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West Virginia’s Duckies

by Mitch Kaplan

Photo courtesy Class VI River Runners Whitewater rafting evokes images of large rubber boats careening nearly uncontrolled through water that's erupting like Vesuvius. Would that be any place for ten year-olds and grandparents?

Perhaps not. But, that's not what the Class VI River Runners' three-day/two-night family paddling adventure is all about. It travels mild rapids of the Upper New River through southwest West Virginia's verdant hills. And, instead of riding big rafts, the crafts of choice are diminutive one- and two-person "duckies," essentially inflatable kayaks. The trip totals 20 miles, with riverside camping overnight.

We numbered twenty people - three independent adults, five parents, two grandparents, one uncle, six children aged 10 to 14, and three river guides. Bonding began immediately on the bus ride to the put-in point. Jokes and dubbing the kids with nicknames, or what our guide Andrew called "rivernames." We were so nervous and boisterous it took Tri, our trip leader, several attempts to get our attention for the pre-embarkation safety talk.

"I didn't realize that kids would get to do their own paddling," David confided. He was traveling with his wife Shirley and grandson Isaac, 12. "I thought we'd all sit in a raft together and look at the trees and water."

Nope. But, each kid paddling independently is part of what makes this trip special.

We started tentatively. You could read the mild fear in almost everyone's eyes. It said, "I'm gonna flip this silly boat, get all wet, and make a fool of myself."

The gorge walls rose sharply, climbing several hundred feet above the riverbanks. The forest canopy - a rich mix of black willow, silver maple, river birch and sycamore - created such a thick blanket, we immediately seemed to be miles from anywhere.

I paddled with Shirley. Poorly. We veered radically right. And sharply left. But, with a little coaching from Tri, we got "ducky" going straight.

Photo courtesy Class VI River Runners Suddenly, a low gurgling rumble reverberated upriver. Our first rapid. "Paddle hard and hit the waves head-on," Tri instructed. Nervous excitement rippled through the group. Shirley and I followed the line of duckies, paddling intensely. Whoosh!- the boat turned sideways. We flailed a mad moment to get straight, and then - whew - pushed on through. Not bad.

We entered a pool - a quiet section of water. My co-pilot and I exchanged muted conversation, then fell into a contemplative reverie. Until...

"Sneak attack!"

Shouts. Screams. Doug had broadsided ten year-old Julie and her Uncle Pat, and now he splashed them wildly with his water-filled helmet. The counter-attack was equally animated. Others joined the fray. Within minutes, it was over. Casualties? Thorough drenchings all around - welcome in the hot sun.

By day's end we'd traveled six miles. Tents were pitched and waterproof "dry" bags, containing our sleeping bags and clothes, unloaded from the gear rafts. The guides prepared dinner. We sipped sodas or beers, hunted for wildlife, skipped rocks and talked. The day finished with ghost stories passed around a campfire.

Day Two. We scrambled through a "shelf" rapid - one that tumbles over a submerged rock shelf - then u-turned back into the flow, maneuvering the ducky beside the rock. Here, while the main current rushed over us, the back-flow of the rebounding current held us in place. It's called surfing. It's feels something like being weightless.

Kids' shouts skipped over the water's roar. They were body surfing through a v-cut in the rock shelf. "You gotta try this!" yelled eleven year-old Alexandra.

We tied up to the gear raft, hopped out. Guide Andrew grabbed me by the life jacket. "Keep your feet and your head up," he shrieked. Then he let go. I pitched feet-first down the chute and submerged. Water rushed up my nose. Out popped my head - with my sun glasses perched in my teeth. Tri grabbed my life jacket and pulled me out of the current. "Great ride!" I yelled. "Tasty glasses, too!"

In a later lull, Andrew paddled up to Julie. "Have you had your secondary stability checked?" he inquired seriously.

"Uh-no," the kid responded uncertainly.

"Gotta check that," he said. He hopped into the water, grabbed her ducky and flipped it - and her. "Yep, just like I thought" he laughed. "Not very stable!"

Upstream, Isaac and three other duckies had Doug under attack. Water flew furiously. We had so far avoided the battles and pranks. Paddling with a soft-spoken grandmother has its advantages.

The day waned - along with our energy - just when we entered a seemingly endless calm pool. Tri tossed each kid a rope. They tied one ducky to his raft, tied onto each other, and let Tri pull their ducky-train.

That evening, we gorged on a delicious dinner of chicken, salmon and steak. Amazing how well those guys could cook.

Day Three. We met the biggest rapid we'd see - class III Silo.

Photo courtesy Class VI River Runners Shirley and I now paddled confidently when we heard the rapid's roar. We dropped over a hidden ledge, plunging the ducky's nose into the bustling swells. Whoa! - our hind end swerved radically right. We were going over! I shot my paddle deep into the churning brew, pulled hard. Shirley trailed her paddle as a rudder. We straightened just in time to take the next wave head on and - full in the face! We ran it like a pair of pros.

We emerged abreast of a body bobbing in the water, one hand securely affixed on an inverted ducky.

"Isaac!" Shirley yelped. "Isaac, are you okay?"

"Okay!" he yelled. He wore an ear-to-ear smile.

"You went over?" I called.

"Yeah! It was so cool!"

We heard a shout.

"Pick up that shoe!"

A pink watershoe floated nearby. I snatched it to safety.

"I lost my shoe," Julie giggled as I handed it over, "but I held onto the camera. I got three great pictures!"

Two days ago, we'd all feared going overboard in a rapid. Now we wore a dunking like a badge, worthy of photographing. We'd come a long way in a short time.

The New River, contrary to its name, is one of the world's oldest waterways. Here it passes through a gorge to create truly magnificent scenery. Great views are had from The New River Gorge Bridge. Four park visitor centers offer exhibits, audio-visual presentations, printed materials to interpret the area's history and attractions, vantage points from which to admire the scenery, and ranger-guided bus tours and hikes. The Canyon Rim Visitor Center, U.S. Route 19, Fayetteville, WV; 304-574-2115.

Beyond river rafting, other activities include mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, horseback riding, the scenic Mountain State Rails to Rivers and Trails Train (Huntington and Charleston, WV; 800-347-1231 or 304-529-6412, or jet boating with New River Jet Boats (Hawks Nest State Park, PO Box 857, Ansted, WV 25812; 304-469-2525 or 304-658-5212)

Commercial Whitewater Rafting: Trips on the New River are available almost year-round; The Gauley River features "big water." The main season is early-September through mid-October. Three licensed outfitters, who can also provide lodging packages, we recommend:

Class VI River Runners. One- and multi-day family trips. Box 78, Lansing, WV 25862; 800-252-7784 or 304-574-0704; .

North American River Runners. Trips for ages five and up. US Route 60, Hico, WV 25854; 800-950-2585. .

Appalachian Wild Waters. Three- to five-day "Mini Family Vacations," including sightseeing at Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine Tour and other sites. PO Box 100, Rowlesburg, WV 26425; 800-624-8060.

...... Mitch Kaplan is the author of "The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids," a contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids," and the author of "The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach" and "The Golf Book of Lists".





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