Rafting. `Off we paddled into the swirling river under Allen's pitifully off-key rendition of ``Nearer My God to Thee'' '
WHITE-WATER rafting sounded like a great adventure. And, although I had never actually done it before, I had always delighted in sitting in my little sports car while it was dragged through a car wash. This, I was to find, did not quite constitute the ``white-water experience.''Skip to next paragraph
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In any case, it was with fearless abandon and a full-length rubber poncho that I flew off to ``shoot'' West Virginia's infamous New River, reputed to be the oldest river in the Western Hemisphere, inspiring Congress to designate 50 miles of it in 1978 as a national park, named New River Gorge National River.
The hour-and-a-half drive on Route 60 from Charleston to Thurmond, along the winding, lazy banks of the Kanawha River, is dotted with simple wood frame houses, clusters of mobile homes, and an occasional behemoth chemical plant. Young boys and older men -- many of the latter retired or out-of-work coal miners -- while away the hours fishing the Kanawha for channel catfish, walleye, and prized smallmouth bass.
A stop in the hills at Chimney Corner Crafts, where coal jewelry, cedar novelties, and ``Indian things'' are sold, was a chance to stretch and chat with a few of the local folks.
``Yes,'' said the elderly woman behind the counter, as she folded a hand-stitched, tumbling-block-design quilt; ``lots of folks stop on their way to the New River. No,'' she added, ``I've never done it, and expect I never will. Just you hold on tight,'' she advised, and as I was half out the door, added with motherly concern, ``Now you stop in on your way back so's we know you made it.''
Farther up the narrowing road, a small craft shop -- nearly hidden behind a clothesline of bedspreads with electric-colored chenille peacocks, and rugs with the likeness of Elvis Presley -- plead for attention.
None of the local people I talked to had ever been rafting, and all intended to keep it that way, thank you very much.
Pulling into the parking lot of Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited late in the dark, drizzling afternoon, I was greeted by a cheerful, grinning fellow, Chris Dragan, youngest of the three brothers who own the outfit.
``Bring a sleeping bag?'' he asked. ``Good, you can sleep there in the staff cabin. Plenty of room there until we get busy around Memorial Day.''
``What if it rains tomorrow?'' I asked, hopping puddles from my car to the cabin. ``What if it does?'' he shrugged. ``Gonna get wet anyway, aren't ya.''
Next morning was bright, warm, and glorious, as five of us gathered for orientation on the riverbank. The water was smooth and glistening, rippled only by a cluster of jet-black whirligig water beetles.
``Now everyone gets a life preserver, a little zip-lock bag to put bottle tops or other rubbish in, and a waterproof bag for your cameras and gear,'' said Eric Autenreith, one of the young, square-jawed guides.
``Now don't ever step on anyone's waterproof bag. Six-hundred-dollar Nikon lenses make a funny crunchy sound when stepped on. That noise may excite one of the passengers. And don't step on this big rubber bag, either. That's lunch.
``And if you fall overboard, don't panic or try to stand up. The water moves fast, and the rocks are slippery. Just relax, put your head back, stare up at the clouds, and float down the river feet first. There's not a rapid on this river that someone hasn't floated through. We'll pick you up or throw you a rope when we're through shooting the rapid.''
Chris reappeared for further instructions. ``Be sure and put on your personal flotation device before you get in the raft, and don't take it off until you're on shore. That's a state law. One more thing. There's going to be a lot of physical activity today, and if you have a great fear of the water, this is the wrong place for you to be.''