It had been cold, often bitter; for weeks and the Potomac was laced with ice. But there was word of a local thaw upstream with maybe enough water to flush the small rivers clear enough for canoes.

So we jammed our restless bodies into rubber longjohns and headed for the Cacapon River in West Virginia.

Returning to the Cacapon is like visiting an old froend, one that never disappoints you.

Small compared to the Potomac near Washington, the Cacapon has ledges and drops and long turbulent stretches where the water plunges between boulders and caroms off rocky bends.

it's a cold-weather river usually, though, because it needs snow melt or the rains of late fall or early spring to put enough water in it to float a canoe.

The first time we were on it, the air temperature was so cold that ice formed on the paddles between strokes. On another day, we looked behind us just in time to see a curtain of snow descending the side of a mountain, dropping its wispy veil inch by inch over the evergreens. One of the youngsters along on the trip declared it "a sight to remember for a lifetime."

We met the rest of our polar bear friends at Capom Bridge, West Virginia, where U.S. 50 crosses the Cacapon, so we could check the water level.We wanted to be sure the river was clear of ice and had enough water. We also wanted to be sure it didn't have too much: If it had been muddy and out of its banks, our two-hour drive would have been wasted.

Instead, it was running clear and at about two feet on the rough canoe gauge painted on the bridge footing -- a legacy of the late Randy Carter.

At that level, a capsize would mean a long, cold and dangerous swim. While the ledges would be more forgiving, the current would be pushier. Not a level for beginners.

We had no beginners that day, however. With six years of whitewater canoeing, my husband and I were the novices in the crowd.One couple, the Campbells, had directed whitewater training the year we took it. The other couple, the Schaubs, had been instructors then and directors later. Al Webb, solo in the fourth canoe, is the standard against which all others are judged.

Still, anyone can spill, and we all wore black neoprene rubber diver's suits, called wetsuits, along with windbreakers and life jackets. With the slight wadddle caused by walking in a skintight wetsuit, the black of the rubber and the orange of the life jackets, we looked like a flock of penguins in hunting dress.

Actually, I hate my wetsuit. It's ugly; it cuts off the circulation behind my knees; it shows all my middle-age bulges; and it makes me sweat even at freezing.

But, when I get careless and suddenly find myself in a barrel of ice swooshing downstream, I love it. Nothing else could keep me warm and safe.

A quarter-mile downstream from the roadside park where we put out boats on the river, the Cacapon turns away from the road, not to return for nine miles. When the Campbells first began canoeing this section, most of the left bank was owned by a friendly local landowner.

Since then, both banks have been purchased by vacationers and private clubs and posted against trespassers from the river -- a sad reminder of the toll that rude and careless paddlers have levied on the sport.

Deep in winter, we had the river to ourselves, though, or so we thought. We had just rounded a steep bend when we saw the deer drinking from the river. Our approach had been masked by the rush and grumble of a rapid. By the end of the day, we would see 23 deer along with wild turkey and fresh signs of beaver.

The river broadened and grew quiet then. The sun slipped free of the clouds, the wind stilled and we floated in silence.

Frayed shards of ice hung from low branches and clung to the roots of trees at the water's edge, winking in the sun. Snow piled against a windward cliff was mirrored in the liquid canvas of the river.

The color of rivers continually surprises me. It's rarely blue: Usually it's a gray-green, in winter more of a slate. When the surface is still, it reflects form and color with remarkable fidelity.

A muffed drumroll ahead told us the river was narrowing and we were approaching the first of three ledges, each a mite higher and more demanding than the last.

We showed our junior status in the crowd when we ran the first ledge sloppily in full view of the others. That ledge bedevils us. We always manage to just miss the right spot and splash water into the boat or bang the bottom on a rock.

Our amateur status showed up again at lunch. While we chewed cold sandwiches and sipped hot chocolate, the Campbells and Al Webb broke out a stove to warm up stew and carefully laid a bottle of wine in the snow to rest.

After putting out the fire and packing up our trash, we headed downstream again. Almost immediately we were in a churning, twisting rapid where we had pulled two local men from the river the previous spring.

When we'd reached them, they were standing in the water holding onto their swamped canoe. Without wetsuits, their strength had been sapped by the river's cold, so they couldn't lift their legs to walk to shore on their own.

We started a fire, fed them warm liquids and redressed them in extra clothing gathered from our group. Eventually, we took them the last six miles down the river in our boats.

They had been on the river in summer, but the size and power of the river at higher levels had overwhelmed them and the effect of the cold water had surprised them. Though they'd brought extra clothes, the plastic garbage bags in which they were stored were quickly breached and everything was wet.

The experience had a powerful impact on everyone involved. Now, before any cold-water trip, besides dressing ourselves properly, we make sure we have extra fire starters, warm fluids and dry clothes.

Our own first cold-water spill had been on the Cacapon, at the second ledge, but we were in wetsuits.Still, we approach that ledge with respect. This time, John Schaub slipped in front of us to take pictures, perhaps hoping for a repeat spill.

We nearly became "stars," again at the third ledge, the most powerful of the three. It has two passages that can be used: the one on the right is a straight splashdown into a backwash; the other, on the left, requires a precise turn at the top, followed by an equally well-timed turn halfway down.

It happened just before the first turn -- the classic confrontation between the paddler in the front and the one in the back.

In a tandem canoe, it's imperative that both ends of the boat -- and, therefore, both paddlers -- be headed in the same direction. Within seconds of disaster, we realized we weren't. We backpaddled like a sternwheeler to reach the safety of the shore.

Once there, we discussed the approach, debated the current, disputed velocity, expounded on timing and settled on cowardice. We ran the straight drop instead, flawlessly, almost. Well, together anyway.

Ahead of us, the sharp outcrop of Caudy's Castle was spotlighted by the sun and reflected in the water several hundred feet below its rocky pinnacle. According to local legend, it's named for a settler who fought off Indians, one by one, as they tried to climb the single-file path to reach him.

The sun was getting warm and our wetsuits were decidedly uncomfortable. By the end of the day, the air temperature had reached the mid 50s. In the dead of winter! And the sky had achieved an Irving Berlin blue.

We had no dumps, no rescues and no snowstorms, but we'd had another extraordinary day with our old friend the Cacapon, who never disappoints us.