The trouble with most adventures is they require special equipment or know-how so you can't just up and do them.

That's why they invented whitewater rafting. This, experts say, is the most adventuresome thing your average hidebound urbanite could expect to do.

No experience necessary.

My rafting indoctrination came a couple of springs ago on the Cheat River in West Virginia. The guides joked around a lot before casting off in a flat stretch. Twenty minutes later nobody was joking. Mostly they were howling or screaming, it's hard to say which.

The Cheat is a cathedral of whitewater thrills with great plumes of water erupting out of hydraulics and holes, with ledges and rock gardens and cascading waterfalls around each bend. It was the first river I'd ever been on where when they had to throw the safety rope to some hapless soul who'd fallen out of a boat, nobody was laughing.

That trip provided an introduction to the kind of waters that used to be inaccessible to anyone but the bravest and most skillful kayak paddlers, back in the days before the popularization of the inflatable rubber raft. Now anyone can go.

The raft finds its own way downriver. If it makes a mistake it bounces off whatever obstacle it hits and proceeds. Canoes and kayaks, on the other hand, stick to obstacles, fill up with water and become death traps.

Probably the most knowledgeabler person in Washington on the subject of rafting is Pat Munoz, who organizes and participates in raft trips all over the country as trip coordinator for the American Rivers Conservation Council. She is also a fearless canoe paddler and kayak paddler, and a savvy river rat.

Munoz says this is a good time to start planning spring raft trips in the rivers close to Washington. Most outfitters begin running the rapids in April; some as early as March. All the rivers to be described herein are accessible in rafts on guided day trips.

Like most things, rafting seems to get better the farther you get from the city. Two of the finest rafting rivers in the East are a six-hour drive from Washington in West Virginia -- the New and the Gauley. The New is runnable all spring and into the summer; the Gauley, which Munoz regards as the best of all, is runnable only after a good rain.

Both these rivers are near Beckley and the outfitters there run whichever is suitable, depending on the weather. Usually it's the New, which is known as the Grand Canyon of the East.

"It's a big river with enormous holes and waves -- like a rollercoaster," said Munoz. The best months to run it are April and May.

Closer to home are two more top-priority spring rafting rivers -- the Cheat near Morgantown, West Virginia, and the Youghiogheny in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Both are about four hours' drive from the capital city.

What makes these rivers less desirable than the New and Gauley?

"The Cheat isn't as pristine because of acid runoff, which leaves it pretty lifeless," said Munoz. "But its continuous whitewater, big water, exciting." She said the Youghiogheny's impressive scenery of hemlocks, rhododendrons, huge boulders and clear water, and its relative ease for inexperienced paddlers, have made it the most popular whitewater river in the East.

Still closer to home, just an hour or two away, are the Shenandoah River above Harpers Ferry and the James River near Richmond.

The Shenandoah provides "a great raft trip in the spring when the water's high," Munoz said. "It's usually a half-day, running through a big, rocky stretch of river with river-wide ledges.It's not as exciting as the Yough," she said, "but at high water in the spring it's as exciting as most people probably would want."

The Shenandoah is good as a first trip or for families because it's safe, yet still provides a good feel for rafts and the river, Munoz said.

The James, two hours away on Route 95, is the only urban trip of the bunch. The impressive rapids there are largely formed by crumbling old dams, and the raft voyage ends in sight of the Richmond skyline. c

Now comes word of a brand new raft outfitter setting up shot so close to home it's worrisome. This spring for the first time there will be rafting from Great Falls downriver through the majestic Mather Gorge only 10 miles from Washington. No kidding.

This stretch won't be much for hair-raising adventure, with the rapids rarely exceeding levels suited to open canoes. If the new service acquaints more Washingtonians with the wilderness in their own backyards, so much the better. Let's just pray it doesn't get too crowded.