SEASONED WHITE-WATER canoeists, kayakers and rafters come from all over the East Coast to shoot the rapids of the New River in West Virginia. And well they should since the New, known as the "Grand Canyon of the East," is at the top of the line as rivers go. Here are found some of the most famous rapids in the United States.

Professionals rate rivers on a scale from 6 to 1, with 6 considered "life threatening." A rating of 5 means maneuverable, but hazardous. The canyon section of the New River, which begins at Thurmond, a distance of 14 miles, is rated a 5. Hardly the place for a neophyte to be introduced to white-water rafting, but that was exactly where I headed recently for a one-day raft trip.

I had been invited to join a party of 16, many strangers to one another but all having some friends in common. One of the experienced rafters took charge of handling the plans. She sent a map to each person,, along with written directions to the motel where we had reserved rooms for the night before the trip. The written directions indicated a 3 1/2-to 4-hour drive to our destination which, based on the distance (approximately 340 miles from Washington), seemed erroneous to me.

At 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, three of us began our trip. Traveling Rte. 66 toward Charleston, we drove through Massanutten, Va., where we stopped for a delicious, inexpensive dinner at the Blue Stone Inn (better known to resident's as "Carl's"). Our odometer continued to tally up the miles. We had been on the road for four hours but were still far from our destination. For the next two hours we drove through the mountains as a severe thunderstorm broke all around us. The rain fell hard; visibility was close to impossible. Lightning provided the only light on the road other than our headlights. My tension grew as we talked about the river and the effect all this rain would have on the raft trip.

Finally, the welcome neon sign of the Chuck Wagon Motel in Fayetteville announced our arrival. We checked in at 10:30 p.m. and went to our room, the first of our group to arrive. Deciding to celebrate our arrival with a drink, one of us went to the motel office for ice. Along with the ice she returned with 8 keys. Apparently, the woman in the office was closing down early and we were to give the keys to the rest of our party as they arrived! Informality, plus.

An hour later, two others showed and we worked out a fair solution by having each new arrival be responsible for the next. Then we went to bed.

Saturday dawned overcast and gloomy with reports of rain all day. My five hours of sleep had been filled with dreams about the trip, none of them good. At 6 we all met at the motel restaurant for breakfast. Everyone had made it, the last person arriving at 4 a.m. Despite a nervous stomach, I knew I should have a good breakfast for the energy I would need on the 7-hour journey down the New. Bacon and eggs, homemade biscuits, juice and coffee (all for less than $2) came piping hot to the table. Good service by smiling waitresses wishing us luck sent us fortified to the headquarters of Appalachian Wildwaters, diagonally across the street.

By 7 we reported to our guide and were issued life jackets and a paddle. While we were signing a waiver absolving the outfitters from liability, we became aware of a loud, penetrating sound much like a fire siren or air raid signal. Suddenly, a member of our party, Jim, yelled that it was the burglar alarm in his new car and someone must be trying to break in. All the women's purses, all the room keys, and many of our personal possessions had been locked up in the trunk of Jim's car. He quickly removed his life jacket and ran back to the motel parking lot. Soon he returned to report that, indeed, someone had tried to break in but evidently the alarm chased the interloper away. What next?

After all of the various groups had assembled, we boarded buses to take us to our starting point at Thurmond, a half hour away. A light drizzle began to fall as we bumped along. To relieve tension our group started telling jokes. They were not funny, for the most part, but that didn't stop our uproarious laughter -- anything to take out minds off the river which lay ahead. But shortly before we reached where we would put in, our bus was stopped. There had been an accident on the muddy, one-lane road leading to the river and all traffic was held up until an ambulance could come through. By now I was convinced that this trip was utter folly. So many omens and the rafting hadn't even begun.

The ambulance finally arrived and 45 minutes later we were permitted to move on. Because no traffic had been allowed on the road, the rafts were not yet filled with air. We were instructed by the head guide to "conjugate" under the lean-to until they were ready. Whatever that meant, it sounded safer than being out on that water.

Then came the final sign that this was all a terrible mistake--the skies opened with thunder and lightning and torrents of rain completely drenched us within seconds. But then the rafts were ready and our guides announced that we were ready.

Since there seemed to be no way out, no way back to the motel, and definitely no way the guides planned to wait until the rains ceased, I reasoned that my best chance lay in picking a raft with some of the sturdier, more experienced rafters and getting a "safe" seat.

Our not-so-graceful entrance to the raft was by sliding down a mud bank to the river line--at which point, even before we began, we were already wet, muddy and freezing. Was it too early for hypothermia to set in?

We got into the raft and I was relegated to the least desirable spot--the back position. (Throughout our bus ride I had heard that place referred to as the "ejector seat.") As we pushed off, our guide's first order was to bail. The rain had filled the bottom of the raft, leaving us knee-deep in water.

After this first exercise we practiced following commands, using our paddles, and working as a team. We were carefully instructed on how to avoid falling in, with a quick followup on what to do if we did.

Because the guide in our raft was the most experienced, ours was designated the lead boat. Mark Bolinger, also known as "Hollywood," had worked with the movie crew from "Deliverance" to film the white-water scenes of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight shooting the rapids. If I had ever imagined I would be on that same river. . . excitement mixed with fear as we started out, the first in a group of four rafts moving toward the middle of the river. Looking up at the gorges 800 feet above, watching the lightning zigzag across the sky, hearing the ferocious sounds of thunder, I felt my mortality as never before. I also felt crazy for being where I was -- but what a way to go!

