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Down the Gorge: A Day on the New River in West Virginia

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be asked to travel to West Virginia to paddle the New River Gorge and shoot some video for a short whitewater video for Blue Ridge Outdoors. I called up a couple of friends who are always up for an adventure, borrowed a raft from Grant Seldomridge over at River and Earth Adventures in Boone, North Carolina, and set out for the wild and rowdy New River Gorge. In late summer, because of the heat and drier weather pattern that settles over the Southeast, the water levels of the New River run a bit lower than during the prime rainy season of spring runoff, so the river is a bit more tame than what many people expect to see when they get down to it. But for me, as  a largely inexperienced raft guide, I was nervous.  Prior to this trip I’d spent all of ten minutes over the course of one rapid at the helm of a raft on my only other trip down the New River Gorge two summers before. At the put-in, I could feel the butterflies fluttering and I was anxious to see how we’d fare, although I couldn’t let on to my friends, Jason Chamberlain and Brian Barnett, neither of which had any whitewater experience either. At the put-in, Brian read the signs and relayed the facts for us: 2/3 people who die of drowning on the NRG are under the influence of drugs or alcohol; 4/5 who drown were not wearing Personal Flotation Devices, or something along those lines. We did the math and figured that if we saved the celebratory beer for the takeout and kept our PFD’s strapped on at all times, odds are we’d come out below the New River Bridge alive, perhaps just a bit scathed.

We launched into the slow moving waters of the New River and practiced our technique with a few back strokes, forward strokes, and full-tilt 360s before paddling downstream to the first rapid at the Railroad Trestle. We’d read everything we could on the gorge, from American Whitewater’s description, to the rousing details of the descriptive Southeastern Whitewater and although I couldn’t remember all the details of every rapid, the little printout stashed in the dry bag with the camera had just about all we needed to know.

What I didn’t know was that the first major rapid was a doozy. A five foot fall of surging whitewater that came on totally unexpectedly to surprise all three of us with a major thrill right off the bat. And that’s what it’s all about.  We charged into the froth and the fury in our small, three man raft and got bucked on, but bucked  back and felt the excitement and the thrill that comes on in the wake of adventure: the rapid heartbeat, the crystal clear mind, the focused vision, and the feeling of excitement that is all but indescribable.

For the rest of the day we picked our way, carefully, through the rocky rapids and charged through the big, wide-mouthed beast of Lower Kearney and we had a blast. Along the way, the three of us stopped at many a good looking boulder problem and vowed to return one day soon to make the most of the unlimited potential for deep water bouldering and riverside bouldering along the river.  Thousands of boulders, all perfectly shaped with nearly perfect rock-quality and ideal holds are scattered about the river gorge just waiting for someone to come down and put on their scending shoes and go on a rampage.

Until then, I’ll keep imagining the possibilities and dreaming of my next trip through one of the most beautiful places I know.

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