Want to know what it was like battling the big, big water of West Virginia's Gauley River during dam release season? Check out the video below, which shows me and dozens of others getting mercilessly pummeled by this rocking and raging river. Thanks to Adventures on the Gorge for the awesome video - and the images here and elsewhere on the site.
Sometimes a picture really IS worth a thousand words. Especially when it's midnight, you're squirreled away inside the Laurel Oasis Travel Plaza in Laurel, Delaware, sucking up wifi while some deeply shady miscreants watch football across the room while debating whether or not you'd put up too big a fight to make it worth the trouble when they try to shove you in their license plate-less white rental van out in the parking lot. Okay, maybe I'm being a BIT dramatic, but it's late, I'm exhausted and I have to be up at 8 tomorrow morning to go hiking. There is no way I can effectively string together a sentence describing my experience rafting the Gauley tonight so instead, here are some killer pictures. I gently encourage you to check out MY TOTALLY RIPPED RIGHT ARM IN THAT FIRST PHOTO. It would be epically badass if not for the image following it, which kind of negates the whole effect - you know, the one of me getting face-hugged by a giant freaking wave.
I'm bruised, cut, scraped and sunburned. I have so many mosquito bites I honestly can't count them all, although I know they number far less than the freckles that have spread across my shoulders and back, arms and chest. There are blisters dotting the palms of my hands from holding my paddle a total of, as best I can figure it, about 12 hours in two days. My hair has faded to a coppery blonde from submersion in sun and river water and the cuticles of my toenails, despite a good scrubbing in the shower this evening, are still encrusted with grime from the banks of the Gauley. I'm eight hours out of the New River Gorge area of West Virginia and I still feel feral - unkempt, untamed, powerful and maybe even a bit dangerous. I've been to where the real wild things are, to the real rumpus, and I've brought it back with me. Within me.
I've spent the past day and a half rafting the Gauley River with Adventures on the Gorge, the premiere outfitter/guide service/resort in not just New River Gorge but maybe the entire eastern half of the United States. They know the Gorge like no other company, including the infamous Gauley. During the five weeks or so in September and October when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from the Summersville Dam into the Gauley, it becomes one of the top ten whitewater rivers in the world. Only experienced paddlers in good physical condition are encouraged to tackle its more than 100 rapids. Five of those rapids - all located on the Upper Gauley - are designated Class V, the most extreme whitewater commercial rafting companies are permitted to navigate. The Gauley is not to be trifled with; guides don't joke about this river and they won't let their clients make light of it, either. They know it has terrible lessons to teach those who don't respect it.
Before sitting down in our raft's right front position I didn't just respect the Gauley. I was more or less scared to death of it. I'd paddled the New the day before as a practice run for the Gauley and even offered to sit up front when no one else in my group volunteered. The New was far lower and slower than the spring day seven years ago when it ejected me out of my raft - twice - as casually as a sun-addled lion flicking a flea from its fur. I'd done well paddling the mostly Class IIIs and a few IVs this go-round, which had helped relieve a bit of my anxiety. But I knew the Gauley was a far different beast than the New.
But when the time came to put into the Gauley I still jumped in the front of raft, the spot where the water would hit hardest and where I'd have to work hardest, too. (There's no draft in this position - the front paddler actually provides the draft for the people behind them, so to do well here you need not only a certain bit of fortitude but also no small amount of strength.) I took that seat because it wasn't enough for me to simply face my fear of wild water, an unwelcome hangover from that first trip on the New and the strange hesitancy that seemed to infect my life during the years I lived with T. I needed to eradicate it. If I could take on the Gauley, if I could actually beat that raging, churning, thrashing, bashing utterly savage slice of water, maybe I could start to win back my self-esteem, which had evaporated so slowly during my relationship with the man I once believed was the love of my life that at the time I never took note of its departure.
And so I got in the front of the raft. I didn't pause, didn't stop to ponder just what in the hell I was thinking, didn't ask myself if I was sure I wanted to do this. I just got in, sat down, gripped my paddle and started to push it through the water. It's difficult to remember with any cohesion what happened the rest of the afternoon. My memories are still photographs, blurry and waterlogged, simple, ragged snapshots of the beauty which surrounded our raft - the magnificent forest which crept to the river's edge, prickly with broken trees and vegetation so dense I imagined creatures long extinct peering at me through the leaves. And the river itself, glinting in the sunlight, a deep and mysterious green in the calm expanses, where butterflies danced above our heads and flirting damselflies alighted on our still paddles, on our knees and outstretched wrists.
These moments come back with far greater clarity than the time in the rapids, when the world becomes water. You lose your ability to think there, or even process emotion. There is only the Gauley's roar, the feel of it - a living thing, you are later sure, something this ruthless must be sentient - pounding your body. There are seconds. perhaps when the raft crests a wave, when you're able to take a breath, to clearly hear your guide's screams to paddle forward, or reverse, or stop, stop STOP paddling. But then you are back down in the trough and you are a thing, a creature as primal as the river itself, whose only instinct is to remain in this boat that is swirling and twirling and soaring and crashing through as much air as water.
