As we carried our 16-foot raft down to the put-in point on the upper section of West Virginia's Gauley River, the question entered my mind: Why in God's name am I doing this?

Staring up at the massive earthen dam, I was filled with awe. Water gushed at the rate of 2,600 cubic feet per second from each of three giant valves, like some enormous garden hose attached at the base of Summersville Lake.

At 7:30 a.m., the September sun wasn't quite over the ridge that surrounds the lake, and the thundering water maintained an eerie shade of gray in the cool, damp morning. The rumble of the rapids completed the scene, drowning out the cliched response that attempted to enter my mind: Because it's there.

The Gauley River is at once intimidating and intoxicating. It alternates rapids and pools, and enjoys a reputation among whitewater experts as one of the two best in the United States (along with the Colorado), and one of the 10 best whitewater rivers in the world. As our raft rushed through the churning water, waves crashing over the bow, my heart racing, I found it difficult to imagine a more exhilarating experience.

Reaching an eddy at the end of a Class VI rapids, I looked back to survey our accomplishment as the adrenaline rushed through my veins.

Sept. 7 marked the beginning of Gauley season, a special time for river runners and thrill-seekers. The once free-flowing Gauley has been dammed since the mid-'60s, preventing regular runs down it.

But in order to accommodate winter and spring runoff into Summersville Lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water through the dam every Friday through Monday from Sept. 7 until Oct. 14 (generally at the rate of 2,600 cfs, although boating is permitted up to 5,000 cfs for the truly courageous).

The fall water releases serve to accommodate and delight rafters and kayakers who travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to test their mettle against what has become the East's unofficial qualifying cruise for the title of expert paddler.

"The Gauley season is always a time of real excitement," said Keith Spangler, acting president of West Virginia Professional River Outfitters and vice president of Eastern Professional River Outfitters.

He calls the Upper Gauley (a 14-mile stretch beginning at Summersville Dam) one of the ultimate thrills in whitewater rafting. Spangler, who also owns and operates New/Gauley Expeditions, says his operation "highly recommends prior experience before doing the upper section, because that's no place to find out if you like to raft or not."

With that in mind, I spent my first day on the lower portion of the river. While a far cry from the upper section, the Lower Gauley still offers demanding Class IV and V rapids with names such as "M*A*S*H," "Heaven Help You" and "Pure Screaming Hell," in addition to the many less technical, but no less quick, Class IIIs.

The rapids on the 12-mile lower section are farther apart, offering a pleasant respite and opportunity to take in the grandeur of the remote, steep-walled canyon. Tales of the river were shared by our guide, Ed Ayersman, as I relaxed and gazed skyward at a red-tailed hawk making use of an updraft courtesy of the afternoon sun.

"Okay, a little easy forward {paddling}," Ayersman commanded in warning of the upcoming rapids. "Brace yourselves in," he told our novice crew of five. "A little harder," as we picked up steam before negotiating the rumbling water.

"Dig in now! Hard forward! Now hard back!" he yelled, broken up by screams of glee and "Big wave! Big wave!" from the teenagers Travis and Chad. Using the skill of our navigator, we deftly shot the rapids. "Okay, relax," commanded Ayersman as the boat drifted back into serenity and our hearts settled down.

The next day's excursion on the Upper Gauley, although less serene, was no less splendid. The river is steeper and slightly narrower there, the tremendous boulders providing a beautifully rugged backdrop and acting as demi-dams that channel the water into swirling, pounding, crashing Class V and VI rapids (the highest on the scale).

Guide Michael Hill travels five hours from Asheville, N.C., every Friday during the season with his wife, Georgiana. Both say they are "addicted" to the river and, although Hill has given up being a full-time river guide, he says: "I just couldn't give up the Gauley."

But even the skills developed over 16 years of guiding weren't enough to save Hill from the untamed river. Nearing the halfway point of the journey, our four-man crew entered a Class VI rapids named "Sweet's Falls," the steepest drop on the route.

As we tumbled over the falls toward the giant rock known as "Postage Due" (so named because, "If you hit it, you'll get stamped out real quick," Hill explained), the familiar commands were replaced with silence, then suddenly the roar of the crowd of rafters breaking for lunch on the rocks.

The silence could mean only one thing. I glanced over my shoulder, where the empty seat confirmed my suspicions -- Hill had gone overboard. His wife took over the helm and steered us out of danger, where we collected our damp navigator.

We completed the day with a leisurely cruise down to the put-in point for the lower section, spotted with occasional short rapids runs, one of which, "Guide's Revenge," lived up to its name when Hill directed us into a huge hole that dumped all but one of the boat's passengers. The refreshing water only added to the pleasure of the trip.

Wet and weary, we disembarked from our raft. With our adventure complete and expectations fulfilled, it was time to leave the magnificent river. Until next year.