2016-11-01 / ReBooted

The River Wild

Jill Gleeson

When I think back to the day I rafted the Gauley River in southern West Virginia, the memories come mostly as moments, brief snatches infused with epic emotion: fear and elation, determination and triumph. I don’t really recall the calm stretches, few as they were, when the river quieted, turned gentle. I remember the raging, roiling water, the sound of its snarl, the feel of it battering my body. I remember how fiercely I worked, my arms paddling against the water’s force, my legs braced against the boat’s bottom, the better to absorb the shock as the rapids hurled us forward and back, flung us left and right and through the air.

Before I rafted the Gauley I was terrified of water. This fear stemmed from the first time I’d rafted, years ago, on the New River, the Gauley’s milder sister. My boat had flipped on a Class V rapid — the most dangerous, intense rapids commercial whitewater guide services are permitted to navigate — and I’d been sucked under it. One of the other rafters fished me out and I’d shrugged off the event as part of the adventure. But each time I rafted I found myself more afraid than the last time. Eventually I grew apprehensive even in swimming pools.

But when Adventures on the Gorge, West Virginia’s premiere outfitter/resort/guide service, invited me to raft the Gauley with them, I knew I had to do it. I hate to be afraid of anything, and I was convinced facing that mean river would help me get over my phobia. If it didn’t kill me. The Gauley is no joke. The upper stretch alone, which we would tackle in one very intense day, drops more than 335 feet in 13 miles, spawning five Class V rapids.

And I decided to face it head on, from the front of the raft, where it takes far greater effort to paddle and the water hits the hardest. I can’t really explain why. I sat there instinctually… and probably because no one else in my group volunteered. Whatever the reason, maybe providence, probably foolishness, it was the right choice. With the first rapid, a Class III called Initiation, I felt my panic fading. Part of it was thanks to the confidence I had in our guide’s abilities to keep us safe.

Jo-Beth knew the river, and as it turns out I knew how to paddle that boat. I quickly discovered that all that time I’d been spending in the gym had actually turned me strong. So strong that Jo-Beth told the other rafters to follow my lead, to paddle with my speed, at my rhythm. She switched them around, too, trying them in other positions because I was paddling so hard I kept pulling the boat out of line.

Nearly every other boat capsized that day, but we stayed upright. We even stayed upright at Sweet’s Falls, the upper Gauley’s last Class V. I remember dropping down its 14-foot waterfall, my body lifting off the raft, before we slammed back onto the river’s surface. Jo-Beth was screaming at us “Dig in! Dig in! Dig in!” though I could barely hear her above the roar of the river. We were immediately swept between the mammoth boulders of Box Canyon. We floated there, watching as the raft following us tipped on the falls, ejecting its passengers. Jo-Beth managed to hold our position against the current, our raft filling with water and starting to sink, until we were able to pluck the rafters from the river.

After we’d offloaded our extra passengers we hit a flat stretch of the Gauley. In the tranquility we started fantasizing about what we’d do if we won the lottery. “I’d go into space,” I said, “as one of those space tourists.”

“You’d be a great astronaut,” Jo-Beth replied. “To be an astronaut you have to be brave, and you’re fearless.”

For the rest of the day she called me “Astronaut.” Each time she did I stood a little straighter, smiled a little wider. And thought, if just for a moment, that even with all the heartbreak of the past few years, I might somehow, someday be okay. •SCM

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