April 2008 Issue
A River Runs Through It
A whitewater-rafting adventure allows a father and his kids to spend quality time while basking in the history and beauty of West Virginia.
Eddie Condran and fellow rafter Trent Murphy ride aboard the historic bateau.“It would be like going back in history, but without a time machine. ”That was how I pitched a whitewater rafting and camping trip in the wilds of West Virginia to my 8-year-old daughter, Jillian, and 6-year-old son, Eddie.
“Cool,” Jillian said, a broad smile spreading across her angular face. Her brother was immediately interested, too: He’d seen video footage of his father navigating some rigorous Class V rapids on that state’s Upper Gauley River earlier in the year. But Eddie’s grin turned into a frown when I informed him that our journey wouldn’t be as intense.
“Will it still be fun?” he asked.
All it took was a few minutes of paging through a brochure of our three-day, two-night expedition through the southeastern part of the Mountain State –– a vacation that, according to the colorful materials provided by Lansing, West Virginia-based outfitter Class VI River Runners, promised plenty of adventure and opportunities to bask in the region’s unspoiled beauty. Before I knew it, Eddie’s skepticism was gone.
“This,” he said, “will be awesome.”
The serene New River Gorge National River is a favored spot for outdoors enthusiasts, lured by its majestic views and reputation as a rafting mecca. Whitewater fun beneath the summer sun appealed to my children. Witnessing such remnants of our industrial revolution as Silo’s Rapid, where Henry Ford established the glass-making operation for his motor company, attracted me.
While most of the folks who head toward the Upper Gauley and the Lower New River are adrenaline junkies aiming for the rugged Class V rapids, the more mellow excursions that wind through select parts of the West Virginia waterways are perfect for young paddlers and beginners. For families, the adventures often seem like a soothing balm for their overly stimulated souls: It’s a welcome opportunity to bond amid Mother Nature’s picture-perfect work, outside the reach of computers, Hannah Montana reruns and cell-phone reception.
I was born to spend considerable time in remote areas; one of my favorite sojourns was a solo run through northeastern Nebraska and the Badlands, where it was heaven to be cut off from civilization. But my daughter, who can always be found crowned with a pair of headphones as her fingers pound away at a keyboard, is like many contemporary tweens: She’s so plugged-in, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a news ticker crawling across her chin.
However, part of the magic of embarking on a trip with Jillian and Eddie was discovering my children’s interests and capabilities in lush West Virginia.
Our 10-boat group, which included other families and Class VI River Runners’ expert guides, began our sojourn at gorgeous Sandstone, where we witnessed enough striking scenes to make a photo album full of vacation memories. Eagles, falcons and hawks soared above the pristine landscape, while deer and butterflies frolicked openly on the riverbanks. My daughter swears she saw a bobcat in the distance –– possible, since wildcats and black bear are known to lurk in the West Virginia wilderness (but are usually too shy to show themselves to humans).
However, the graceful, 40-foot-long wooden boat that floated on the warm, still waters, ready to accompany us on our 30-mile trip downstream –– that was a sight altogether different.
The bateau hasn’t been a staple on the rivers of the mid-Atlantic for 160 years, since the advent of canals and the railroad. Its original purpose was hauling tobacco down the James River to Richmond markets, but due to its ability to easily run over shoals (where a keeled boat had to be carried), the flat-bottomed craft proved useful in hauling a wide variety of goods on shallow rivers.
Now, Class VI was including the vessel in its family trips.
“It makes the adventure more interesting, and it creates some living history,” says company owner Dave Arnold. “People have been running these rivers for hundreds of years, and they did it in a bateau.”
We slipped on our life jackets and helmets and headed out for a 15-minute introduction to our kayaks, also called duckies, and instruction on how to properly paddle. It’s never a good idea to venture down rapids without a professional, since the Upper New River can get dicey. Plus, guides offer critical tips in case of trouble. For instance, if you become a “swimmer” — what you’re dubbed when the water’s force throws you from your kayak ––the guides teach you to keep your feet up to avoid entrapment or bumps and bruises caused by rocks.
After our session, it was time to make our way down the river. Jillian shared her ducky with a staffer named Carla, who quickly became her new best friend for the journey.
It didn’t take long for my daughter to become a “swimmer.” Eddie and I were about 60 feet ahead of Jillian and Carla, who were pulling up the rear of the group, when Jillian fell headfirst out of her kayak during our second rapid.
My daughter is one of the better members of her swim team back at home, so she had no problem making it back into her boat, even while holding on to her paddle.
Meanwhile, Eddie and I were cautious –– but that doesn’t mean we steered clear of trouble.
I learned that you should always keep a respectful distance from the bateau. At one point, I tried to move our kayak to the left of the long vessel, but the rapid pulled us toward it. I shouted out to bateau captain Michael Neal, who fortunately heard our call. He skillfully averted a crash by grabbing our kayak, then pushing it away as the bateau continued to venture ahead of us, allowing me and my son to trail behind, safely out of striking distance.
