The river is roaring. Ahead the surface is a seething mass of white. ''Paddle hard,'' yells the guide. We dig our paddles over the sides of the raft. Soon a six-foot wave looms up and crashes over the bow. ''Full ahead, full ahead,'' yells the guide. The raft is bucking like a seesaw in hyperdrive. It's all I can do to hold on. Another huge wave breaks over the raft. Two paddlers are on the floor, sloshing in a foot of water. They giggle hysterically. Some of us are whooping and waving our paddles in the air. ''Paddle,'' yells the guide. We try to oblige. The raft bucks through one giant wave after another. Finally we pass into calmer water. Everyone cheers.
Later we are enjoying a steak lunch by the riverside, courtesy of the rafting company. I hear some news: Two paddlers fell out of Raft No. 4 during the run. The first was picked up immediately. The other floated through an entire rapid - a two-minute swim. ''How was it?'' I ask. ''Scary,'' she replies with a smile. We are glad to finish the day with a peaceful float through beautiful scenery.
Despite all the fun, paddling on a fast-moving water entails serious risk. Each year a couple of dozen people are killed - most of them needlessly - in rafting accidents. The underlying causes are usually ignorance, lack of experience, insufficient equipment, or alcohol. Many of the dead were not wearing life vests.
By contrast, tens of thousands raft safely each year on commercial trips throughout the United States. There are relatively few injuries on these trips and even fewer fatalities. Many experienced private rafters also boat safely. Why the difference?
The key to safe rafting lies in training, proper equipment, and conservative river procedures. Professional raft guides receive intensive training and hours of supervised white-water experience on the rivers they will be running. They learn how to read the river and how to maneuver their rafts for maximum fun and safety. They learn how to mold inexperienced paddlers into a satisfactory crew. They learn safe running procedures. In short, they know how to avoid trouble and they know what to do if it comes.
Equally important, commercial rafters are properly equipped. On some rivers in Maine, for example, each person is required to wear a high-flotation life vest and a full wetsuit. These help protect swimmers from crashing waves and, if they fall overboard, life-threatening cold water. Many companies provide helmets when rafters are running rocky rivers. Each raft carries a throwrope, which can be tossed to swimmers, and a grabline strung around the outside.
Rafting companies follow certain procedures to increase safety. Before starting out on a run, each guide explains to passengers how to avoid injury while inside the raft and what to do if they fall overboard. The rafts run the river single file in groups of two or more. Below every rapid, each raft waits for the next ones, so it can help if there's trouble. On some rivers, rafting companies use safety boats (kayaks) or station safety personnel on shore below difficult rapids. Eastern companies generally ban alcohol before and during the run.
People who are thinking of paddling their own rafts in white water or fast current should start by seeking instruction. Unfortunately, training for private rafters is hard to come by. On the other hand, white-water skills, experience, and safety procedures are mostly transferable from one type of boat to another. General instruction can be obtained through for-profit and nonprofit kayak and canoe programs. Rafters should follow introductory instruction with supervised white-water experience in a kayak or canoe - and then get more instruction. Finally, seek guidance from experienced rafters for techniques and problems unique to rafting.