In May 1990, (more precisely, during the Memorial Day weekend) I went whitewater rafting on the Cheat River in West Virginia. A fellow graduate student talked me into joining a group expedition that went every Memorial Day; it was run by a husband and wife pair and was described in suspiciously glowing terms. I had never whitewater rafted before; indeed, I had never set foot in a raft before. Sporting an attitude that has gotten me into trouble more than once–incorrigible curiosity–I decided to play along. I do not know why I thought this might be a good idea: I am a decent swimmer but not an excellent one; I am terrified of drowning; and did I mention I had never rafted before? More to the point, the Cheat features Grade IV and Grade V rapids. More on that below.
As we drove down to West Virginia from New Jersey, we encountered much rain along the way, and indeed, it was still raining when we pulled into camp early in the morning of our intended river run–after a long, tiring drive through the night. A quick breakfast later, we were river-bound, heading for outfitting and orientation.
My first look at the river was enough to induce a symphonic response from my now chattering knees: it was in flood (six feet over), a brown, roiling mass of water, churning and frothing through its broad channel, idly tossing about the odd tree-trunk and swirling over what appeared to be barely visible rocks. We were going to stick a flimsy raft on that matchstick production factory? Why wasn’t this illegal? I approached our river-running guide with some trepidation and asked him if we would be rafting with the river in such spate. My guide nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, yeah, its goin’ to be a wild ride out theah.’ (He might have preceded this statement with a Clay Davis-esque ‘sheeeeit’ but my memory fails me now.)
That piece of reassurance provided, I changed and got into the raft. I was a coward all right, but I was even more scared about backing out in company. Our rafting got off to a decent start; the first two rapids were a bit wild, but not too bad. We then encountered the aptly name ‘Decision’ rapids where the weak-willed are given another chance to back out. I declined withdrawal. I was still too scared to back out.
Soon thereafter, I received my first dunking in the river. Our raft hit a rock, flipping me neatly into the water; on cue, I swam madly for the shore, and somehow made it. Others had received a quick wash too, so at least I wasn’t alone in being subjected to this indignity. Our raft, miraculously, was not lost to the river, so sadly, we couldn’t call an end to the madness.
Things got worse from that point on. The rapids grew into monstrous proportions; the river was in flood and every one of its wild sections, was, er, wilder. I navigated each one with my stomach churning, an acute mix of nausea and trepidation, all the while wondering why grown men and women with flourishing lives potentially ahead of them would ever subject themselves to such batterings.
Then, another rock. Our raft rode up on it, tilted, and slid back. As it did so, I fell into the river, and this time, terrifyingly, I felt myself washed away, and for one gut-churning moment of sheer terror, I felt like I was in a washing machine hitting the business end of a spin cycle. Suddenly, my head popped out of the water, and I found an oar stuck in my face by my river-guide, urging me to pull myself aboard. Somehow, I did so. One of our riders had been left stranded on the rock; amazingly, after we got to shore and threw her a lifeline, she pulled herself through the raging river to the shore.
I thought we were done. Surely, after that disaster, the sane thing to do was to pack up, and head for the nearest West Virginian moonshine distillery? But no. A genuine monster, a grade V rapid, awaited. It required some ten minutes of onshore planning and strategizing before we attempted it. Once again, I considered handing in my oars and hiking to the waiting bus, and yet again, I declined.
I’m glad I have forgotten most of the details of how we made it through that watery beast. I remember walls of white water below me, on top of me, and on the sides; I remember brown water; I remember screams and I remember arms and legs that felt as if they were on fire as I dug deep and hard in order to extricate ourselves from what felt like one endless whirlpool after another. I remember too, somehow, the awestruck faces of onlookers watching from the road nearby.
Then somehow, just like that, we were through. We were still scudding along on a frothing river, but the worst was over. I lay back, my palms and wrists aching from the tight grip I had exerted on my oar. I could have wept when I heard the magic words, ‘Time for lunch!’ A post-lunch short ride on the Cheat still had to be carried out but it felt like a breeze after what we had handled before.
That evening, I swapped stories about my ride and my dunkings with my camp mates, and made light of the flip, the toss, the spin cycle. Unfortunately, someone also recounted a ghastly story of a young rafter who had drowned in the Cheat, stuck to a rock as the river pinned him there, its relentless weight preventing him from breaking free and raising his head out of the water.
The weekend over, I drove back home, glad that I had ‘done the Cheat’, glad that I hadn’t backed out of the ride, but entirely unsure that I would ever want to go whitewater rafting again. Six years later, I rafted again, on the Ganges, just upstream from Rishikesh, and finalized my decision: I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I wasn’t a natural in the water; my amniotic fluid days were too far gone. (Something I would realize years again later, when I went scuba diving, and had to bail out.)
To all the rafters and river-runners out there: respect. I don’t know how y’all do it.