- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

"Here it comes."
River guide Andrew Adkin's shout was barely audible above the sound of crashing water. We continued paddling furiously, straight toward the frothy tumult ahead.
"We might hit it perfectly, we might do everything right and we might still go under," Andrew had explained earlier. "It's not really up to us at all."
Luck, as it turned out, was with us. The rapid seized our raft, ferociously bounced and jounced us for a while then mercifully ejected us into more placid waters. But there was little time for relief: This was, after all, West Virginia's Gauley River in late September, home to some of the most sustained and fearsome white water in the world. There were plenty more rapids to come.

I had come to the Gauley (pronounced "golly") for three days of rafting and camping enough time, I hoped, to get a feel for what many people consider to be one of our country's wildest thrill rides, Disneyland be damned. My hosts were an outdoor clothing and camping-equipment company,a white-water rafting outfitter and the state of West Virginia.
Since its inception, West Virginia has been a state by and for iconoclasts. Born against the backdrop of the Civil War, the state came to be when the residents of a portion of Virginia decided they disagreed with the war being waged by the Confederacy and declared themselves independent. This independence of spirit lives on: "People call us hillbillies," said one West Virginia native. "But that's not really accurate. We're anarchists."
If anarchism is, as Bertrand Russell defined it, a hatred of "system and organization and authority," then the love West Virginians feel toward the Gauley River makes perfect sense. The Gauley is nothing if not anarchic, rebelling against all constraints, taking out anything in its path. Even boulders are not immune to the Gauley's rage.
"Pretty much every rock you see sticking up out of the water here has been undercut," Andrew warned before our first day on the river. "That means that the water has eroded them out from underneath. Makes for a real nasty underwater trap. Whenever the riverbed's dry, when they cut off the flow from the dam, you can come and see all the junk caught underneath the boulders. Trees, trash, bears, deer. People, too."
Although deaths are rare on the Gauley, I couldn't help but feel nervous when I gathered with my rafting mates at the base of the Summersville Dam during the first day of our trip. (Incidentally, the dam was originally to be named the Gad Dam, after the town that was subsumed by the lake it created. Local legend has it that when President Lyndon Johnson flew down to inaugurate the dam in 1966, he balked at the notion of christening the structure with a name that could be mistaken for an expletive.) Although the dam is immense, almost 400 feet tall, it seemed like just a shoddy stable holding back a raging beast, a beast I'd be riding for the next three days.

White-water rafting is an exercise in controlled chaos. You can't really fight the river, but if you're good you can learn to read it and pick the routes that will minimize your sogginess quotient. I'm not good. I can't tell an eddy from a waterfall. Luckily for me, my river guide's expertise more than counterbalanced my ignorance. With Andrew at the helm, I didn't have to do much more than paddle blindly at his command. Paddle forward. Paddle backward. Paddle hard. Paddle soft. Rest.
Miraculously, our raft stayed upright as we cruised through the Gauley's relentless series of class V rapids, the highest class of rapids considered navigable.
With Andrew taking care of the navigational duties, I was free to take in my surroundings. Between our start at the Summersville Dam and our pullout three days later, the Gauley cut a path through 20 miles of lush forest and towering cliffs, affording a seemingly endless procession of postcard-perfect views. In the idle times between rapids, I fell into a sort of somnolent bliss, craning my neck back and watching gangly turkey vultures and nimble raptors fighting above us.
Of course, spending time outdoors never fails to build up an appetite, and luckily our rafting company never failed to deliver a delicious feast. For lunch, we'd simply pull over to the side of the river and pounce on the coolers full of deli-quality sandwich fare that we'd brought with us. Three types of bread, all sorts of cheese, a variety of cold cuts, heaps of potato salad and a mountain of chocolate-pudding cake.
Breakfast and dinner were even better. Our campsite, a tranquil spot nestled in the forest, was tricked out with a full kitchen, and the river guides knew how to use it. In the evening, we'd gorge ourselves on shish kebab, salad and beer. By morning we'd be ready for scrambled eggs and bacon, with a side of buttermilk biscuits ladled with impossibly rich sausage gravy.
Apart from its culinary treats, our campsite afforded some of the most comfortable outdoor accommodations I'd ever experienced. The clothing and camping-equipment company had sent along some of its clothing, tents and sleeping bags. Really good outdoor gear is like really good stereo equipment: You don't miss it until you've tried it, and then you can't imagine how you ever went without it.
Sleeping in the belly of my tent, nestled in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, swaddled in my long underwear, I felt prenatally cozy. The comfort didn't end with daybreak, either. My clothing worked well on the river as well. Most impressive was a skintight top made of a high-tech fabric that kept me uncannily dry. Even after I took a quick dip in the river in one of the calmer sections of the river, the shirt sucked all the water away from my skin within about two minutes of my clambering back into the boat.
At the end of our three-day trip, I was exhausted but still hadn't quite quenched my thirst for the rapids. I decided to stick around for a few days and watch the World Rafting Championships, which were taking place in West Virginia for the first time. Teams from all over the world had come to the Gauley to test their mettle against the rapids that had left me as shaken and stirred as James Bond's favorite drink.
I asked a member of the Costa Rican team how the Gauley compared with other rivers he'd rafted on, and he smiled.
"The Gauley is very, very tough," he said. "It's like an unforgiving woman. Make a single mistake, and she'll dump you in a second."

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