposed to be there; we'd planned to be in North Carolina -- my husband, my son and I -- paddling on rivers, like the Nantahala, that we'd come to know in previous summers.But gas and time forced us to stick closer to home to find the insistent rhythms of whitewater tumbling through green-and-gray mountain valleys.
So we'd come to West Virginia for a private whitewater clinic with Rough Run Outfitters, a small, highly personalized outfitter and guide service owned by Gilbert Miller, of Baltimore. Miller chose the section of the Cheat called the "narrows" for our clinic because we were experienced paddlers trying to improve our skills.
Ward, 14, was elated: Paddling in his own lively, closed canoe (C-1), he had long ago outstripped our performance. Meanwhile, my husband and I had struggled with the joy and frustration of paddling tandem in an open canoe, where each problem of balance and timing is doubled and where success depends on teamwork and an absolute trust that your partner will take care of that end of the boat.
In the next two days, the Cheat would stretch the limits of our teamwork, would delight and frustrate us and would become, like the Nantahala, one of our favorites.
For the first day, Miller had arranged for Dan Haven of D.C. to be our instructor. Not only has Haven grown up around rivers and canoes, he's also an expert cross-country skier, backpacker and archer and competes in the triathlon -- a combination of canoeing, running and swimming -- for Washington's Sycamore Island Canoe Club.
His quiet manner instilled easy confidence in us. Ward moved onto the river with confidence. My husband, Tom, and I were tentative, rusty from too long a layoff.
Soon, though, with the glory of the day and the throb of the current, a sense of euphoria overtook us.
We began to play the river, to find and slip into eddies, those quiet sanctuaries behind rocks and ledges that offer paddlers refuge in the midst of the churning water. With Haven as caller, we entered into a kind of dance with the Cheat, partners rather than adversaries.
"Lean way out and grab the still water," he urged. "Let the current swing you around."
We set the boat on a big wave and held it there, bucking and pitching, using the river itself for balance.
"Use your paddles like outriggers. Brace with them, brace."
We ferried, riding the force of the downstream current so that it shot us from bank to bank and back again.
"Up front, paddle for momentum. In the stern, you have the leverage. Hold that angle!"
We had begun to feel that the mighty Cheat was our pet kitten.
Then we met the rapid called "Calamity." A tumultuous piece of whitewater, it's named for the three-bedroom, two-bath boulder that chokes the river nearly from bank to bank. It's meant disaster for many a boat.
Haven produced lunch, and for nearly an hour we sat on the shore overlooking the rapid. We watched the water boil off Calamity's backside, plunge off to the right and meet a wall of foam slamming off the sheer rock face on the far shore before dropping over a ledge and into a frothy cauldron.
I couldn't eat. I could hardly even swallow.
Haven led the way, bouncing through.
Ward followed, sliding into and over the foam like a wood chip riding the runoff from a summer shower.
Tom and I hit the chute too far right and tried desperately to pull left just as we pounded down into the drop and heeled over, ever so exquisitely, on my side.
Score one for the Cheat.
By the time we got to shore and rejoined our boat, which Haven had herded to safety, we were some 200 yards downstream.
"You didn't have enough momentum to pull out of the hydraulic at the bottom," he explained. "and," he added, looking squarely at me, "you didn't brace."
Two more big rapids lay ahead of us, both consisting mostly of consecutive stands of enormous waves.
At Rockinghorse, the bigger and meaner of the two, we watched Ward head into the biggest wave and disappear. Instantly, he bobbed up on top of the next wave only to drop again behind a wall of water.
We decided to skirt the biggest waves, and the precision with which we did it restored some of our earlier exuberance.
By the end of the day, we were plotting our return to Calamity.
The next day, Gill Miller joined us. On the long ride from Rough Run's base at Mouth of Seneca to the Cheat narrows, he told us how he came to West Virginia:
"I was a city boy for most of my life, into all those urban games," he said.
Then he discovered the outdoors and began to look for a way to make it a large part of his life.
In 1976, he opened Rough Run, in Petersburg, about 20 miles from his present location.
Miller's respect for the land, and the people who live on and with it, carries over to the way he conducts his business. He insists, for instance, that his customers observe the rights of local landowners and others, such as fishermen, who use the rivers.
He also has developed a very strong philosophy about river safety. Though he rents canoes for use on the easier rivers, he also provides the transportation to and from the river to assure that customers do not accidentally get into the wrong section.
He offers only guided trips, including equipment, on the more difficult rivers. On his Cheat Canyon raft trips, he puts a guide in each raft on all trips, although local laws require it only above certain water levels.
As we neared the Cheat, he pointed out the place where he plans to open an "outpost" to handle all Cheat River trips. "It will cut down on the driving and the gas consumption," he explained.
Again the day was clear and we were alone with the river, enveloped by dusky green firs, an azure sky and enormous gray boulders, their faces etched in pits and swirls.
The water level was slightly lower, though, and the difference would prove astonishing. Even Ward took an underwater tour of the river when he got caught between two humonguous waves. He was startled, but unshaken.
Using the get-back-on-the-horse theory, Miller took us through an extra rapid before leaving the river. Tom and I felt a resurgence of confidence, but it was tempered by hard-earned humility.
The score at the end was Cheat 4, Bradshaws 0. There will be another day.