The dog days of summer are upon us. The air is still, temperatures often stifling and anyone who loves the outdoors is looking for an alternative to crowded beaches and pools.
If adventure is in your blood, you may want to literally jump and bump into the world of whitewater rafting.
Whitewater rafting has been popular for decades, but it’s a sport where the participants must find the action, not vice versa. Only certain rivers with appropriate elevation changes will differentiate from simple floating or canoeing to the challenges and pure adrenaline rush of whitewater.
This is a sport where you can pick your own poison, from family friendly rafting trips on scenic, exciting rivers to trips down winding rivers full of rocks, whirlpools and plenty of danger awaiting around every bend.
I’ll begin by saying I’m a whitewater junkie who, along with my wife Linda, have tackled everything from the friendly Nantahala River in western North Carolina to the Rio Grande in Taos, New Mexico, to the granddaddy of them all, the Gauley River in West Virginia during the fall release season.
The first decision of anyone looking to try the sport is to carefully pick your starting point as far as technical difficulty. You don’t want to jump right in over your head with a river that is more suitable for those who have previous experience and know the ropes, no pun intended, which you may well be grasping for after being tossed out of the raft like a rubber ball.
Make no mistake about it, rafting is not an amusement park ride. You’ll want to go on your trip with an experienced rafting company (numerous at every whitewater river site) that will give detailed safety presentations to educate rafting participants about problems that may arise.
The overall risk level on a rafting trip using proper precautions is low. Common sense drives safety. Improper behavior, like most activities, can lead to problems in a hurry in the middle of a fast-flowing river. Ignoring your guide’s instructions (most rafts have an experienced guide steering the craft from the back), being inattentive or rafting while intoxicated are the recipes for disaster.
Rafting outfitters generally require customers to sign waiver forms indicating the understanding and acceptance of potential serious risks. Medical conditions such as heart problems must be addressed, although you don’t have to be in excellent physical condition to enjoy Class III whitewater. Remember, you’ll be rushing down a river in a 15-foot rubber raft with typically 6-8 rafters and a guide, paddles and flotation devices.
That being said as a warning, most people, including families with children, will have the time of their lives that will be talked about for years. Your rafting company will even have you in photos and video when you finally reach the take-out (end) of your typical multi-hour trip that will have most in the boat clamoring to go again the next day.
So, if all this has your curiosity piqued and you’re ready for adventure, strap on your helmet and life jacket on your way to picking a river.
River difficulties are based on the types of water rapids you’ll encounter along the way, using the internationally accepted rating system that rates whitewater from Class I through Class VI, where Class I-II is conducive to first-timers and families with kids, to Class VI that is deemed nearly impossible and very dangerous and involves risk of life.
The family-friendly Nantahala, about 5 hours from Roanoke near Bryson City, NC, is predominantly Class I and Class II, described as moving water with small waves to easy rapids with smaller waves, clear channels and the need for some maneuvering of the raft going down the river. This makes for a fun trip for your group in that you’ll be required by your guide to paddle through the rapids along the way as the guide shouts “Full right, full left or all ahead!”
Be forewarned, once your guide senses everyone is comfortable, you can expect some extra surprises with reverse rafting or being guided onto a huge rock outcrop for some bumpy excitement. The Nantahala ends with a Class III rapid with high, irregular waves through a narrow channel which offers the perfect photo/video opportunity that will have you howling when you see them after the take-out. It’s all part of the fun of whitewater rafting, and yes, you will be drenched by days end.
The Nantahala trip can easily be combined with exploring the shops of Bryson City and the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation – overrun with activities, shopping and the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Within easy driving distance is Asheville, NC and the famous Biltmore Estate.
On the other end of the whitewater spectrum of difficulty is the demanding and technically difficult Gauley River near Fayetteville, West Virginia. This one is not for beginners or those faint of heart.
Divided into the Upper and Lower Gauley trips (or a combined if you have it in you) this run is full of massive rock outcrops, rushing rapids and plenty of opportunities to go headfirst into the drink.
Every Fall, the Army Corps of Engineers release flood-level water into the Gauley via the Summersville Dam on a predetermined schedule. It allows rafters to know exactly what days will be the best for big-water action.
Thousands of whitewater enthusiasts come to the Gauley every fall season to paddle what is considered by many to be one of the best whitewater rivers in the country. Gauley Season begins the first weekend after Labor Day, and continues for six weekends (five 4-day weekends and one 2-day weekend) Dropping more than 665 feet through 25 miles of rugged terrain, the complex Gauley’s stretch features more than 100 rapids with steep gradient, technical runs and an incredible volume of water with huge waves. The Upper Gauley, with tremendous Class III to V+ drops, demands constant maneuvering and experience with minimum age of 16. The Lower Gauley is a 17-mile stretch, rated Class III to V that feels like a watery roller coaster (minimum age 12-14).
While the Upper Gauley may be too much for most rafters, the Lower Gauley trip, with rapids named “Heaven Help You”, “Roller Coaster” and “Pure Screaming Hell” will have you holding on for dear life. On our last trip down the Lower Gauley, I was launched from the raft after we hit a hidden rock in what was called “Upper Mash.” The feeling was like going down a swirling bathtub drain. Luckily, when I resurfaced, the guides were throwing me a rope and I was pulled back in the raft with only a few abrasions from hitting rocks. Just the basics when rafting on higher class rapids.
Pick your level of difficulty, pack the swimsuits and get ready for a great adventure that will give memories for a lifetime. Just don’t expect to stay dry.