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.''

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.''

Right, Eric.

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.''

Right, Chris.

After strapping on our ``personal flotation devices,'' five silly looking landlubbers stumbled like penguins onto the far back of the 18-foot, 225-pound, $3,000, slippery-when-wet, black-nylon-and-neoprene, elongated inner tube referred to as a raft. Huckleberry Finn, eat your heart out.

``John, how about you goin' right up in front with Allen?'' said Liz, as she tucked her long red hair up under her hat.

``You mean me?'' I whined.

Liz Watson and Allen Haden were co-captain guides today.

Off we paddled to the swirling middle of the river under Allen's pitifully off-key rendition of ``Nearer My God to Thee.''

Very funny, Allen.

The first 10 minutes of the 15-mile trip were as restful as a ride on a Mississippi paddle boat. Enough time to learn a bit about each other, and unfortunately too much time for Allen's jokes, which elicited groans of disapproval. We later resorted to downright threats and plots of mutiny as the jokes got longer and no better.

Despite all the superficial kidding around, Wildwater guides are competent, well trained, very serious about what's going on about them, and knowledgeable in the ways of the water and the history, geography, and geology of the area. No one I spoke to had less than five years' experience with the company. The levity -- or attempts at it -- was just to get us to relax and loosen up.

Meanwhile, downstream the water began to quicken and ``dance'' a bit.

``OK, now we're comin' up to a good 3 rapid,'' said Liz, her usually calm voice tightening slightly. Rapids are rated 1 (easiest) to 6 (most difficult) in the East, a slightly different rating but no less difficult than those out West.

``Now we want to paddle quickly. John, you set the pace, and we'll follow. We don't want the river to carry us, we want to stay ahead of the flow to keep in control.

``OK, everyone, sit well inside and brace yourself. OK, pick it up. Pick it up. Brace yourself,'' Liz shouted over the growing roar of the advancing whitecaps.

In one fraction of a second I remembered that dear little old lady whose inexperienced advice was to ``hold on tight.'' Well, with one hand on the top of the paddle, and one in the middle, we had all run out of hands!

``OK, lean in. Pick it up, pick it up. Just keep paddlin','' Liz yelled, as the current pulled the nose of the raft head-first down into a swirl, jerking us around a mammoth sandstone boulder.

The front is where you get the wettest, I found, as a gigantic wave slapped me backward into the lap of Claudia, who sat behind. Quickly recovering, I sat up and wildly started paddling air, as the raft dipped to one side. Another belt from a wave swept over the front, dousing Allen and me and shoving the raft into the tender, still waters of a welcome eddy.

Not for long.

``OK, keep it up, we're not through. Keep going,'' said Liz, her voice losing any restraint.

``Geronimo!'' someone screamed from the back, as we were driven up and then straight down into another spinning whirlpool, barely missing an outcropping of rocks, down through a chute of turbulent rapids, and finally into a quiet pool.

``Good job. Nicely done. Everyone take five,'' Liz encouraged. ``Great. Really good,'' Allen beamed. A few coughs and sputters from up front, a quick head count, and more hooting and howling. We all made it through and couldn't wait for the next wild water.

``Looks like you guys got a little wet up front,'' taunted Dick, one of the guys in back. ``Gee, it's downright dusty back here.''

A few well-aimed pitches with bailing buckets by Allen and me managed to stop Dick in mid-sentence and quiet him down for a few minutes.

A break for lunch by a quiet pool wasn't enough time to dry out, but long enough to wander through the sycamores and river birches to bird-watch, identify the local flora, and be dazzled by a show of hundreds of black swallowtail butterflies feeding in the sun at water's edge.

With a few sandwiches under our personal flotation devices, it was back on board the Titanic -- as someone affectionately named our raft -- for more rapids, repartee, and bad jokes.

``OK,'' said Liz, as we settled back, full of food and confidence, ``we're comin' up to one of the more technical rapids. See that big rock there? That's Chicago Rock, named after a group of businessmen from that city who tried to go over, rather than around, it. They sat there quite a while before they got unstuck. Now we don't want to rename it Boston Rock, do we, John?''

``No,'' quickly speaking for all, I assured Liz, we didn't.

Despite someone's cry, ``Women and children first!'' as we were hurled straight toward Chicago Rock, we missed it, and I'm pleased to report that it still carries the name of the Windy City.

That's more or less how it went that wild and wonderful day on the New River -- waves and currents tossed us about like a beach ball, separated by quiet, forgiving pools to swim in. And plenty of time to just sit back and watch bass jump for mayflies while turkey buzzards soared high above the canyon walls and inquisitive minks scampered along the banks.

For the beavers we spotted, it was work as usual.

A day on the ``upper'' New River is much easier going than the ``lower.'' And if you just want to go along for the ride or would rather bail than paddle, you may sit in the middle and hang on to the straps in the rough spots.

One bit of prudent advice: Rafting tends to bring out the Hatfields and McCoys in rival raft companies. If you come across another group of ``river rats,'' jockey for a downwind position. That way the wind is to your advantage if perchance someone is very naughty, and should childishly start a water fight. Just remember -- keep your raft in the water, the water out of your raft, and don't get wet, get even.

If you're the lone raft on the river, make sure that no one on board hits terra firma any dryer than you. A dear, sweet woman in our group made the unfortunate mistake of pleading, ``Please, my hair can't get wet!''

The poor woman staggered off the raft looking as if she'd just gone over Niagara Falls without the barrel. Practical information

Choosing a company. West Virginia has more white-water rafting than anywhere else in the East, with some 35 rafting companies throughout the state. Choose one that is experienced and not a fly-by-nighter.

Weather. Don't worry. As Eric Autenreith told us, ``Everyone puts out a little more effort in bad weather. Besides, people have fun in the rain; look at Gene Kelly!''

What to wear. In summer, a T-shirt, sunglasses with eyeglass straps, swimsuit or shorts, suntan lotion, and light long-sleeved windbreaker.

In spring and autumn, a wool hat and sweater, heavy windbreaker. Wet suits may be rented if you need one, and be sure to take a full change of clothing. Soft-soled shoes are required on all trips.

When to go. Most companies operate from April to October. Avoid holidays, especially Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and long weekends. The middle of the week is least crowded, as are spring and autumn trips.

Where to stay. West Virginia is loaded with national parks, and the list of bed-and-breakfast inns is growing. Some rafting companies have shelters where you can pitch a tent or throw down a sleeping bag for as little as $5 a night. In Thurmond, there is one modest hotel, the Bankers Club, run by Erskine and Jackie Pugh. Rates are $22.50 ($24.50 with bath) per room. No credit cards, please. For reservations call (304) 469-9161.

Further questions. Call the West Virginia Department of Tourism at 1-800-CALL WVA.

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