Saturday, May 1, 1999, On the New River, West Virginia - The bus ride down to the river for our white water rafting trip is a pretty exciting prelude to an exciting day. Homer, with 61 years behind the wheel, deftly guides the old Blue Bird through the side streets and switchbacks of southern, West Virginia, from the Class VI River Runners facilities in Lansing, down the edge of the New River Gorge. The bus rolls through tiny towns and rural outbacks with the energy of a surging river, swiping tree limbs, and daring the mountainside to claim us along each narrow stretch and curve.
When we arrive at put-in, the guides get off the bus to ready the equipment, and the lead guide, Brian "Squirrel" Hager pops up his 37 year-old, shaven head and gives us the run-down on surviving the day. "It's not a problem if you fall in the water," he says. "But it's a lot more fun in the boat." They call the rafts boats, because a raft is a bunch of logs strapped together, and because tourists call them rafts.
Squirrel is a teacher by training, but an outdoor guide and ski patroller by profession. He hasn't strayed too far from teaching - it's just that the his classroom is the outdoors, and he has a new group of students each day. Squirrel explains some of the hazards (rocks) some of the challenges (rocks) and some of the thrills (rocks) to us. I know he has given this speech thousands of times, but his sheer interest in the sport, and his enthusiasm with people support the message.
Class VI has five rafts on this trip, filled with salesmen, construction workers, a nervous journalist and local military academy cadets. There will be about 150 rafts on this river today, according to Squirrel, and ours are the 14-foot self-bailing, Avon Adventurers - the best in the business, he says. Into our raft, climb Jon Hager, beside Squirrel in the rear, John Barnett and Scott Bradley in front of them, with David Woolfe and myself blocking their wind, and Dave Colby and Randy Neff right up front, facing The Wall of Water.
It is springtime, and the water is high. Every second, enough water to fill a 2-bedroom, 2-bath house (13,000 cubic feet) surges through here - every second. Most of this day, the water will pass right under us, but as the river narrows, and the rocks compete for air, that water will push us and pull us, and spin, and lift, and drop and slam us like pizza dough on a Friday night.
We push off, and Squirrel gives us a few paddling lessons. When he says "Easy forward" we are to paddle, until he says "Take a break" or "Hard forward!" When he says "Back, left" the guys on the left paddle backward and we on the right, forward. "Back" means everybody strokes backward, and "In the Boat!" means the sky is falling and that is our only cover.
After a mile of "Easy forward" and just floating along, we approach a run of prelude rapids - a mere class-II - and Squirrel lets us jump out and run it on our backs. David Woolfe, a former Army Ranger, and I jump in for the ride. The guys are joking about taking a leak, but let me tell you, the water is ice cold, and, even if I had to pee, I sure couldn't find the nozzle right now. I survive the rapids and clamor back in the boat (a boat is warmer than a raft.) Squirrel impresses us with the impact of hypothermia. "Some people don't even drown," he says. "They just freeze to death."
Like, when we get to "Surprise" a class-III rapid. Squirrel has us maneuver the raft for a decent approach, and as we get our first thrill ride of the day, as Colby and Neff and the entire front of the raft disappear below us, then bounce above our heads, and the ice-cold water surges into our raft, squirrel says, above the roar of the water; "You know boys, if I were fishing this river, I'd use 'tubers' and 'spinners.' They're the best lures here." And he'll throw in a "Back right!" or "Hard forward!" But most of the time, it's just an average day on the river, with Squirrel.
We have just had a good taste of action, and, of course, we want more. The next rapid is a two mile float away, and Squirrel fills us in on some of the history around here. The New River begins in North Carolina and was used during the Civil War. He shows us where lookouts hailed and railroads were built. The gorge was stripped for timber in the 1800's and was used for coal mining. Throughout our run today, we'll pass forests where thriving towns once stood. Miners weren't treated very fairly in those days, and many immigrants, having boarded trains marked "Brooklyn" found themselves right here, in a town called Brooklyn, owing the mine for the train ride, and blessed with the opportunity to spend their lives shoveling coal.
Somewhere in the series of "Railroad" rapids (class-IV+) as we're getting tossed around like strawberries in a blender, as each of us seven tourists, out for an exciting day on the river begins to see our boring life flash before our drenched eyes, Squirrel keeps right on going. "Near here, at the Dunglen Hotel, is where they had the world's longest poker game - hard forward!" A hydraulic sucks us down and we are introduced to Mister Rock. "It lasted - back! - 14 years, until the hotel burned down - back left! Hard forward! Take a break..."
We make it through this alive. The brisk water has woken up the crew, who all attended John Glenn High School, in New Concord, Ohio, twenty years ago. Though they now live in North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio, they still keep in touch, and they came out here for a reunion and a nice day on the water, and I swear I hear a couple of banjos dueling. "That sure got rid of my hangover," Jon Hager says. There's nothing like the fear of death to clear one's head. Remarkably, we are still pretty relaxed and ready for what's ahead, but let me tell you, we are paying attention.
