The raft goes where wise men wouldn't dare.

The river gauge at Albright said the thunderous Cheat was running at 2.8 feet.

David Brown, an expert kayaker, figured that, plus a perfect, warm spring day added up to paradise.

He strapped his kayak on the car proof and drove four hours from Washington. He took one look at the brown surging Cheat and smiled.

He would not paddle that.

Yet 20 others who made the trip jumped into life jackets, tossed rented rubber rafts into a quiet stretch and took off downstream where they could hear rapids roar.

Some had never even paddled before.

The rubber raft is the great river equalizer. In 10 years it has exploded all myths about impassable wild rivers. On Monday it gave this untried bunch from the Nation's Capital a rare glimpse of the awesome power of simple gravity and the extraordinary quiet beauty of soft water between the torrents.

It showed them is a set of rapids called Big Nasty, where millions of gallons of bronze water whip into froth as they sluice past boulders and over two-foot rock ledges.

Then, when they had gathered their senses and restored the evacuees to their boats, it showed them Even Nastier Rapids.

Pat Munoz of the American Rivers Conservation Council, which organized Monday's trip, calls the Cheat wild. But there are worse. The New, farther afield in West Virginia, is wilder, she said. And the Gauley is wildest.

All these rivers are impassable at high spring stages to any but the most proficient hard-boat paddlers, and even they take risks of splintered boats, long cold treks out of the back-country or broken bones and even drowning.

Ten years ago the Cheat in spring was the sole province of that daring few. Today it is a small highway in the wilderness, with no fewer than 12 outfitters running rubber raft parties down the 11 most treacherous miles.

"On weekends they haul 1,500 peopie through here," Eric Nelson, who owns Cheat River Outfitters, said at the take-out point.

ARCC will run 17 raft trips down rivers like the Cheat this year in an effort to open the world's eyes to the miracle of wild and scenic rivers.

The Cheat trip succeeded in two ways - it showed the stunning beauty of this ageless, free-flowing river. And it showed what man can do to destroy it.

There are no buildings along the 11-mile stretch. There are no factories or towns or paper mills spewing foul discharge. But the Cheat is poisoned. There is no higher life in it.

Runoff from the mines did it in. Rain picks up acid from abandoned and working coal mine shafts. Rivers are nature's magnificent drainage ditches, and if you pour posion in, something pays the price.

The rocks on the bottom of the creeks that feed the Cheat are orange from the acid. There are no fish in them, nor in the river.

But the acid steals nothing else from the way the river looks or from the sensuous feel of rocks, spumes and standing waves beneath the raft's. supple bottom.

"This first set of rapids is called Decision," said Mike Minke, our guide and pilot. "They call it that because here's where you make up your mind. If it gives you trouble here you'd better head back because it only gets worse."

Minke mapped out the plan. Paddlers would follow two cues - "paddle" or "back paddle." If the left side backpaddled we went left, and vice versa.

Then we were in Decision, schussing the clumsy soft boat through cuts between tall boulders, feeling the swoop and fall as the bottom fell out from under our feet, crashing headlong through two-foot standing waves.

Gary Shuler from Pittsburg, seated astern with Minke, let loose a blood-curdling rebel yell. Soon the whole crew was yipping and shouting, and crews in the other boats followed suit as they careered behind.

There are 20 sets of rapids along the Cheat River stretch, and, like a good show, they do indeed grow more furious the further along one gets.

The best is next-to-last - Colosseum Falls, named after sandstone pillars the river carved from the canyon walls.

We lost Corinne Lewis there. She bounced off her perch as the raft smashed through a swirling hole just off Pillow Rock.

A safety man was high on the rock to toss her a yellow line. She grabbed at it and held, swung into the current and came to a jarring halt, nearly pulling the safety man in.

We picked her from the water, shaking and drained, barely smiling.

Between the rapids came gentl eddies where the boats pulled off to bail and where paddlers explored the sheer rock faces. Trillium, bluets and wild geraniums were blooming in the hills; the blossoms had yet to pop on mountain laurel and wild rhododendron. Flowering dogwoods and redbuds poked tall out of cracks in the rocks.

The river surged by, with the roar downstream warning of more excitement ahead.

The Cheat outfitters will run trips through May, after which the river gets too low. They will start up again in the fall.

ARCC has a number of raft trips scheduled through the summer. For a lineup, write to 317 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, D.C. 20003.

Washington Lloyd Armstead, who was on the Cheat voyage, has written a guide to rafting in the eastern United States called "Whitewater Rafting Guide." It lists all outfitters, the trips they run and prices. The book is available at local outfitters or by sending $1.50 to Box 631, Herndon, Va. 22070. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, no caption, by James M. Thresher-The Washington Post