The first time I ever unintentionally swam in whitewater was way back in 2012 when I paddled a ducky (inflatable kayak for you land sharks) on the Cheat Narrows. The boat laid over my head and, after a few restless moments underwater, I felt a peaceful calm and accepted that I may indeed be drowning. Ever since that incident, I’ve maintained a healthy respect for the river and hadn’t taken a bad swim.
As photographer for Adventures on the Gorge, I’ve been riding princess (in the front of the boat and not paddling) on rafting trips down the New River to soak up all the splashies and take photos of priceless rafting faces. I broke my no-swim streak two times while raft surfing this summer, but since surfing a raft in a standing wave is a somewhat-controlled environment with an eddy close downstream to catch inevitable swimmers, in my mind it didn’t count. As I bobbed safely downstream, I wondered how I’d fair during an unexpected whitewater swim.
Fast forward to the infamous Saturday of Gauley Fest, and I’m preparing to embark on my first commercial raft trip in five years where I wasn’t getting paid to go. I hop in a boat with five strangers (soon-to-be best friends), paddle in hand, customer PFD on torso, ready to see what the Gauley River looks like at a rowdy flow of 3,000 cubic feet per second.
Right away, the roar of the mighty Upper Gauley is an experience unlike any river I’ve paddled before. Our boat seems heavy, loaded with five burly men capable of ferocious paddle strokes. As we crash through waves, our boat fills with water. Nearly every time we eddy out, the swift turn of the boat cradles the upstream-facing side tube with relentless, lapping whitewater. Our boat is heavy, and it shows right away.
The water is big, but our boat is strong. We successfully navigate the first two class V rapids— Insignificant and Pillow Rock—that appear before the Gauley’s confluence with the Meadow River, where the conjoined watercourses mean even more water crashing through the three remaining class V rapids.
After the confluence comes the famous Lost Paddle rapid, which the highly reputable source of Wikipedia describes as “a long, treacherous rapid consisting of four sub-rapids: First Drop, Second Drop, Third Drop, and Tumble Home.”
Lost Paddle is a long, exciting romp with waves so large they’ve been named. Our boat makes it through the famous Hawaii 5.0 wave, but rattles off-balance in the tail of the reactionary wave downstream. We’re off course, and what follows happens in slow-motion.
As we paddle into the Second Drop, I watch as the left tube laps with foamy water like when we last eddied out, and become aware of what’s coming next. The boat is slightly angled, and as the front right side of the boat catches the wave, the left tube dips further into the frothing whitewater. I reach for the outside strap and attempt to jump to the high side of the raft to redistribute the weight. In that eternally dry second, thoughts of staying in the boat reining as the only standing victor of a dump flood my mind. In the next somehow-even-longer second, I feel my body slide forward, toward the water. Alas, there is no use. We’re flipping.
I hit the water and, in a flashback to my first swim on the Narrows, quickly realize I’m under the boat. I push and pull, trying to navigate myself out from under the raft. I remember the advice of our raft guide: “If you find yourself under the boat, commit to moving in one direction to escape.” I feel my hand surface, touching the outer tubing of the raft, only to be pushed backward as the river propels the boat forward again, and again, readjusting any progress I make. Suddenly, finally, I no longer feel the boat over me, and I’m now underwater, free-swimming the rushing current.
I have clear, conscious thoughts of holding my breath as the sweep of a hydraulic current pulls me deeper underwater. I feel my body twirl and toss in the current. I kick and hope I’ve got enough air in my lungs to continue holding my breath. A moment later, my head resurfaces and I gasp a mouthful of sweet air.
With my head above water, I look around to get my bearings. I turn and find myself looking downstream with a perfect curling wave coming straight toward me. I put my feet up and take a second to time my breath just right—I know I’m about to be submerged again. I take a deep breath and succumb to riding the wave. When I resurface, I’m happy to see that I’m just upstream of the raft again, with two others swimming beside me. I see our guide holding onto the rear of the boat, looking as if she was about to be sandwiched between the raft and the huge rock downstream. “SWIM RIGHT!” she yells with a tone of exasperation in her voice.
“ROCKS ARE BAD!” echoes in my skull. I quickly and aggressively swim left to avoid ’12 Pack Rock’ and abruptly turn again to swim right and catch the eddy of calm water behind it. I don’t even catch a glimpse of the boat that plucks me out of the water. In one swift motion, I straddle my arms over the side of the boat and yell for others to help pull me in. By this point, I have no remaining strength to pull myself up. As I get hauled into this new raft, I realized I’ve lost my shoe. Damnit.
It was chaos: bodies were tumbled over one another as swimmers were pulled into other guides’ rafts. “I’ve got four!” Guides yell the number of swimmers they’ve picked up to make sure everyone is accounted for. “I need help! We’re too heavy!” The guide from the rescue boat yells out. The rapid is not over. There are still two more drops to go. Two of us jump into another boat to lighten the load. I’m out of breath and a little thankful that I don’t have a paddle with which to participate. I hold on to the cross tube strap as we make our way down the Third Drop and Tumble Home.
Everyone is accounted for. We reclaim our raft, search for paddles, and the guy sitting in front hands me my shoe. “HELL YEAH! My shoe!” Turns out it was wedged under the cross tube, upside down, for the entirety of the Lost Paddle carnage.
Since my first swim on the Cheat Narrows five years ago, I’ve always boated with the nervous apprehension of what would happen if I were to find myself unexpectedly swimming downstream again. But those few-yet-eternal minutes swimming the most gnarly rapid on one of the world’s top-10 commercial whitewater rivers were surprisingly liberating. I faced my fear and handled myself far better than I could have anticipated. I’m grateful to be alive, as that is not always the result of swimming a class V rapid. My swim through Lost Paddle felt like a baptism of adrenaline that has infatuated my mind, body, and soul with the art of river running. I can guarantee I’ll be back for more.
Birdie Hawkins is a dues-paying member of the Upper Gauley Swimmers Club, and media maker at Adventures on the Gorge. You can find her in a raft, riding princess with camera in hand.