White riot

Michael Hanlon treads the fine line between having fun and fearing for his life as he shoots the rapids in Virginia's New River Gorge
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The Independent Travel
"Sure, this is America; there's no way they'll let us get injured," said my friend Andrew, shortly before the longest disclaimer form I had ever seen was pushed in front of our noses. We were about to embark on a day of white-water rafting, my only experience of which was that cheerful film Deliverance, in which Burt Reynolds takes his city chums for a weekend on the river, breaks his leg and has an authentically rural encounter with the locals.

"The company shall bear no liability for any injuries whatsoever caused by falling out of the raft, being sucked down a whirlpool or being abused and shot by any hillbillies that may be encountered en route," the form might have proclaimed. We signed anyway.

The New River Gorge national park in West Virginia is an out-of-the-way spot in the heart of the Appalachian coal-mining district. The coal miners have long since packed up their shovels, leaving the 63,000 acres of limestone cliffs, forests and the rugged New River itself to walkers, climbers, wildlife and white-water rafters. Along with the nearby Gauley River, the New River is rated as one of the best places for rafting and canoeing in the whole of the US. A number of companies offer day-long white-water trips through the rapids. We picked one at random from a tourist office in nearby Beckley, and turned up at 8am as requested.

The inflatable rafts seat eight people and you are equipped with a lifejacket and a paddle. Our guide, an amiable, chain-smoking, lugubrious chap called Scott, clearly lived and breathed rafting, which was reassuring.

Less reassuring were our fellow rafters. We soon realised that we were sailing along on an island of unreconstructed middle-American redneckness. After half an hour on the water, the jokes started. First the hillbilly jokes (our fellow rafters were all Midwesterners), then the racist jokes.

The discussion turned to hunting. "Hey, I hear in Minnesota you aren't allowed to shoot rabbits with anti-tank guns any more! Sucks huh? Where I live there are no restrictions, except the rangers get a bit twitchy when you open up with semi-automatics on the so-called protected species."

Scott, no redneck as it turned out, winced - he had just been extolling the virtues of the area as a birdwatchers' paradise. I was praying for rapids; terrifying though this prospect was, at least it would shut these people up.

My prayers were soon answered. As the river narrowed from a lazy pool to a 100-yard channel between the wooded cliffs, the surface started to break up. We were being given frantic instructions by our guide, who despite his chaotic appearance knew what he was doing. How to turn the raft left, how to stop, how to avoid a dunking and what to do if you fell out (lie on your back; don't let your legs get trapped by a rock). The most important thing was to paddle like crazy through the turbulence, otherwise the raft would get trapped in a standing wave and we would get dragged under.

You don't see rapids before you hit them. The front of the raft tips downwards; everyone, rednecks included, screams, and suddenly you are in a washing-machine. Water, water everywhere, and plenty of it is drunk, forced at high pressure into every orifice. You have to hang on with your feet, wedged in under the inflatable seats. Scott shouted "Fore!" What did that mean? We paddled like crazy and, incredibly, the raft failed to sink.

"That was a class one, real easy; coming up is a class three." We gibbered. Rocks the size of houses were approaching rapidly. "If you fall out, try to keep your head above water and swim to the left bank," said Scott. "If you swim to the right, you'll most likely not make it." His roll- up was still dry.

The raft tipped again, this time at a 45-degree angle. We slid down a 10ft wave, avoided the rocks, and ran straight into another one. Strange pressures and vacuums pulled us this way and that. Scott screamed; we paddled. The raft filled with water. After a couple of seconds - it felt like minutes - we shot out of the rapid.

"Back again!" said our guide, as he started to manoeuvre us into the maelstrom from which we had mercifully departed. We edged up to a standing wave; we could touch the rock, the water towering 5ft or 6ft above our heads. Suddenly, whatever suction force was holding us in place gave way and we shot downstream. Everyone whooped, even the English contingent, to whom whooping does not come naturally.

After lunch on the river bank - "Don't y'all go wandering too far now, some of the locals don't take too kindly to strangers!" chuckled Scott - we were ready for a class five, defined as "extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to above average endangerment". Just like a class three, really, but wetter. One of the rednecks fell out. Against my better nature, I joined in the effort to haul him back in.

The last rapid was rated "swimmable", said Scott. Andrew and I jumped out. "Oh, keep to the left of the rock," shouted Scott as we drifted away from the boat in the current, "or you may be sucked under." The spring water was cold, and the lifejacket made swimming difficult. My friend disappeared round the right of the rocks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see him emerge the other side. Eventually the landing-stage came into view, and we were hauling the boat back on to the truck.

White-water rafting is not for everyone - the danger is real, and you need to be a confident swimmer and in fairly good shape. But if you are prepared to live with the risks, it is harder to think of a more exhilarating day out. Just pray for enlightened company - we were sorry to see the back of Scott and the team from the rafting company, but when the rednecks drove off in their pickups, that was a real deliverance.

A full day of white-water rafting (six hours on the river) with the Rivers Rafting Company (00 1 304 574 3834) based on the New River Gorge near Beckley, West Virginia, costs $68 in high season; July and August should be booked well in advance. This price includes Continental breakfast, picnic lunch, guide, insurance and transport to and from launch sites. Children under 12 years are not allowed. The New River Gorge National Park is about four hours' drive from Washington or Pittsburgh and an hour from Charleston, the state capital.

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