By Meghan McCloskey, Taking the Kids Correspondent
The sun is warming us with brief guest appearances through the clouds, and the cool river water running though the deep canyon is not too high but not too low. The conditions are perfect for a day of whitewater rafting on West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River with River Expeditions outfitters. I understand why the area is considered a national treasure with its gorgeous tree covered mountains and rocky cliffs. Along with six rafters and one seasoned guide, I am anxious to conquer some of the country’s most exhilarating rapids.
We spend the morning on the Upper New River, which is actually quite lazy with rapids that rank in lower end of the spectrum, mostly Class II on a scale of I-VI. This allows us to get used to paddling in synch and following the commands of Darr, our trusted guide. The only wildcard rapid was aptly named- Surprise- and it sure did seem to come out of nowhere! “Paddle three times right! Paddle two times left!” Darr shouts, and we quickly maneuver the raft to calmer waters.
As we meander down the river, we pass overgrown sections on the banks that were once locations of successful coal mining towns, now part of the 70,000 acres protected by the National Park Service. All that’s left of most of these places are colorful stories like the longest poker game ever played in the town of Thurmond (fourteen years!).
We stop to rest for a much-deserved picnic before we set out for the big league – Class IV and V rapids on the Lower New River.
Paddling through rapids with waves over your head feels like surfing backwards. The water wants so badly to push you out of the raft and sweep you into its chaos. The only defense you have is to paddle like crazy, even when you are so far above water you can only paddle the air. The moment that you realize that you have conquered the massive swell of the rapid and that you are indeed still in the raft is extremely gratifying. That was the collective feeling in our raft after we conquered The Keeneys, a set of three rapids including Class V rapids. We give each other a paddle high five to celebrate our success.
Kids as young as six and those just looking to relax can opt to take a family class trip on the Upper New River. Two person duckies (inflatable kayaks) allow kids to test their skills on the smaller rapids and guides teach adventurers how to “surf” West Virginia style. Safety is emphasized here; the guides are well trained and certified and wearing the provided safety gear is required. Weekdays seem like the best time for a family to visit since the area is less crowded and deals are better.
There are plenty of options for resting one’s head after a long day of rafting. River Expeditions offers everything from basic campsites or tents on platforms to rustic cabins or luxury cabins. I was quite comfortable in the luxury cabin with its full kitchen, clean linens and private hot tub.
Rafting is not the only way to explore the New River Gorge National River area. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing and many more activities you may have never heard of (Cornhole, anyone?). Most adventures in the area can be arranged through the River Expeditions website. No worries if not everyone in the group is interested in the same activity; my friend chose fishing while I opted for rappelling.
Rappelling is an excellent way to experience the breathtaking views from the top of the canyon walls of the New River Gorge. The guides from Hard Rock Climbing lead daredevils up to a 100-foot cliff called the Bridge Buttress overlooking the 3,030 foot steel arch bridge connecting the banks of the New River. Then you walk backwards off the cliff… wearing a harness secured to ropes anchored to trees, of course! My guide, Steve, made me feel secure and provided me with back up support the entire way down. Steve tells me 90% of people that hike to the top of the Bridge Buttress actually rappel down; he says that it’s actually safer to rappel down than to walk down!
After feeding your spirit with the restorative nature of the Appalachian Mountains, (you’ll understand the state motto “Montani semper liberi”, or “Mountaineers are always free”), feed your stomach at Pies and Pints. With local beer on tap, wacky pizza types like Grape and Thai and a playground in the back, this notorious spot in Fayetteville, West Virginia is sure to make everyone happy.
I’m already scheming reasons to come back, and luckily River Expeditions is open year round and there are always more stretches of rivers in the area to run on a raft. The legendary Gauley River will be at its peak in September with higher rapids than I can even imagine. What class of rapids can you handle?