INCIDENTS OF My TRAVELS to
NEVER SEEKING ADVENTURE YET ADVENTURE FINDS ME
Incident at Pillow Rock
Gauley River September 2020
"I will have no man in my boat," said [chief mate of the Pequod] Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale."
__the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from fair estimation of an encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is far more dangerous comrade than a coward.__
The Ship, Moby Dick
It is always prudent to remember that, whatever your station, a cautious approach to the unknown with skepticism and fear is necessary. These rapids (of any class), are as unpredictable as Starbuck's whale.
Gauley Expedition Sept 2020 Journal Entry
Incident at Pillow Rock
Pillow Rock is a Class V rapid. The extreme of extremes of rapids and the highest class encountered in the United States.
Our guide Ara Marine informs us that as we bump onto the huge boulder on river right and we will bump, to reach over and tap our paddles against it. All of us. The eft and right side of the raft. This was not a vanity move; our raft will be slid upon its edge. Precariously balanced. By all of our lean to the rock side, our heft toward it, we will not tip over to the left and dump into the rage of a rapid. This was the plan. As good as any plan goes.
We approach and bounce as she commands our maneuvers toward it over the din of water. “GO GO GO!” We power on, taking on water calve high from splashes all around. Our forward momentum halted as we crash on the rock. The raft crumbles under the pressure as we attempt the reach with our paddles. However, that collision and collection of water have rearranged our raft. The tubing “breathed”, shifting and expanding, and what was a cemented grip of my feet between the rubber tubes was now loosened. I began to slip out.
Worse, as I fell back, I was drawn into the maw. Face under the cover of water and the force of the current was sucking me down. An attempt to sit up to return to form will pry the last grip my feet held on the shifting raft.
At some moment of submersion, my mechanical mind unconsciously ticked the seconds I was holding my breath. A healthy person can hold his breath a good couple of minutes. I think I can go as far as 40 seconds. Maybe. Even less if, water up my nose shocks an exhale from me. The Sama-Bajau people of Southeast Asia can hold their breath for 15 minutes...but let's not get distracted here.
Surprisingly, my left hand still held my oar. One last attempt; I will brace the blade of the oar against the rush of the current may be enough force to push me back up enough. If this did not work, I will relent and let go of my failing grip and hope for the best and to be able to swim past the danger on my own. However, as I went for the handle with my right I met resistance. It was Mike grabbing my wrist to pull me up. He did admit that he debated tapping Pillow Rock with his oar or grabbing the exposed arm over rushing spumes. He pulled and I rose out of the water. With only time to put one foot loosely under a brace cross sectional tubing I immediately resumed rowing at the guide’s command because the run was not yet over. After Pillow Rock, we needed to maneuver around submerged Volkswagen Rock.
This eternity lasted a mere two seconds.
Ara explained afterward that if I did not resume my position my heft overboard would have certainly flipped us all. We were lucky Mike debated correctly in that split second to save my life. Lucky indeed.
Our luck doubly so. As we notice on the sixth frame of the provided pictures afterward, Mike, my one salvation, was in danger of being decapitated as he drew me back into the raft by Al’s wandering oar blade which should have been held with both hands *sigh*.
Come on Al!
Wednesday, September 16, 2020: Indiana-West Virginia
The trip to WV takes us around 8 hours. We stop off at Mike K to pick him up and we have a two-car caravan on the way there. Mike leads in his Jeep and goes just at the speed limit. Fears of being pulled over betrayed by his lag. I travel with Gabe in his Jeep. The first time this vehicle has traveled more than from house to train station and back as part of his morning commutes, before Covid-19. Pat R and Al Z travel with Mike. We speculate the kind of weird stories Al tells them on the way. A sample of which we hear as we have breakfast on our first stop later.
Out of the group, Al was not our choice for traveling companion yet somehow he is invited (all claim he just invited himself).
Along the way, in a ghetto part of eastern Indy, we stop at a Waffle House. Mike’s traditional stop on trips. He hopes it will be ours as well now. Gabe and I disagree as we force the slop down. The trip continues.
We arrive and start setting up camp in the remaining two hours of day’s light. Travis, Mike’s son, joins us soon from Washington DC and helps to finish. We decide in the darkness to go into town and find something to eat since the reports of a closed resort’s bar due to the pandemic.
