You see a lot of "Surf West Virginia" bumper stickers around here, which sounds like a joke until you encounter West Virginia surf first-hand and get tossed around like a feather in a hurricane.
For those who haven't been, we take you to the Arden section of the Tygart, one of a half-dozen rampaging West Virginia rivers popular among rafters, who don't need any particular skill to negotiate them with commercial guides, and kayakers, who need plenty.
"The rapid ahead is called Premonition," shouts raft guide Bev Kerr over the roar of the river.
She is perched high in the stern of the big rubber boat, bossing a makeshift crew of two insurance salespersons, a West Virginia school superintendent, a driver education teacher and the ubiquitous outdoors writer.
"I don't expect trouble here," she says, "and I don't want any, so everybody get braced and do what I say. This isn't a big rapid but a little ways below it there's a 15-foot waterfall. We don't want anyone swimming over the falls."
At Premonition the Tygart is 100 yards wide, with most of the water cascading over jumbled, non-navigable rocks to the left. The clear passage is a chute on the right where deep, clear water rolls between two boulders, thunders into a deep hole and comes shooting back up in a six-foot-high wave as it hits the back of the hole.
Into the chute Kerr headed. The entry was perfect, the glide down to the hole exhilarating, but when the raft accelerated and smashed head-on into the great standing wave it stopped everything dead, bent the boat double and suddenly bodies were flying everywhere.
When the outdoors writer surfaced briefly in the raging foam only two people were left in the boat, Kerr and one insurance seller, and though both were still paddling they faced in opposite directions and the raft went round and round, comically.
When he came up a second time he saw the school superintendent getting unceremoniously hauled back into the raft by the scruff of her life jacket, then one by one as they schussed into calmer water the other swimmers were led ashore by kayakers standing by.
Though no one came near going over the falls, all who swam gained an appreciation for the raw power of West Virginia surf.
"What happened?" one shaky swimmer asked Kerr.
"Nothing," she said. "We did everything right and then, BAM! I guess the river just said on this day, this raft was going to get it at Premonition."
Kerr works for Rough Run Outfitters, one of about 28 licensed outfitters taking customers for hair-raising river rides in West Virginia. This trade, which didn't even exist 20 years ago, now runs close to 200,000 trips a year, according to Dave Brown, head of the Eastern Professional River Outfitters Association.
The rafting season starts now and runs through the summer, with customers paying anywhere from $30 to $70 apiece to ride down relatively tame rivers like the Shenandoah near Harpers Ferry or insane ones like the New and the Gauley in southwestern West Virginia, which are about a three-day wagon-train ride from civilization. Not that the Tygart, at five hours, is any joy ride.
Is rafting safe?
"We've only had one drowning in the East in the last 15 years, during which we've run probably 2 million trips," said Brown. But even he concedes there are perils to running powerful rivers, and accidents and some injuries are inevitable.
So what's life without a little risk?
With the popularity of rafting increasing, all kinds of people are getting into the sport. One guide who works the Cheat River said she had a very interesting crowd last weekend. "They were 41 . . . hairdressers from a chain of parlors in Baltimore," she said with a weary smile. "It was unreal. They spent the whole time trying to keep their hair dry."
If the urban rafting crowd seems occasionally misplaced in wild waters, raft trips on big rivers are always buoyed by the presence of "hard boaters" -- kayakers and decked-canoe paddlers whose mastery of huge, powerful waters in their tiny craft is something to see.
And even on rivers like the Youghiogheny in Pennsylvania, where booming raft operations have all but driven the hard boaters away, there is the ever-changing beauty of the river and its rich banks of wildflowers and woods to enjoy.
The Tygart trip Sunday was organized by American Rivers Conservation Council in Washington, a nonprofit outfit dedicated to keeping dams off wild rivers. The organization runs raft and canoe trips all summer. For information, write ARCC, 322 4th St. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.