We originally had 8 people going but last week, one couple had a close friend pass and were not able to go. This meant that instead of four to a raft, we were three to a raft, Alex and myself the couple that split up. I was in a raft with Lydia and Steve and the guide Matt that we’ve had the previous two years, and Alex was with Melissa and John and a guide LJ that I think they liked a lot.
This year the larger group seemed to be more evenly split between genders (as opposed to the sausage fest from last year) and we definitely did not spend the day picking drunk frat boys out of the river. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a videographer this year; that’s been fun the last two years, getting back in and taking showers, sitting down with some beers and watching the video of everyone’s great (and sometimes not so great) trip down the river. Oh well.
(During this post, I’ve linked to some great videos of the rapids - at 2800 cfs – that I’m referencing, so I definitely encourage you to click through to see what I’m talking about)
Because we were only three paddlers, I think that accounted for a bit of imbalance in a boat meant for four. So that’s my excuse for why we spent so much time in the river this year. I wouldn’t count Fuzzy Box of Kittens because it’s a Class III with no rocks and they purposely toss you out (if you want it – they ask) because its safe; for the past two years, the boat flipped in this rapid, and if the boat flips, there’s not much you can do to stay out of the water. The first year we all got tossed out in the Juicer, the very last hole of the last rapid, Wood’s Ferry, although last year we only fell out in FBOK.
THIS year, I went swimming three times and somehow we didn’t even flip in FBOK. At the very start of the day, we tried to “surf” Geek’s Wave and got turned sideways a bit. Because it wasn’t a large rapid, I hadn’t even considered falling out; its pretty funny the sensation of falling out of a raft on the river. One second you’re in boat - the next you’re in the river. And that’s exactly what happened. Because I hadn’t mentally prepared myself, I sucked in a good bit of water when I went in, but Steve (who managed to stay in the boat) grabbed Lydia, and she grabbed me, so we didn’t get away from the boat and were back rafting down the river in few minutes.
We successfully “landed” on Pillow Rock (that’s what the photo is of in my previous post ). We chose to try surfing again at Hungry Mother, the most powerful hydraulic on the river, but again, the imbalance of paddlers managed to get the boat sideways and Lydia and I again were tossed out. Since I had just watched Alex and John get tossed out in Hungry Mother a few moments before, this time I was mentally prepared and didn’t swallow a large segment of river. And although Matt had said that if we were tossed out, to avoid the right, I kept going under and couldn’t get my bearings. Inevitably, when I finally realized where I was, I was on the right. (There is a really bad undercut rock on the right). Both Lydia and I managed to float a good bit down the river, both holding on to our paddles, and knocking into some rocks (bruised hip for me, Lydia bumped her chin and her knee) before being picked up by other rafts. Matt and Steve recovered us and we went on down the river.
For all the swimming we did trying to surf, we managed to stay in the raft for all of the Class Vs. The last Class V is Sweets Falls, at the end of which is Box Canyon (or you can just go around, but Box Canyon is the more interesting way to go). Alex’s boat went in first but I couldn’t see them after they went into Box Canyon. Apparently the raft flipped, tossing everyone out. I didn’t find this out until after the trip but Alex managed to get his foot stuck in a rock, trapping him underwater. He said he actually began panicking because he could see the surface 6 inches from his face but could not get his foot loose. He was wearing SCUBA boots, so his toes were covered (as opposed to me and Lydia who both were wearing sandals), but as he jerked his foot free, he managed to break his toe (we’re saying it’s broken – he hasn’t been to a doctor but toes are pretty easy to break and even if it is broken, the best a doctor can say is “Yep, it’s broke! Try to keep off of it.”). So the picture above is of his gnarly toe.
EDIT: Not that Alex ever reads my blog but his mother does and relayed that she was not happy about the above situation. Alex says: “Jessica totally heard what she wanted to hear (or not hear). I got dumped out in Hungry Mother, bounced off the bottom of the river, that is where I broke my toe. A full 3 hours before Box Canyon. Box Canyon- I got dumped and was under water, getting recirculated in a hydraulic. It was because I was fighting it that it kept me under (more surface area). I remember what the guide said and curled up in a ball (less surface area) and it spit me out.”
As I mentioned, we managed to stay in the boat somehow through FBOK, although I knew Matt was going to try to flip us and I had already grabbed my nose in anticipation of falling out. However, we swung around and stayed righted, although I bumped back to where Matt was and Lydia found herself in my seat. After two years on the river, I’ve realized that once you know you are going to fall out, there is little to be done in time to stop it from happening and rather than fighting it, its best to let it happen. When you fight all the way into the water, you never prepared yourself for it and you come up choking and sputtering.
As we came to Wood’s Ferry, we hit the Juicer hard this year and managed to completely flip the raft. Even Matt was separated from the raft and it got stuck on a rock as we continued to be pushed down stream, raked over rocks in the shallow water. Alex’s raft was first on the scene and picked all three of us up. So at the end of the day, all six of us were reunited. Awwww…
So, we had a great year. Hate that I went swimming so much but I really think it was just because we didn’t have that fourth paddler to stabilize things. Alex went swimming four times (Hungry Mother, Box Canyon, FBOK, and Juicer), so at least I didn’t fall out THAT many times! Better than last year because we didn’t spend the whole day picking up swimmers that were just being stupid (and careless), but that first year, we landed Pillow Rock, surfed Hungry Mother, and went through Box Canyon all perfectly so I think that is still the best year. Plus, you always remember your first time.
Sad news though: I just found out that someone died on the Upper Gauley on Sunday morning. A woman fell out in Iron Curtain and got stuck in an undercut rock. When they realized she was missing, all attempts to rescue her were made by the guides, even at risk to their own lives. They cut the water from the dam and once the water level dropped were able to retrieve her body. There’s an article about here, here, and here.
Our trip last year was certainly marred by a death in Insignificant just before we came through and there were actually three deaths last year on the Upper Gauley, apparently a record. This is truly a horrible occurence and it is certainly a reminder of how dangerous the river truly is. The death of the girl happened with Songer, the very same outfit we use and unfortunately, it seems the “bash Songer” campaign is happening. You see, Songer is known as the more “aggressive” white water rafters. We go into Box Canyon and do other challenging parts of the river that other rafting companies won’t do. However, at no point are the guides risking safety or personal injury in doing the river this way; I know for sure Songer had no deaths in the previous 10 years, and some were saying as long as 23 years. Other outfitters have had as many as 10 deaths in the last 10 years (2 of the 3 deaths last year came from ACE).
Before going into a rapid, the guide makes sure you understand where the undercut rocks are and what to avoid if falling out, and if we have a choice of doing it “mild or wild,” they let us choose. Last year, Chad didn’t want to be flipped in FBOK, so the guide didn’t. Simple as that. I took issue with a lot of the comments on these articles that suggested that the guide flipped the raft on purpose or that it wasn’t really an “accident.” I feel very loyal to Songer as I feel they work hard to give you a great experience while exhibiting professionalism and safety at all times. Regardless of how safe you are, however, the waiver that you sign before you raft mentions death; no matter how experienced you are, the river is much more powerful.