The only place available is a small bar called Maggie’s, just west of the New River Gorge Bridge. A bridge so large that, at night, you do not realize you are crossing unless you were aware of it. Maggie’s is a rafting guide’s hangout and we meet people who we will be with later on the rafting trip as a result. No food only pretzels, (after a recollected pause) but hey, we can order a pizza from Domino's. Great idea! We crowd a small three-person table. Hey! You can sit out back on our large patio area. Greater idea!
Out back is an area thrice the size of the small bar that reminds us of someone parent’s basement bar back during our high school days. We spend the evening at a fire pit eating pizza and craft beers. The jokes abound as the buzz increases. It is a good first day for the trip.
We pay our bill and return to camp. Set up a fire and talk through the night. I retire early; I was already sleepy at the bar. Mike and Trevor talk well into 5 am. Father and son reunions are vocal.
Thursday, September 17, 2020: Adventures on the Gorge Resort
We woke from the coldest night we will experience. The lower 40s and all joints are stiff. I fell asleep without removing my sleeping bag from its container. I used it as a pillow instead and my Mexican poncho as a blanket. Figuring it was good enough for my father’s peregrinations from our tiny town to Mexico City in his youth yet I failed to consider the difference in night temperatures in these higher latitudes.
Gabe and I, being the first to wake, walked over to the resort for coffee. The place is empty. Activities do not start until Friday. We get our drinks and find a place to sit atop the ridge overlooking a splice of the river below in rolling fog. Rapid trickles below echo into our ears like a far off faucet needing closing, the brisk morning dew chills our fingers. Warming them on the hot brew, we briefly discuss the filial but contemplate the beauty in silence. I like these coffee moments with my brother.
The day continued with mist and rain. Activities rendered untenable in the cold and wet. Before the rain fell steady, in the gray of morning, we did concoct a breakfast of Spam and eggs, chorizo and eggs, just eggs. With spices and metal utensils, (Pat abhors plastic cutlery, though paper plates seem fine for him). It was good. Al Z reneged everything; we suspect he did not want to divvy charged for anything beyond his means. Instead, he cooked a can of beans he brought with him, hunted for wild mushrooms, and a single egg accepted an egg for his breakfast mix. The rest of us ate with reckless abandon.
We sat under Pat’s Bear’s canopy tent and drank beer for the majority of the downpour. We soon tired of this and decided to try some local breweries. What else to do in rainy days? The nearest were down winding back roads off the typical tracks. We drink a few at Bridge Works Brewery as a first stop and then continued for some more at the Freefolk Brewery. At Freefolk we meet two young ladies, cousins on their own adventure from Pennsylvania. Amanda was the brunette. I do not remember the blonde. Pat, Trevor, and Al enjoyed their company and did all the talking. Al, trying to impress with his Polish language and bizarre tall tales that he may or may not have had. As he freely admitted while dismissing his indecisiveness with a single right-shouldered shrug, as was his habit in any conversation However, he WAS trying hard to woo the blonde whom he mistakenly called Aria, her dog’s name. Pat admits his goal was to talk me up. Obviously misconstruing their expressed interest of the friends who did not attend them.
It is getting dark. Earlier we talked of going down through the Fayette Station Bridge down on the river beside the larger New River Gorge Bridge. During breakfast, I mentioned on how at one point it was the only bridge to cross the river for rafting. What now takes 40 seconds to cross above would take 40 minutes to reach below.
We leave in a rush. “Come on Al! We are on a mission.” Al regrets his missed opportunity of delight with the gorgeous blond named Aria.
Travis drives us all and tries to beat the dark in futility. Making wrong turns, we ended back up at the campsite and we try again. We make it eventually. The view...
In the dark and fog, all is in shadow. We stopped midway on the one-way bridge and step out of the vehicle to view it. The gorge rises on both sides and high above. The flowing river below gray with white spumes where the rapids upstream run eternal. Overhead, about 800 feet up, only a quarter of the New River Gorge Bridge is visible through the rolling mist; the rest is lost in the fog. Like a phantom memory that is there and is not there. The sounds of a semi-trucks on leafs overhead road mingle with the babble of water below. Only a rectangle, book ended with spheres of white and red lights, appear mid-air and glides across the sky onto the visible part bridge that, too, is slowly disappearing from view. And once engulfed by the fog it is like it never was there.
