Gauley River rafting en famille

Several years ago we took a family trip that included me, Mark (husband), the boys (Burke and Tyler), Bill (the ex-husband and the boys’ father) and Stephanie, Bill’s girlfriend. Friends commented that this might make a great plot for a sitcom. If only they knew.

Sunday, October 10, was Burke’s 16th birthday. We drove to West Virginia in two cars and Bill and Steph ingeniously decided to take her car, which only fits 2 adults and one small dog, which meant that both boys rode with us in my Lexus. For five hours. On the morning following the Homecoming dance, meaning that the boys between them had gotten about three hours of sleep. It was joyous, seriously.

When we arrived at the North American River Rafting Adventures site, we set up tents, scoped out the location of the bathrooms, went to dinner at a really bad Mexican restaurant where I managed to procure the last glass of Sangria in existence in the state, and bought two bundles of firewood at the Kmart located next to the restaurant. When Bill walked in to Kmart and asked where the firewood was located, he was told “In the electronics section.” I am not kidding. (West Virginia, do you set yourself up on purpose?)

One of the BEST parts of the trip, the six of us sitting around the campfire and sharing stories about the boys. Singing Happy Birthday to Burke, and bringing out 6 cupcakes, each with a candle burning on it. Watching Tyler burn marshmallows in the campfire. Excellent times.

The next morning we checked in to the rafting operation, and received our safety and liability lecture. Not once, not twice, but three times we were told that participants in this activity were at risk of serious injury, paralysis, and death. I wondered if we were collectively being bad parents by subjecting our children to such horrible risks, not to mention wondering if were crazy to agree to this plan. (Whose plan was this anyway???) How many parents celebrate their child’s 16th birthday by attempting to drown him?

We got our gear, including wetsuits which are worn over UnderArmour cold weather clothing, so that you can remove hypothermia from your list of worries for the day. For those of you who know me well, I carry Chapstick at all times and use it religiously. Wetsuits do not have pockets. Tip for the day ladies: If you wear a sports bra, the design and action of such a garment creates a sort of pocket in the front and center of one’s chest, where one can store small crucial items such as Chapstick, sunglasses, camera, last will and testament, etc.

We met Sunshine, our raft guide for the day. Sunshine is of indeterminate age, blond, the epitome of relaxed. When he is not a rafting guide, he leads ski adventure trips in Oregon. Or works on his friend’s farm in New Mexico. He gave us instructions and how to work together. He told us what to do if we fell out of the boat. “Swim back to the boat.” He did not appear concerned that four out of the six of us had never been on the Gauley and were about to face some of the most dangerous “Class 5” rapids in the world equipped only with a rubber raft and paddles. I learned later that when he described something as “weird”, what he meant was “life-threatening”. As in “when we approach the next rapid, we need to avoid being swept into that hole on the left, or things might get a little weird.” His casual confidence makes sure that customers actually get IN the boat, after sitting through the aforementioned liability discussion which focused on serious injury, paralysis, and death.

We set off, for about three hours of craziness, then stopped for lunch on the riverbank, then another two hours or so of slightly less dangerous craziness.  We have photos documenting the earlier death-defying portion of the day.

Our group did exceedingly well, probably because we are all physically fit, well-disciplined (when Sunshine shouted LEFT BACK PADDLE TWO!! that meant at that instant, and we complied) and of course we all love and care for each other and were there to have a good time. Which explains why when I had a small mishap at the final Class 5, and somebody’s paddle or helmet or something cracked my cranium and I started bleeding into my eyes and onto the floor of the boat, our well-disciplined crew somewhat disintegrated into disorder because they got DISTRACTED.

I was, at that moment, less distracted than disoriented, since it felt like someone threw a boulder at my head in the middle of our descent into the churning mass of water, plus when Sunshine shouted GET DOWN at the last moment before plunging over the rock edge, I assumed that he meant we were going to die if we didn’t follow his instructions.

Amazingly, we all stayed in the boat during that particularly fun episode, but as I said we all got a little discombobulated when Stephanie noticed that I was oozing. Sunshine was understandably frustrated because we had survived the drop of death, but seemingly abandoned our posts before completing the follow-through, which involved paddling in avoidance of a very large (about the size of a bungalow) rock that still threatened to eliminate a good portion of our combined families at one time. Sunshine earned his tip for sure while he almost single-handedly steered us away from this hazard and toward the opposite bank, admonishing our apparent inattention during a critical moment.

When I turned to face him, he definitely looked surprised, but said in his hippie fashion “Oh! Got a bleeder!” Mark proceeded to plug the hole by sticking his thumb into my skull and lifting me out of the raft onto shore, where lunch was planned. I tried not to remember that one of the topics during our earlier liability discussion was the possibility of getting an infection from some sort of fresh-water micro-organism (or as Mark said “micro-orgasm”), but anyway, a little neosporin and a big bandaid (and lots of Ibuprofen later) and I’m sure the scarring won’t be permanent.

All of the rapids have cute names, the aforementioned called something like “Sweet Falls”, but our only actual overboard event occurred at a rapid called “Fuzzy Box of Kittens” (no lie) where we went sideways into some sort of biblical confluence of rocks, water, and current, and Bill literally disappeared before our eyes as he went backwards into the river. Followed by long long moments of OHMYGOD because he didn’t come up forEVER. Turns out he was UNDER the boat and had to walk himself out hand over hand until he could come out again. That was the only time we had complete and utter silence on that raft for the entire trip, and it was a very long 15 seconds or so, until he was dragged back onto the boat by Mark, who was no doubt thankful that he didn’t have to jump in and look for him.

One final moment of sheer terror was still in store, and that was the bus trip from the river take-out point back up to civilization. The buses used for these trips are retired and repurposed school buses, from an earlier era, and they are driven by fearless men who in previous lifetimes operated aircraft carriers. The driver had to turn the bus around with a cliff on one side looking over the river and get us repositioned onto a rock-strewn “road” leading up for a few miles at a 30-degree angle with switchbacks and precipitous drops at every turn. This part of the trip was not mentioned on the brochure, I can assure you. No wonder the guides offer a cooler full of beer as you get on the bus!

But anyway, we survived! We had a great time, and all of our lives are surely enriched by the experience. The boys now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we really will risk our lives for them, and I highly recommend to other families (of all persuasions) the benefits of such team-building exercises. As is the case with most such experiences, its appeal is growing as the hours pass, and while yesterday I may have said “I’ll NEVER do this again!”, today I am not so sure. Bill has suggested sky-diving for this time next year. 🙂





Just getting started…

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Tomorrow I’ll work some more on making this site look pretty, but today all I want to do is force myself to click “publish”.

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