Growing up in southern West Virginia, I had the opportunity to go whitewater rafting a handful of times when I was in high school. The first time I went, I was absolutely terrified but I was with a reputable tour company and everything went smoothly. By the end of the day, I was converted. I ended up loving it so much I went again the following summer and again after that a couple of times over the years.
In southern West Virginia, you have several options when it comes to whitewater rafting. You can either go rafting down the New River or the Gauley River. In general, the New River is a bit tamer while the Gauley is the most extreme and has the most technical rapids. To break it down even further, there’s the Upper New River, Lower New River, Upper Gauley River, and Lower Gauley River. The Upper New has class I-III rapids and you only have to be 5 years old to participate. The Lower New has class III-V rapids and you need to be 10 years old or at least 90 lbs. The Gauley River is dam-released and you can only go whitewater rafting here in the Fall. The Lower Gauley has class III-IV rapids and you have to be at least 12 years old. The Upper Gauley is the most extreme of all with class III-V rapids and you have to be at least 16 years old.
After I got my bachelor’s degree at West Virginia University, I moved to Tennessee to go to graduate school. One summer while I was there, my boyfriend and I decided to go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. I had been down the New River in West Virginia several times by this point, with rapids up to class V. If you don’t know anything about the ratings for whitewater rapids, the scale goes from I to VI, with the latter being the most extreme in the world. As far as I’m aware, commercial rafting trips will only take customers up to class V rapids. However, the class rating is only part of the story. For example, there is a rapid called “Mickey’s” in the Ocoee River in in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee that’s class IV but has a part where your options are going down a 5-foot ledge drop into a deep hole or a rocky descent down a 4-foot ledge. Many people have died here, perhaps unsurprisingly.
Anyway, we decided to go whitewater rafting and by this point I felt fairly confident in my ability since I had been multiple times by now. The rafting company we made reservations with had several people that were going out rafting that day, and they divided us into three groups on three different rafts. We all had life jackets and helmets, watched the safety video, and got the run-down in person by one of the guides when we were getting ready to get into the rafts.
The raft I was in happened to be the “lead” raft that day, with the other two rafts following behind us. It was a beautiful summer day, with the temperature warm but not excessively hot. The water felt nice when we hit our first rapid, a fairly easy one to get us warmed-up. The guide told us at the beginning that no matter what, we should always keep our paddle in the water and hold on tight to it, as it could be used as a flotation device if need be. There were some rapids that we went through where my paddle wasn’t even touching the water because the raft was so high into the air and above the water, at least the part where I was sitting.
Everything was going along swimmingly, that is until our raft got hung up on a rock in an area where there was a rapid. We couldn’t move forward and we couldn’t go backward, despite all of us in the raft trying to paddle furiously and our guide trying to move us along. Then, all of a sudden a gush of water swept into the raft and pulled me out of the raft into the river. Everyone else remained in the raft still stuck on that huge rock except me.
Because of the rapids, I was pushed further and further down the river. I would get sucked under the water, then thanks to my life jacket, I would pop back up so I could take a quick breath. It was like I was in a pinball machine, getting bounced along from one rock to another but somehow I kept holding on for dear life to my paddle. I was furiously looking for something, anything to grab but there was nothing. I tried to swim to get out of the rapid but the water was too powerful. It was as if I was a rag doll getting tossed around the river. After a while of this going on, I thought I was going to die right then and there on the river.
Then all of a sudden I saw a rock covered with moss sticking just a bit out of the water and I grabbed onto the moss and held on for dear life (literally). By some miracle, I was able to hold onto the moss while the river rushed over me, pushing and prodding my lower body. Someone in a kayak yelled out to me to hold on and said he was going to throw me a rope. I yelled out that my legs were giving out and at that very second, the water pushed me away, sending me even further down the river.
I was able to grab the rope, though, and the man in the kayak pulled me safely to shore. We waited for my raft to catch up to us and I was told to get back into the raft to finish out the trip. In hindsight, I should have insisted that someone from their company pick me up in a bus right there, but like a little lamb, I got back into the raft and finished out the trip down the river. It was like I was in shock for the rest of that time because I don’t remember any of it. They later told me I went down a quarter of a mile down the river by myself before the kayaker could catch up to me. I also later found out that the river was abnormally low that day we went rafting and that’s why our raft got stuck on the rock (and we kept getting stuck on other rocks that day). In fact, the water was so low that we shouldn’t have gone out that day, but the rafting company took us out anyway.
Bruised from my hips down to my toes but otherwise OK, I was shaken mentally more than physically. Honestly, I’m lucky I didn’t break something or drown. At the time I told everyone that I would definitely go whitewater rafting again; however, once my brain and my senses came back to me, I decided perhaps I really didn’t want to chance going through that again. I was pretty sure my whitewater rafting days were over. In more recent years I’ve thought about going whitewater rafting down the Snake River but when that opportunity came up in Wyoming, I chose to go down a calm portion of the Snake River and skip the part with the rapids.
My previous rafting trips in West Virginia show that things can go smoothly and not every experience is like mine was in Tennessee. A time or two when I was whitewater rafting in West Virginia, someone in my raft or another raft with our group got sucked out of the raft, but a guide was able to grab them right away and pull them back in or the person was able to pull themselves back into the raft quickly. They were fine and no one thought anything of it. Still, bad things can and do happen when people are whitewater rafting. People die going whitewater rafting all over the world all the time.
So what can you do to help ensure you’re not one of the those unlucky people? You can do your due diligence and check out the company you’re thinking of going rafting with in advance. You can also check the river where you’ll be rafting to see if there’s a history of people dying there when rafting. Your company should make sure everyone wears a life jacket and a helmet. If they don’t, find another company. Finally, you can check the river conditions that day and make sure the water isn’t abnormally low or high. If your gut instinct is screaming at you not to go, listen to it and don’t go.
Whitewater rafting can be an exhilarating experience or a terrifying one. If all goes as it should, you should be pumped up on adrenaline because you’re having so much fun. Most of all, you should feel like your guide and the company you’re trusting your life with will protect you and watch out for your best interests, not just trying to line their pockets.
Have you been whitewater rafting? Do you want to go? If so, where?