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!
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