The Keeney rapids give us some real action. We start seeing more rock than water and we struggle to keep the river from folding this raft in half, like a fat wallet. "Back right! Back! Back left!" Squirrel shouts. This set of rapids makes veteran rafters out of us, and gives Squirrel a chance to describe the intense interest shown by each mining town around here - for baseball. "That's how they came up with 'miner league' he tells us (honest, he does) after we crash through a violent wave and sail over a rock the size of Mick Jaggar's tour bus.
Squirrel tells us that we have plenty of larger and "more violent" rapids yet to come. "This is the perfect river run," he says. "It starts off slow and easy, and turns into an awesome ride." He gives us another helpful tip. "If you fall out and get stuck under the raft," he says. "Feel the ribs in the floor and push yourself to the side." Thanks. None too soon, we pull over and eat lunch, among hundreds of monarch butterflies, and we get psyched up for the challenges ahead. One of the academy kids is either sick or has regained his senses, because he has had enough, so Squirrel radios the Class-VI office for a truck. The boy will be picked up at the next landing, and nobody in our raft dares go with him.
Squirrel's sister is a nurse, and his brother works with computers. You could say they are successful, because they have "careers" but Squirrel says "I've been doing this for 17 years, and I swear, I look forward to it every day," and that, to me, is success. Of the nearly forty full-time, seasonal guides in Class-VI River Runners, Squirrel was the "most requested" last year, according to the company brochure. He does this by keeping a good rapport with his clients, keeping a professional posture, and basically keeping his clients alive so they can request him again. This is a reassuring thought for me.
"You know what scares the heck out of me?" Squirrel says as "Lollygag" takes us for a decent tumble. "The ocean - I hate sharks!" We spin as we go over "Dudley's Dip" and I open my eyes just in time to watch the raft in front of us bounce through the class-V "Double Z" and - I don't believe it - she flips right over! "If you get thrown here, swim to the left," Squirrel tells us.
There is no turning back - the river relentlessly pushes us toward the maelstrom. We approach "Double Z" and I just hope the bodies are out of the way. Squirrel pulls us to the right, where none of the rafts before us went, and I wonder why, just as we sail down a chute and crash through the rapids. Everyone is paddling, and we are thrown down, then up, and I dig my paddle in hard, and hit rock, then only air, but I paddle anyway. Rocks - no, boulders - spring from the earth and lunge for us. We're living a train wreck, and cars are flying everywhere, but somehow we survive it, and we roll out of there with silly grins, looking around to see if everybody is still in the boat.
If this is survival of the fittest, we are in pretty good shape. We glide through the class-III "Tipples" and are full of bravado as we approach "Miller's Folly." Squirrel is unusually quiet. "Guys, you do not want to swim on this one," he says. They also call this class-IV rapid "Undercut" because it has a large rock with water actually flowing under it. "Just hang in there - you'll surface sometime." We are approaching what amounts to a white water junkyard, with one area actually having its own name; "Broken nose." If that scares you, you can take the truck home.
"Back left! Back! Take a break... Forward! Back left!" Squirrel pulls us into position and we roll right into the mess - I can hear the roar of 13,000 cubic feet of water crashing through the rocks. Things get really crazy, and we hit a "Bonsai" wave hard on my side, sending the right half of the boat into the clouds. I ride the reaction with a Grip Of Terror, but the left side of the raft gets sucked down into the hydraulic, and we lose David Woolfe and Jon Hager. Still in the rapids, we act quickly, and - no kidding - I can hear Squirrel laughing. Woolfe nears the boat and I pull him aboard (my first Army Ranger rescue!) Still bouncing through the rocks, Hager approaches us, a frozen panic across his face, and everyone reaches for him. The front of the raft gets crowded as they haul him in, and I lunge for the rear, scraping my shin on the safety kit. They pull Hager aboard, we grab our paddles and just stare down the river. "That scared the hell out of me!" Hager says.
Squirrel is still laughing, and it hits me that hearing his laugh during this mess kind of told us that death wasn't as close as we'd thought - that this is just another day on the job for him. The jerk.
We pass under the awesome, New River Gorge Bridge. At 876 feet, it is the highest, single arch bridge in the world. One cold weekend each October, fearless people actually parachute and bungee-jump right off of this monster.
One last set of rapids - the class-IV "Fayette Station" - has a surfing hole called "Flea Flicker" that sucks up Randy Neff. "In the boat!" Squirrel shouts as my side of the raft climbs a wave the size of Delaware. We all dive for the rubber, but Neff misses somehow and he flies right over Colby and Woolfe and lands in the water on our left. The rapids eddy-out and the rescue is easy, but Neff is pretty shook up.
It has been an exciting day, and we can't wait to do it again. My Ohio friends are already planning their next trip here. We toss our raft - lucky #21 - on the truck and we climb back on the Blue Bird. Homer takes us up the crazy, cliff-bordered gorge road, back to Class VI, and we laugh and joke about the incredible ride and the spectacular spills, and we thank the guides for a wild, big time, on big water.
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