I used to be pretty fearless, at least in terms of doing things that might be deemed “dangerous.” I’ve been sky-diving, went bungee jumping (dangerous) in Mexico (double dangerous), and used to go white water rafting every fall with college friends. I’d like to blame my more fearful self on having children and not needing to take unnecessary risks that might leave them without a mother, but it actually started before then. I think there is something about getting older that makes you appreciate risks more. The best example of how I became wussier with old age comes from our yearly rafting trips.
We started going my sophomore year of college. My roommate was from West Virginia and had the idea that we all drive down and stay with her mom for the weekend and spend the day rafting on the Gauley River. Gauley season consists of a few weeks in September and October when the rapids are world-class due to releasing water from the Summersville Lake. The first year we rafted the Lower Gauley, which is easier and has fewer Class V rapids. We never fell out of the raft, or “swam,” unless it was on purpose to pee. Boy did we think we were the best rafters ever. The next year we upgraded to the Upper Gauley and once again stayed in the raft. From that point on we thought we were pros when it came to rafting the Gauley River. Our biggest concern was making sure we all had on matching helmets so that our picture looked good.
It’s easy to think you’re good at something when you don’t really understand how little control you have over the situation. Then you get cocky and become two whole minutes worth of the highlight video everyone watches at the end of the day. (The video isn’t actually tragic, nor is it actually us but that’s besides the point.)
We thought we were responsible for our wetsuits staying dry, but really it was the guide. He made sure we took the easier route through the rapid and that we never swam. When we did finally fall in we realized that it wasn’t that bad. It was actually kind of fun – if you fall in the river in the right place. So of course we wanted to up the ante. We started talking about using a smaller raft – one that was pretty much guaranteed to flip several times. (Un)fortunately we had too many people to do that. I was totally on board at this point and remember my friend’s mom cautioning us, “You all will want to do more and more each year until someone has a bad swim and never wants to go again.” I can still hear her saying it, but wasn’t really concerned at the time.
It was the next day that we started taking more risks. We informed our guide that we weren’t afraid to swim and he ran with it. Early in our trip he starts telling us about how we’re going to paddle straight toward a large rock in the middle of the river, hit it with the side of the raft and then climb out of the raft and up on to the rock. I looked at him and said (for the first and not last time that weekend), “Are you serious?” He was. One of us got up on the rock and it wasn’t me. I fell in and got sucked down under water a few times before the river spit me out. I came out on the side that leads right toward an undercut rock, which is a death trap if you find yourself underneath it. I’m trying to swim away from it, but the current kind of takes you toward it before leading away from it, so it feels like swimming is doing nothing. Meanwhile a different guide is standing in his raft with a whistle motioning for me to swim away from the rock. The whistle just makes it all seem scarier and more urgent.
I think it was the next day that we ended up in a really large raft because we had a couple of random people with us. The larger raft flips less, but is also more difficult to control. Even for our very competent and experienced guide (Dave – you and your crazy ideas about crashing a raft into and climbing onto a rock in the middle of a river will be forever burned in my brain). The day started off great when the random guy in our raft knocked me out at the top of a rapid. I had to swim the whole thing before getting back into the raft. Luckily it was a weak rapid and not scary.
We manage a few more rapids without losing anyone and then we get to Pillow Rock. Pillow Rock is the rapid where they take the pictures, so common sense would tell you that the goal is to hit that rapid with everyone facing downriver. Not that day and not in that giant raft. We could tell we were approaching it wrong and a little out of control. We knew this because we were facing the wrong direction and went down that rapid backwards.
I think the random guy might have fallen out, or at least lost a shoe on the way down…payback for knocking me out. We continued down the river without incident until we decided to “surf.” This is where water pours over a rock and you can guide the raft in and kind of lodge it there and water dumps over the one side soaking everyone. This was a lot of fun and no one fell out. Then we tried to paddle out of the wave. We were stuck. We tried everything and then Dave directed us all to get on one side of the raft. I was suspicious because it seemed like doing that would flip the raft. So I asked him, “Are we going to flip this raft on purpose?” Of course we were. And there’s the next, “Are you serious?” Normally when the raft flips it isn’t too bad because you don’t usually see it coming. It just happens and you’re in the water. Knowing that you are going to flip the raft is a little different. Just as we start to flip I try to get out of the way so that I don’t end up under the raft. Unsuccessful. I come up under the raft a couple of times before I get away from it. I lived. Obviously. And it wasn’t that bad.
None of this was really that scary, until the next year when we came back for more. At that point the little seed of fear was planted. I saw things as riskier and worried more about what could happen. I was a nightmare of a raft-mate. The annoying person who is nervous and scared and doesn’t want to swim. I didn’t want to do anything risky, especially paddle the raft into that damn rock again, but of course we did. And I fell in. And had to swim away from the death trap undercut rock again.
I would go again, but the kids thing does make me think about it twice. They act like they can’t live without me, so I need to be careful. But it is a good time!
If anyone is interested in whitewater rafting, or any other outdoor adventure, check out ACE Adventure Resort in West Virginia. They’re the best.
For those of you who read this and were actually on these trips, I apologize if things are not in chronological order. It’s been awhile, and my memory is not what it used to be.