We paddled through smooth water for almost 15 minutes. But up ahead I could see waves smashing against rocks and asked Hollywood if those were our first rapids. He laughed. He called them riffles. He said I was right. But first I heard it.

Visibility was still bad as we approached the first rapid; the rain was coming down hard. Someone remarked that he heard a train coming. Hollywood calmly informed him that it was our first rapid. He then described it -- it was a big hole and once into it we would be hit with a 5-to-6-foot wall of water, at which time we would have to paddle furiously to get up out of the hole and through the rapid. There were two ways to approach it, he said: by going around the hole and then through the rest, or by shooting through the hole and over. "Let's do it," he said. Let's not, thought I. But there was no time to panic or change our minds as we churned towards its center.

Now we were in it and I looked up to a brown wall of water which then broke over us. We were all knocked over but responded quickly to Hollywood's command to get in there and paddle like hell to make it to the other side. Seconds seemed an eternity but then we were over, grinning at one another with pride.

The day-long raft trip is divided into two parts. Before lunch we hit three rapids, all very different from one another. After the second of them, the sun finally broke through, which improved visibility along with morale. Pulling over to the bank of the river after the third rapid, we stopped for lunch. Our legs trembled as we touched land again. The guides set up lunch, which consisted of high-energy food -- peanut butter and jelly, cold cuts and cheese, bread, orange juice, water and cookies. We stayed on shore for almost an hour, enough time to calm down, talk about the morning events, and listen to the guides describe what lay ahead.

The second portion of the trip, after lunch, is considered the hard part. There is a series of rapids, one after another, one of which, called the Double Z, is rated a 5. But before we got to that one there would be several others on which to practice.

Panic again set in, perhaps even worse than in the morning, as we returned to our rafts. It was difficult to leave the safety of land. Shortly after our return to the water we entered the first rapid. We, as lead boat, went through first and turned to check on the boats behind. In a flash, one of our friends, Chet, in the raft following ours, was in the water. This particular rapid, the Railroad, consists of three parts and Chet had fallen out on the first. There was no time to get him back in before their raft entered the middle part of the rapid. Chet held onto the lifeline encircling the raft and was pulled through. He scraped his knee on a rock but was not badly shaken up or hurt. However, all four rafts pulled over to the shore to quell nerves and check out the situation.

A short while later we were back in the midst of the excitement, about to approach the infamous Double Z. Here, Hollywood told us, we would double guide each raft. A guide from one of the other rafts would join us and ride up front, with Hollywood at the back. Once we got through, the two of them would go back to ride with the other rafts so there would be two guides for each. The rest of us would climb rocks on the bank to watch the other rafts maneuver the Z.

Hollywood explained how we would approach the rapid and what commands he would give as we went through. It would be crucial to react immediately, he said, as there were rocks all through the rapid which could crush us and a hole in which our raft could be folded in half.

And then we were in it, paddling for our lives, hard, fast, screaming, riding the rapid as we had not done with those before it. We roared through its center, turned 360 degrees, back-paddled, and with one strong thrust finally pulled through. And then the strangest thing happened to me. I realized that I had lost my fear. I felt strong, proud, exhilarated, victorious and absolutely eager to face more rapids.

After the other boats came through we were on our way down the rest of the river. The remainder of the trip was entirely different without the fear. We moved through five more large rapids and then found ourselves looking up to the New River Gorge Bridge. What a sight to behold as we slowly paddled beneath it. The bridge is the highest, longest single-arch steel bridge in the world, over 3,000 feet long and 835 feet above the water line. We felt tiny and insignificant as we looked up to its splendor.

On we went until our final rapid, called Swimmer's Rapid, aptly named because we could jump out of the raft and shoot the rapid on our own, then float with the river to the point where our rafts would be tied together and towed back to the buses for our return to Thurmond.

After our refreshing swim we got back into the raft. As we waited for the boat to arrive there was a peaceful silence among us. I looked around at the seven other people who had shared this experience with me and smiled with the pride that comes from meeting the elements and defying them, at facing fear and vanquishing it.

Would I do it again? In a minute! Where to Stay

Mileage is based on distance from Appalachian Wildwaters New River Headquarters: CAMPGROUNDS Mountain Manor Campground -- 27 miles -- P.O. Box 486, Summersville, W. Va. 26651, (304) 872-4220. $1.50 per person. Reservation only. New River Gorge Campground -- 6 miles -- just north of the New River Gorge Bridge on U.S. 19, (304) 658-9926. Babcock State Park -- 30 miles -- Clifftop, W. Va., (304) 658-9926. For information on West Virginia's State Park System, call (800) 642-9058 in West Virginia, and (800) 624-8632 from outside the state. Patty Hill Campground -- 15 miles -- Victor, W. Va., 25938, (304) 658-4784. Groups: $1 per person per night. Electricity, sewer. Water extra. U.S. 60 east of Ansted, W. Va. MOTELS Chuck Wagon Motel and Restaurant -- Fayetteville, W. Va., 25840, (304) 469-3364. Diagonally across street from New River Headquarters. Hawks Nest State Park Lodge -- 18 miles -- Ansted, W. Va., 25812, (304) 658-5212. Dining room. View of New River Gorge. Ramada Inn -- 20 miles -- Beckley, W. Va., 25801, (304) 252-8661. Sutton Lane -- Sutton, W. Va., Exit 57 at Flatwoods off I-79, (304) 765-7351. Restaurant, gas.