It had seemed like a good idea: Whitewater rafting in Virginia in October. On the last weekend 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 we felt confident we would have experienced guides. We followed directions to the headquarters, but instead of a flowing body of water, we reached an old shack next to a highway. Our first question when we arrived was, “Where’s the river?”
Hopping out of our van and heading inside, we found the building filled with people, paddles, and life jackets. Our names were checked off a reservation list, and we received help in picking out our gear for the trip, including 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 learned that whitewater rafting really can be dangerous–especially if there are many rocks, which there are in the shallow James River. We were taught everything from how to sit in the raft, to getting into the “swimmer’s position” if we’re thrown overboard, and we learned to hold onto the handle of our paddles at all times. That way, while the water tossed us about, we wouldn’t whack ourselves or anyone else in the head.
The only other adult in our group gave us a sideways glance, conveying the message that she didn’t want to be in that situation, then we found out the roughest whitewater would be level 4. Rick and I tried to assure her everything would be all right, but we weren’t so sure about it ourselves.
We boarded an old school bus with other rafters and endured a bumpy ride through the woods to the James River. Our group was then divided, with our teens in one orange raft, and the adults, along with a scout leader and two boys, in another. Bruce, our guide, pushed us into the water effortlessly. As the river gently flowed along and birds in the trees sang, it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. It wasn’t long, however, before the birds 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 stuck my feet under the plastic tubing in front of me, holding onto my paddle as if my life depended on it. We were instructed to keep paddling while going through white water. Our raft bumped and dipped, jostling us a little, but it was okay. It was really kind of fun. One of the boys said with enthusiasm, “Let’s do it again!”
Bruce chuckled. “Don’t worry. We’ll do it again.”
It wasn’t long until another patch of angry water loomed in front of us, a little whiter than the first. It lifted us up and set us down, turning us to the side, then we reached a calm stretch. After several more, just as I felt more confident with my navigating skills, we came up on something I’d never even imagined. We were about to zip through two large boulders toward something that looked like the ocean in a whirlpool.
I couldn’t believe we were headed right for it. We’re never going to make it, flashed through my mind, then I could only think about paddling and staying inside the raft at the same time. We were thrown about mercilessly, then pushed to the right with such force, I was thrown to the opposite side of the raft. The boy scout leader asked if I was okay, so I guess my feat looked dramatic.
I didn’t think it was possible for our journey to get any rougher, but soon Bruce told us we were approaching a broken dam. Everyone in the raft seemed to scream, What?! Sensing our discomfort, Bruce added, “Don’t worry. It’s a small dam.”
Small or not, the water rushing between two brick walls into another churning ocean sent a surge of fear and doubt through me. We bounced through, however, and a wave of icy cold water came in on my side of the raft, threatening to submerge it, and shooting up the arm of my waterproof jacket. I didn’t see any more treacherous sections ahead, and I’d started breathing more easily when a voice caused me to look behind us. The craft holding our teens was stuck on a large flat stone!
It took a while for the wayward raft to get back into the current, then the rafts were all strung together for a leisurely ride to a dock. In a way, it was the most fun part of the day. We 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 there were no other problems during our outing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself rafting again in the near future. Just not in October.