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Woman overboard: Kiplinger swept away by the thrill of Gauley River

Thursday, Aug. 14 | By Lisa Kiplinger
Lisa Kiplinger and her crew will take on West Virginia's Gauley River again this year, after their thrilling whitewater baptism in 2013. --Courtesy photo
The raging Gauley River has just bucked me off my raft and sucked me into its depths, swishing me around like a mouthful of Listerine before spitting me out downstream. I emerge unscathed, exuberant and feeling deliciously alive. It’s a ride I’ll never forget.

For just six weekends every fall, the floodgates on the dam at Summersville Lake open, stoking 25 miles of world-class West Virginia rapids. This year’s season starts Sept. 5 and runs through Oct. 19.

So you’ve just got time to grab a paddle and take the plunge. Based on an overnight trip I took last September, here’s what you’d be in for.

Reporting for splash duty

Full of butterflies, I report with about 45 other rafters at 8 a.m. sharp to ACE Adventure Resort near Beckley, W.Va. With me in my testosterone-heavy crew, ranging in age from 15 to 50-something, are my husband, brother-in-law, a nephew and a buddy and his son.

Our trip leader is a tan, pony-tailed fashion statement named Zach, wearing a seersucker suit that probably was quite sharp about 20 years ago. No shirt, despite the 45-degree morning, just the pants and a vest.

He plays a video that basically says if you’re not up for some extreme water, get out now. We sign a four-page waiver, don wetsuits, get PFDs, helmets and paddles and board the bus for a 45-minute jaunt to the put-in spot, the waters just below Summersville Dam.

Here we meet our raft’s guide for the weekend. I expect a manly man, but we get a pigtailed granola girl named Karen. She probably doesn’t weigh more than 115 pounds, and she has on rainbow-colored knee socks and a skirt. What I don’t know is that while I’m sizing her up, she’s sizing us up at the same time, getting a feel for how big a thrill we’re up for.

As ACE general manager Dave Bassage explains, guides need to be experts not only at navigating rapids, but reading people, so the guides can give them “the appropriate experience, from the rapids they run to the jokes they tell.”

For example, ACE will take out a college fraternity looking for a big ride one day and a church group the next. Looking back, judging by the high-powered ride we got, Karen must have rated us more frat party than church group. I’ll take that as a compliment.

Our raft is a 14-footer — more maneuverable than the 16-footers often used but less gung-ho than the more flip-able 12-footers real thrill seekers ride — and there are no seats. You perch one butt cheek on the edge so you can lean out and paddle, wedging your feet in seams inside the raft to keep from tumbling overboard.

We have about two minutes to practice paddling before we hit our first rapid, a fun little Class III named Rescue that leaves us happily soaked. The water was billed as 55 degrees, but we’re lucky: It’s more like 65.

Quite a river

There are more than 40 rapids from Class III to V+ on the Upper Gauley alone. Class V is defined by the Bureau of Land Management as “Exceedingly difficult, long and violent. … All possible precautions must be taken.”

Is there a Class VI? Yes, according to Karen: It’s called Niagara Falls.

Not long after our launch, a little rapid named French Kiss baptizes our first “swimmer” of the trip, my husband, and Fauquier Times Sports Editor, Peter Brewington. It isn’t a very intense stretch of water, but the boat zigs, he zags and then flops into the water where he floats leisurely until we pluck him out, laughing.

On we go, through tranquil canyons, followed by roaring falls. Any quiet, wide stretch of water is followed by huge rapids formed as the river narrows and gushes over and between rocks. As we approach each one, Karen explains what our line needs to be, warns us of the deadly undercut rocks and recirculating “holes” to avoid and instructs us where to swim if we got tossed: left, right or back to the boat.

How to tackle a Class V

When it comes to serious rapids, we slowly creep up on them. Karen directs us to paddle “Forward one (stroke). Forward two. Back left.” We drift toward the front lip of the drop, and then Karen yells, “Forward!”

You attack the wave before it attacks you. Sometimes you reach out with the paddle and hit only air because there’s nothing under you as your rise airborne Then you’re plunging straight down, and at the bottom you smack face-first into a wall of water. Imagine sitting side-saddle on a rubber bucking bronco with a fire hose blasting you, and nothing to hang on to.

As the first day and the first 17 miles of the Upper Gauley wind down, we’re feeling good. The nerves are gone, replaced by pure excitement. We’ve ridden Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle and Shipwreck with no casualties.

But then comes the dreaded Fuzzy Box of Kittens.