We worked up a healthy appetite piloting our kayaks downstream amid blazing heat. Thankfully, one of the great benefits of navigating West Virginia’s rivers is that a number of adventure-oriented companies offer upscale treatment and gourmet meals. So, when it’s time to dine, you hardly have to rough it.
A raft stacked high with coolers full of food and beverages carried our riverside cuisine, floating safely down the river along with our clothing and camping gear so it wouldn’t get wet.
Lunch hit the spot: a deli-style spread of savory wraps, ham, turkey and cheeses, paired with pasta salad and lemonade and a dessert of bread pudding.
Just as enjoyable as our meals was the man responsible for them: a folksy, fast-talking and charismatic guide/chef who everyone called Squirrel –– a man who seemed to know as much about the river as a lifelong park ranger. The river’s low water levels meant that during each day of our expedition, we wouldn’t arrive at camp until just before dusk. We unloaded and set up our tents while there was still light; Squirrel prepared our dinners as darkness descended.
Wine and cheese as appetizers for the adults, steak, chicken, pork and pasta as entrees for all –– Squirrel turned out restaurant-worthy fare with a makeshift kitchen that included a hefty Dutch oven and a variety of propane-powered grilles.
During the last whitewater run of our trip, Jillian asked if she could relax on the old-fashioned bateau. After all, she’d proven to be a bona fide river rat throughout the three days.
However, we were about to face the most challenging rapid of our vacation –– complete with jagged rocks and undercuts –– so I instructed her to stay put.
Throughout our whitewater journey, I wore a wrist camera that stayed affixed to my person. Until now. As soon as we entered the rapid, a wave lifted our kayak and my camera went flying off my wrist. I spotted it in the water and quickly paddled toward it. But I realized that I wouldn’t be able to reach it, so I decided to veer the kayak to the left, placing myself in position for the camera to come floating directly to me.
“Rock!” Jillian yelled from the front of the kayak as we bore down on a huge boulder. As we hit it dead on, Jillian’s knees hit the instructed formation –– but I popped up in the air like a cork. Somehow, I landed back in the kayak, and we survived my mistake.
“Daddy, I told you that I wanted to go to the bateau!” Jillian said angrily.
But I explained that we couldn’t end on a bad note. We were going to experience three more rapids before she could abandon her post.
A Class VI staffer named Jen diffused the tense situation by whispering something amusing into Jillian’s ear, making her laugh. I was in the middle of asking Jillian what was so funny, when a helmet’s worth of river water came splashing down on top of me, courtesy of Jen. It lightened the mood, and my daughter tackled her three additional rapids before finally handing in her paddle.
Throughout our excursion, each of us marveled at West Virginia’s beauty and the wealth of history observed while on the water, such as the old railroad depots of the great American Industrial era. It was fascinating watching the civilization we left behind each time a freight train roared along tracks that the legendary John Henry helped lay.
Our trek ended at Cunard, once the site of a mining camp owned by the Cunard Shipping Line and the source of the world’s highest-grade coal.
“It’s like the olden days around here,” said Eddie, taking in his surroundings. “Like even before Grandpa was around.”
With today’s overload of technology, it seems like there are fewer and fewer reminders of America’s rich past –– or, at least, opportunities for families to revel in them together.
But thanks to our adventurous whitewater rafting trip, my family has a lasting appreciation of both the history and the beauty that exists along West Virginia’s New River. Ed Condran and daughter Jillian make their way down the rapids.One of West Virginia’s greatest natural resources also serves as its most beloved travel lure: its scenic rivers. The state features an abundance of companies that allow thrill seekers to make the most of their whitewater getaway.
Ace Adventure Center
Hundreds of miles of waterways form the back yard of Ace Adventure Center, meaning both experienced and novice paddlers find more than enough adrenaline-pumping fun. Whitewater rafting opportunities abound, but the 1,400-acre center distinguishes itself with an all-around approach to family entertainment: The property includes elegant cabins and chalets, a Lakeside Dining Lodge, the Lost Paddle Lounge and amenities such as Aqua-Jump water trampolines and massage therapists. 888/223-7238, www.aceraft.com
Class VI River Runners
Class VI’s professionals guide guests through scenic water sojourns that feature a variety of attractive extras, such as those available with the Lower New River Sunset package: a three- to five-hour trip that includes lunch at Chetty’s Pub and dinner at Smokey’s On the Gorge. 800/252-7784, www.class-vi.com
New & Gauley River
This company’s location, right off Interstate 64, means guests are at their launching point as soon as they arrive at the company’s base. And with such appealing accents as log-cabin lodging and adventure activities that include horseback riding and all-terrain vehicle expeditions, the company puts the best of West Virginia on display, both on the rapids and away from the water. 800/822-1FUN, www.rafttoday.com
From April through late October, Extreme Expeditions offers an array of adventures, including family-friendly Scenic Float Trips, perfect for ages six and up; and Whitewater Challenges on the Upper Gauley River, intense excursions that beckon serious paddlers, ages 16 and up. 800/463-9873, www.goextreme.com