It had seemed like a good idea: Whitewater rafting in Virginia in October. On the last weekend that guides offered a ride down the James River, my husband, Rick, and I drove over to Richmond with a group of eight. None of us had been rafting before, but that was okay, since we knew we would have experienced guides. We followed directions to the headquarters, but instead of reaching a flowing body of water, we discovered an old shack next to a highway. Our first question when we arrived was, “Where is the river?”
Hopping out of our van and heading inside, we found the building filled with people, paddles, and all kinds of paraphernalia. Our names were checked off a reservation list, and we received assistance in picking out our gear, including life jackets and helmets. Next, a fit-looking guide gave us a safety talk on how to survive the day. Wait a minute. Survive? We were just there for a fun run down the river. We soon learned that whitewater rafting can be dangerous—especially if there are rocks, which there definitely were in the shallow James River. We were taught everything from how to sit in the raft, to getting into the “swimmer’s position” if thrown overboard. We also learned to hold onto the handle of our paddles at all times. (That way, when the water tossed us about, we wouldn’t whack anyone.)
We learned that the roughest rapids would be level four, and the only other adult in our group gave my husband and me a sideways glance, conveying the message, What have we gotten into?
Rick and I tried to assure her everything would be all right, but we weren’t that sure about it ourselves. We boarded an old school bus with other rafters, enduring a bumpy ride through the woods to the James River. Our group was divided, with our teens in one orange raft, while the rest of our gang was placed in another with a scout leader and two boys. Bruce, our guide, pushed us into the water effortlessly, and we gently flowed along as birds in the trees sang.
It wasn’t long, however, before the birdsong disappeared and we paddled down a roaring river topped with, you guessed it—white water. I felt some apprehension as we approached our first set of rapids, but I slid my feet under the plastic tubing in front of me, holding onto my paddle as if my life depended on it—and maybe it did. We had been instructed to keep paddling while going through rough water, and our raft bumped and dipped, but it wasn’t bad. Actually, it was kind of fun. One of the boys said with enthusiasm, “Let’s do it again!”
Our guide chuckled. “Don’t worry. We’ll do it again.”
It wasn’t long before another patch of angry water loomed before us, tougher than the first. It lifted us up and set us down, turning us to the side before we reached a calm stretch. After several more whitewater runs, just as I felt more confident concerning my navigating skills, we came upon something I’d never even imagined. We were about to zip through two large boulders toward water that looked like a whirlpool in the ocean.
I couldn’t believe we were headed right for it. We’re never going to make it, flashed through my mind, but a second later, I could only think about paddling and staying inside the raft at the same time. We were tossed about mercilessly, then pushed to the right with such force, I was thrown to the opposite side of the craft. The boy scout leader asked if I was okay, so I guess it must have looked pretty dramatic. I didn’t think it was possible for our journey to become even more difficult, but soon Bruce told us we were approaching a broken dam. I wanted to scream, What?!
Perhaps sensing our anxiety, Bruce said, “Don’t worry. It’s a small dam.”
Small or not, the water rushing between two brick walls and into another churning mass sent a surge of fear and doubt through me. We bounced through, however, but not until a wave of icy cold water came in on my side of the raft, threatening to submerge it while shooting up the arm of my waterproof jacket. I didn’t see any more treacherous sections ahead, and I’d started breathing more easily right before a shout caused me to look behind us. The raft holding our teens was stuck on a large stone!
They struggled until finally get their wayward craft back into the current, then all of the rafts were strung together for a leisurely ride to a dock. (In a way, it was the most fun part of the day.)
We later learned from the others that one of our teens took a dip in the river, but their guide reached in and pulled her out in a flash. I’m glad he was there for her, and that there were no other problems during our outing. All in all, I had a great time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself rafting again in the near future. Just not in October.