Tidewater Traveler - May 2009


What makes a River New?


Geaorge Sellers

   I’m not sure what this paddle is really accomplishing when I thrust it into the water. Instead of the paddle pushing against the water to propel this craft, the water is sweeping both the boat and the paddle along at a rapid clip. “Get ready,” hollers the helmeted girl sitting on the back edge of the vessel. “Dig in and hold on!” Oh sure – dig in – they told us earlier that “dig in” means to paddle with great vigor. Hold on – now this I haven’t quite figured out because both hands are to be on the paddle – digging in. Whoa! A pothole in a river? No, it’s not a pothole; it’s more like we’re on roller coaster tracks, rolling wildly up and down, except that each time the raft goes down, a wall of water sweeps over the occupants.
    When I first stepped into the rubberized, fabric mini-ship about thirty minutes ago, I noticed straps sewn into the floor. I had been instructed to sit on the inflated side – gunwale – with both feet inside, facing sort-of-forward, sort-of-inward; and then I was told it would be wise to slide each foot into one of the floor straps. Next I was handed a paddle and shown how to reach around, twisting at the waist to dip it into the water to assist in propelling the boat.
    So, now as the raft is being bounced and thrown around like a twig by the unstable water, I realize the value of the foot straps, for it is my toes that are performing the “hold on” command. I am convinced that my efforts with the paddle are totally fruitless. I can detect no cause-and-effect relationship between what I am doing with this aluminum/plastic stick and the behavior of the water coaster.
    Only on TV have I seen a cowboy hang on to a bucking bronco; I’ve never experience it personally, but I am imagining that it must be something like this. Without warning a really big liquid pothole tries to swallow our craft and in doing so projects my wet bottom up from its air cushion seat. I detect that my only contact with the moving raft is the top of my feet pulling up against the floor straps. I guess my toes knew what to do to maintain their connection with the straps, because seconds later my body crashes down to its original location. A flashback has me pondering the term “family-class rapids” that I recall reading in the promotional brochure for the river raft company.
    After what seems like a year, but is probably not more than thirty seconds, the bouncing stops. The raft is still being swept along by a swift current, but the ride has become smooth – like new blacktop. Everyone in the raft takes time to look around at their doused shipmates; now screaming and yelling has been replaced by laughing and smiling. No one is dry. Everyone takes a moment to look back at the churning, frothy, whitewater hill that we have just descended. Our skipper, with her hand still steady on the tiller that guided through number thirty-two, asks, “Well, how did you like that? It looks like we still have everyone aboard!”
    Several hours passed as we floated on our way through the New River Gorge of West Virginia. That morning we fought our way through several more rapids, enjoying the serenity of the calm waters in between. Wilderness became defined by rocky, tree-lined banks for miles.
    Around midday we rounded a bend in the river and in the distance we could see the incredibly tall steel arch of the New River Bridge. To view the gorge-spanning structure from a whitewater raft is spectacular. The bridge was completed and opened to traffic in October of 1977, saving local commuters about an hour’s travel time on mountainous winding roads. Vital statistics have placed the New River Bridge in the record books as the longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and the second highest bridge in the United States.
    Its height has attracted thousands of bungee enthusiasts who fall from the bridge attached to extra long, extra strong rubber bands; base-jumpers who leap from the bridge without a tether and rely on the bridge’s height of nearly 900 feet and a parachute for a safe decent; and rappellers who let themselves down more gradually, like a spider on a silk strand.
    The New River, the gorge, and the bridge have, over the past few decades, become a paradise for thrill-seekers. I started by saying, “I’m not sure what this paddle is really accomplishing when I thrust it into the water.” Now that it’s over, I think I might know the purpose of the paddle. I believe that novice whitewater rafters are given paddles just as a distraction. The paddle keeps them busy thinking that they are doing something of great value to preserve life and limb. In reality, the paddle simply keeps them from getting a good look at what is about to happen to them when the next liquid pothole comes along.
    Dozens of whitewater rafting outfitters can be found in this general area of Fayetteville, West Virginia, about a six-and-a-half-hour drive from mid-DelMarVa. Sounds like a nice weekend road trip!
    May all of your travels be happy and safe!

   George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.