Rafting the Gauley was perhaps the most purely fun thing I have ever done in my life.
Want to read more? Hang on tight, Part II is on its way!
I'm getting stronger. At least physically. Emotionally...well, hell. If every day isn't a battle, it's a skirmish. But my body is changing. I feel it in the way I move, with an ease and pleasure I haven't experienced in years, since I stopped walking regularly. That almost daily, two mile stomp lost to depression and then inertia after I moved in with T. He hated me out in Knoxville at night, alone. But I'd long loved walking under the stars, did it in the quiet of my parents' neighborhood before I moved down south. Sometimes 10, 11 o'clock, I'd venture out, just me and the moon and the sound of the trees ticking in the breeze. The whole world felt like a secret then, whispered just to me.
But Knoxville's concrete didn't have any mysteries - at least none I cared to solve - and the walking fell away. I still don't walk at night, though now there is no one to tsk-tsk at me over its risks. To do so might remind me too much of T, of all the ways I frustrated and disappointed him, and besides, I don't need to - my training at Victory with Steve is returning fitness to me.
I recently hiked five miles of local Appalachian forest, the trail taking me alongside mossy, chuckling streams and through glens where ancient mountain laurel loomed overhead, twining together, dense and fearsome. Graceful snakes slithered here and there, peeking out from under slender ferns, while butterflies gamboled overhead. And not one muscle in my body twinged. Nothing ached that day, or the one after, but my eyes, tender from crying, and fragile heart.
On Tuesday I begin a two-week ramble through West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. We'll soon see exactly how much my body has evolved under Steve's guidance. I'll be rock climbing, paddle boarding and zip lining with Adventures on the Gorge in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia, a place I adore, that I've to returned to over and over again. It was where I discovered my love of adventure sports, and where I nearly drowned my first time white water rafting, when I was swept out of and then under the boat in a Class V rapid on the New River.
Since that day my response to any body of water bigger than than a swimming pool has ranged from mild unease to outright terror, depending on its tranquility. I honestly have no idea how I'm going to cope on the two-day paddle we're taking down the Gauley River, the New's angrier, more brutal sister. One of the world's most violent waterways during dam release season, as it is now, the Gauley's been dubbed by river rats the Beast of the East.
I am taking this trip because it is no longer only water which frightens me. It's the fear of living out the rest of my life never feeling again the way I did with T. Of never loving again, and being loved. It's the fear of losing my parents, the last of my family. Sometimes I wonder, daring myself to ponder the inconceivable, how long I have left with them. I live with them. What will happen to me when they're gone? How will I endure their loss? How will I survive adding it to the collection of mean little tragedies I'm too quickly amassing? There is only me left to pack up the house, to get it ready to turn over to the bank. When I try to think about doing that alone, my mind skitters to a stop. I think it's to prevent me from going mad.
I'm taking this trip because I'm already drowning. I'm taking this trip because there is no one left to save me but me. I'm taking this trip because I believe it will help return a small, precious part of myself I lost, or, more precisely, abandoned these last few years. This trip is what I believe they call in rafting a self-rescue, the first of many I'll attempt.
T famously rafted the Gauley once, during his long-ago grad school days. He had a couple posters of the river pinned up in our kitchen in Knoxville. We had the opportunity to tackle it together a few years ago, when two spots opened up on a rafting trip while we were visiting the area. We didn't do it. It would be too exhausting we said, to raft for hours and then drive home to Tennessee. And T told me - as he had told me many times before that day and would tell me many times after - that he worried about me on the Gauley.
"It's big water, baby girl," he said. "It's dangerous."
I told him that I needed to raft it, that I wanted to get over my fear. But I tucked his concern away inside me, thrilled and touched that he loved me so much he was afraid for my safety, each time we discussed the Gauley growing a bit more at ease with the idea that rafting it was a challenge I shouldn't face - much like skydiving.
A few birthdays ago, when we were still in Knoxville, T had given me a certificate to parachute out of a plane as a present. He'd done it once upon a time, and he knew that I wanted to try it, too. When I opened the card holding the certificate he said, "Now, I'm not really comfortable with this. I'm not sure I want you doing it." And again I thrilled to hear the love, the apprehension in his voice. And somehow that skydiving trip never quite materialized.
I don't really know what happened to me in those years with T, why my nerve increasingly failed me, why I began to believe myself weak, incapable. The answer isn't as simple as his coddling concern for me, which, though it rankled a bit, also made me feel protected. Cherished. But I am no longer willing to live my life an eroded version of the woman I used to be. In West Virginia, I'll be rafting some of the nastiest white water in the world. In Delaware, I'll be skydiving. And I'll have stepped a bit further down the path leading to Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. They're still waiting for me, my mountains, quietly, with terrible patience.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included