Karen warns us that Fuzzy Box, although it’s a Class III, is legendary for knocking people out. Sure enough, two of our crew, my brother-in-law Will Brewington, a chemist from Ellicott City, Md., and Fauquier High rising junior Nathan Harpole, become the Kittens’ latest victims.

Our raft slides down into the rapid sideways, and as the left side dips, a wave flushes them right out.

It happens in a blink. The moment you’re swept away, completely out of control, is an immediate sensory-overload experience and an exhilarating rush at the same time.

Look out below

Nathan’s dad, Doug Harpole — director of the Northern Virginia 4-H Education Center in Front Royal —- is our next victim on a lengthy Class IV called Wood’s Ferry.

Just as we crest the first set of falls, I look to my left, and Doug’s gone — right at the very top of Wood’s Ferry. He’s in for a lonely ride down about 300 yards of furious water, over several small falls and one big one, an 11-foot drop called Elevator Shaft. We can only sit and watch the top of Doug’s yellow helmet bob up out of the churning water and then back out of sight as the river crashes over him.

He keeps his cool, points his feet downstream, keeps them high (so they don’t get pinned under any rocks) and even keeps hold of his paddle the whole way.

Before we’re even out of the rapid, our guide is on her feet, throwing a bag of rope at Doug’s head, a direct shot. We reel him in fast. How often does she has to do that? “About once a year,” Karen says.

As Harpole, an experienced outdoorsman, later says, he was in “complete, relaxed safety mode.” And while he was never afraid, “I must admit, I did spend a lot of time underwater.”

Welcome to camp

We float up to our campsite. Described in literature as “primitive,” it’s simple to be sure. The tents are do-it-yourselfers. There is a cozy bonfire on the beach, port-a-potties, some picnic tables and a nice rustic bar-and-grill.

The moment you peel off your soggy, cold suits and snuggle into dry long underwear is exquisite. Everyone hangs up their suits on clotheslines draped all over the campsite. The guides grill up fat steaks with all the fixings. I’m so pooped I can’t even stay up long enough for the s’mores. I put on a ski cap over my damp hair. It’s in the upper 40s, but the flannel-lined sleeping bags get the job done.

Good morning: Day 2

The next morning the river is misty and quiet. There’s no reason to get moving early because you have to wait for the water upstream from the 6 a.m. dam release to flow all the way to the Lower Gauley. You can actually see the river rise a good couple of feet. So we have a leisurely breakfast of Western omelets and suit up. Putting on clammy swimsuits in the 50-degree morning is only momentarily dreadful.

Back in the rafts for 10 more miles of watery fun. The rapids on the Lower Gauley are more roller-coastery, and we’re getting to be pros at this point. Famous last words.

An encounter with the ‘Hell Hole’

As we approach the last big rapid of the trip, my nephew Chris Brewington — a teacher and head track coach at Wilde Lake High in Columbia, Md. — and I gloat over the fact that we are the only ones to avoid taking a swim the whole trip.

But Pure Screaming Hell has me in its sights.

Hydraulic holes stud the Class V like landmines before it careens into a series of rocky drops leading to a hungry, gaping mouth at the bottom called "Hell Hole."

Karen screams, “Forward!” We paddle like mad. I dig in with all I’ve got. Down we shoot, through the technically tricky sections, missing all the obstacles we’ve been warned about, except for the very last one: Hell Hole.

Our raft plunges over a fall and nose-dives straight into the eye-wall at the bottom. The force folds the front of the boat in on itself and throws us backward.

“I better surface soon, or this is it,” Peter recalls thinking.

When he finally bobs up, his brother, Will, snatches him out and drags him back in. Meanwhile, I’m way downstream, having ridden the rest of Pure Screaming Hell solo. It’s like surfing inside a washing machine, and it’s frightening.

I swim like crazy back to the raft, and Karen pulls me in. I flop around on the bottom of the boat, unable to even sit up I’m so exhausted. Now that I’m safe, the fright’s gone, replaced by pure elation. What a blast.

So, Chris earns the distinction of being the last man standing, or I should say, sitting.

Undaunted but respectful of the Gauley, we’re definitely going back this year. And this time, Chris will be going for a swim, too. No way he beats this river a second time. And if he does, then he’s missing out: A free fall on the Gauley is a thrill you’ll never forget.

NOTE: Interested in rafting the Gauley next month? Three prominent companies include:

-- ACE Adventure Resort http://www.aceraft.com

-- Adventures on the Gorge http://www.adventuresonthegorge.com

-- River Expeditions http://www.raftinginfo.com

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