Think about the wildest and most frantic amusement-park water ride you've ever been on: your hands gripping the sides of the vessel, wanting to control what seems to be uncontrollable. And just when you're getting used to the excitement and you're past the point of minding being wet, the ride is over. Now you have to go back and stand in line for another hour to ride it again.

If the thrill of an amusement-park ride isn't enough to satisfy your appetite for excitement and a theme park isn't your idea of getting away from it all, consider white-water canoeing.

Canoeing is a unique way to experience the outdoors. It provides the exhilaration of the white water, the challenge of learning some specialized skills and the opportunity to overcome the adversity of the wilderness. And, with over 30 rivers and streams in the Washington area or nearby, even the novice explorer is able to spend a day traversing less-traveled waterways with a minimal amount of training and expense.

But even if all you're interested in is finding a suitable outcrop of rocks for sunbathing or an isolated beach for a picnic, you'll need to submit to some training before starting out. Like any sport, white-water canoeing is not without its dangers.

According to David Brown, owner of Canoeing Adventures Inc. in Vienna, the real danger in beginning white-water paddling is found among the occasional canoeists -- those people who only canoe once or twice a year on calm water.

"The transition going into moving water is quite unique," says Brown. "It's best to have someone go out with you, refine your technique and correct anything that's going wrong."

The typical canoe class for beginners will include basic paddling skills, the fundamentals of water safety and rescue techniques. Classes should include guidelines on how to read and interpret the water currents and should be limited to a maximum of six students per instructor.

I joined one of David Brown's Saturday morning classes on the Potomac and watched as he turned a group of novice paddlers, two of whom had never been in a canoe before, into quite confident canoeists. In only a few hours they were successfully executing eddy turns, performing up-river ferrys and basic paddling skills.

"Although the fundamental paddling skills are relatively easy to learn," says Brown, "when it comes to understanding, anticipating and evaluating the environment you're in, there's no substitute for practice."

A calm-looking pool in front of a rock or fallen tree, for instance, might seem safe enough to the beginner but, to the more experienced paddler, the same peaceful scene could signal a hazard, such as submerged barbed wire.

Safety is one reason some canoeists are more comfortable paddling in a group in outings with friends, a canoe club or an outfitter. Often, members of the group will have more experience on a particular river and be able to read it better, knowing where the dangers are and what to expect. A group also offers the camaraderie of a shared river adventure and an opportunity to improve your skills with the help of more experienced paddlers.

Most area canoeing outfitters will tailor their services for a group's size and needs. They provide fully outfitted canoes, shuttle services from the put-in point to the take-out point, meals, guides, camping equipment for those participating in overnight trips and, in some cases, even entertainment. Accepting both experienced and inexperienced paddlers, many outfitters will, on request, give instruction as well.

Canoe classes will range in price from $50 to $70, depending on the day of the week (weekends are usually higher), the number of people in the canoe and the level of instruction required. Some instructors are willing to give discounts for groups.

Canoe rentals generally begin at $35 per boat per day on weekdays and increase to $40 to $45 on the weekends. If you're planning an outing it's best to make reservations well in advance of your trip to ensure the availability of guides and equipment.

The Canoe Cruisers Association, a 2,000-member Washington-based canoe club, also offers free instruction every Tuesday evening at Fletcher's Boat House and Thursday evening at Swain's Lock during the spring and summer along the Potomac River. They provide the equipment and the instructors. All you need to do is show up. According to Ed Grove, the association's president, their interest is in getting people involved and seeing the sport grow.

Most local retail outfitters, such as Appalachian Outfitters, Hudson Trail Outfitters, EMS and REI, also offer information on canoe clubs and organizations, river maps (including put-in and take-out points), river access facilities and ratings of river sections.

WHITE-WATER SCHOOLS

CANOEING ADVENTURES --

Vienna, 281-4380.

INNER QUEST --

Leesburg, 478-1078.

REI --

College Park, 982-9681.

WASHINGTON WOMEN OUTDOORS --

Garrett Park, 474-4403.

RAPPAHANNOCK OUTDOORS --

Rappahannock River, 703/361-5085.

CANOE CRUISERS ASSOCIATION --

Arlington, 656-2586. CANOE OUTFITTERS

CHEAT RIVER OUTFITTERS --

Albright, W. Va., 304/329-2024.

RIVER & TRAIL OUTFITTERS --

Knoxville, Md., 301/695-5177.

UPPER YOUGH WHITEWATER EXPEDITIONS --

Friendsville, Md., 301/746-5808.

BLUE RIDGE OUTFITTERS --

Harpers Ferry, W. Va., 304/725-3444.

SHENANDOAH RIVER OUTFITTERS --

Luray, Va., 703/743-4159.

CLASS VI RIVER RUNNERS --

Lansing, W. Va., 304/574-0704.

DOWN RIVER CANOE CO. --

Front Royal, Va., 703/635-5526.

RIVER RIDERS --

Harpers Ferry, W. Va., 304/535-2663.