Matthew Dickerson: Whitewater rafting in New River Gorge National Park

BRISTOL’S MATTHEW AND Deborah Dickerson look ahead pensively to the whitewater ahead on their recent trip down the New River Gorge in West Virginia, while their guide, Linc, relaxes before the action. Photo courtesy of Matthew Dickerson

The first rapids we hit is known as Surprise. “Because,” as our raft guide Linc told us, “when you come into it, it catches you by surprise.”

And it did, despite its name and Linc’s warning that it would do so. 

Eight of us lined the sides of the raft, four on each side, with Linc running the oars from the back. Deborah and I sat closer to the back. The more adventure-minded rafters had claimed seats near the front as the first line of defense. Milliseconds after hitting the first standing wave near the top of Surprise, the bow disappeared under an impressive wall of water, and those adventure-minded folks in front of me were suddenly in the back with me, sprawled out on my lap. 

Neither Deborah nor I are what you would call thrill seekers. Or maybe a more accurate way of saying that is that we are not adrenaline junkies. Watching an osprey plunge into the water after a fish, or a fish explode out of the water after a fly tied to the end of my line, is the sort of thrill I appreciate. I don’t need to think my life (or at least my comfort) is at risk in order to enjoy the beauty of a mountain landscape or wild river. Paddling our canoe along a quiet wooded stretch of Otter Creek and catching sight of a beaver, blue heron or bald eagle is generally enough to bring us delight. 

But West Virginia is famous for its whitewater rafting, offering some of the best (which is to say, wildest and most adventurous) rivers in the country for whitewater. One of those is New River, where it flows through New River Gorge in our newest national park. And Adventures on the Gorge, which sits on the edge of the gorge near the downriver end of the park near the city of Fayetteville, is well-known for its whitewater rafting trips. I had known for a few months that AotG would be hosting the annual in-person board meeting of Outdoor Writers Association of America, but it wasn’t until a few weeks before the meeting that I noticed the whitewater rafting trip was part of the experience our host was offering. Traveling to West Virginia and not taking advantage of that opportunity seemed rather foolish. So there we were on a Wednesday morning squeezing into wet suits with my OWAA colleagues and preparing for an adventure. 

As we rode the bus from the AotG facility to the put-in ramp a dozen miles upriver, the head guide’s overly dramatic description of the thrills and danger awaiting us was almost enough to turn us around. We were glad we stuck with it, however. The trip proved very enjoyable. And, yes, even thrilling. Also beautiful. I lost track of how many Class 3 and Class 4 even some Class 4+ rapids that we went through. The bigger — or, in the terminology of our guides, “better” — rapids had a series of standing waves that gave the impression of swallowing the rafts whole. 

THE 3,000-FOOT-LONG New River Gorge Bridge with its majestic steel arch stretches above some of the best whitewater rafting in the country.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Dickerson

And, indeed, at the end of the day, when we watched the professionally made videos and photos of our trip, we realized the impression of being swallowed whole corresponded quite closely to reality. The raft would rise up the crest of one standing wave, and as it dropped down into the valley most of the raft and its passengers would disappear under a wall of very white water. The photos and videos also showed a lot of smiling faces — when they were visible beneath the giant white walls of water. 

We were glad for our wet suits. We were also happy that none of us were ejected, since in at least a few of the rapids the boulders did pose a real danger to anybody who ended up in the water. Fortunately, by the time we encountered the biggest, wildest, and most dangerous of the rapids, Linc had the eight of us well-trained to paddle in sync at his command, giving him the momentum and steering he needed to keep us out of that danger.

In between the more “thrilling” moments of the trip, we enjoyed both the scenic beauty of a thousand-foot-deep gorge lined with cliffs and bluffs (including the famous natural Endless Wall Trail of New River Gorge National Park), and also the rich history of the area including the old coal mining settlements, nearly-abandoned towns, and numerous artifacts from those areas. A hearty AotG lunch gave us a good mid-day break. 

Eagles and osprey soared above us. Mergansers flew past us. So did the arch of the famous New River Gorge Bridge, one of the highest steel bridges in the world. Between the cultural significance and natural beauty of the area, I could see why it has been named a natural park. And I could also see why people flock to West Virginia for whitewater rafting. Though a trip down the nearby Gauley River — an even wilder trip with higher rated rapids — is probably not in my future, I would definitely run the New River Gorge again given the chance. And would also make sure I had several days to explore the beautiful national park that surrounds it.

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