The view beautiful. This experience was surreal. A memory that will last forever.
We return to camp. Watch the remainder of Thursday night football on Travis’ computer. That night it is warmer than last night but I still do not remove the sleeping bag from its bag.
Friday, September 18, 2020: Upper Gauley River
The purpose of getting together before rafting is to get a feel for the crew. On the river, especially The Gauley, we will rely on each other implicitly. I know Gabe and Pat. Mike and Travis are new, and, of course, I know Al from old experience. Not my choice of rafting companion at all, however, as circumstances turned out he now is.
All others were awesome, with varied personalities to be accustomed, we were rough but we are compatible. The bonding of the past couple of days made us an equal unit…all but one.
From the get-go, Al was troublesome. For example, we had six chairs for all yet he insists on sitting on his food bucket (he cleaned out his cupboards and brought all the food he needed for the trip and placed it in a dirty 5-gallon bucket) to not inconvenience us. The first night he refused to sleep in the tent, not wanting to be an imposition. Curled himself up under a Pat’s canopy in a bundle of blankets, refusing a sleeping bag we anticipated for him (we knew he had none). He reneged all offers for comfort and not wanting to inconvenience was a real inconvenience. “It is what it is.” Al was particular.
On the morning of the trip, Al disappeared. We thought he was backing out with all the horror stories of rafting the most treacherous river there is (Al dismisses that by saying “I rafted in Missouri when in the army. How hard is it to doggy paddle to shore if I fell out?”). At the time to check-in and he is not found.
He shows up late at the check-in dressed in jeans and combat boots. I now understand that he did not want to heed our advice against the shoes, it was mentioned previously. Therefore, he went ahead of us. Noticing this, we had to get Mike’s favorite guide, Ray-Ray, to give his opinion. Upon seeing the boots his words were only “Nuh-uh.” Al reluctantly went to put on his only other pair of street shoes. We were assigned a guide and went through orientation.
Mike (our Gauley veteran) requested Ray-Ray to be our guide. Mike had tales to tell of Ray-Ray and hoped we too had the experience, but to Mike’s chagrin, he already had another charge. He was beside himself; Ray-Ray was his only option. “Ray-Ray this…Ray-Ray that…” was all he talked about for days. Instead, we get a young 22 something, Ara Marine. Initially, she admits that this was her second tour of the river but assures us that she knows rafting. She worked in her native Colorado before making the move east. Mike was not sure, and the rest of us had doubts and considered that a seasoned guide might be better suited for this raging river. Even on start of the rafting, there were a few “uh-ohs” or “oh shit” moments where she had to steer us away from unexpected obstacles. However, these calm collected young lass proved her mettle after a few first rapids. She guided us through them with ease and turned out to be the best option for our novice team.
Mike, thinking he was helping, kept mentioning how Ray-Ray handled this, told that story... etc. Whether she was annoyed, she did not betray it. At first opportunity with just us, I pointed out “I am sure Ray-Ray was awesome, it is clear from your bro-mance stories, but each guide has their own tricks. Let’s not confuse her, especially during rapids, with doubts if she should do it as she knows or if she needs to please your remembered experience.”
This seems to have done it as Mike even repeated it often afterward as if it was his original thought.
Ara was home-schooled, became too smart for her peers, and selected a college at an early age. Bored she turned to her love of adventure boating. She tried ski resorts and snowmobiling but the rote would soon lose her interest. She started rafting rivers in her native state of Colorado and found her knack. When she recently came out to West Virginia she took a risk of refusing an only Lower Gauley Rafting guide for fear that she would be pigeon-holed and lose any opportunity at guiding the Upper Gauley. Her gamble paid off and when invited to guide both Upper and Lower, it was the most coveted job on the river. Many have tried, few are considered. Arai is well proven.
During the two-day trip, Al took a shining to her and started his awkward flirtation talk. It was rough to witness. However, understandable. I too may have crushed a bit on this strong and independent young soul. On one let-out, as we disembarked, the long lanky beauty, inches taller than me, offered me her hand to help my ‘jelly knees’ to shore as it was in chivalrous days when gents offered to demure damsels. I accepted freely. I might have even giggled.
We rafted all the Upper Gauley Class Vs this day under her guidance. She complimented our every success. No issues except for one, Pillow Rock early on almost dunked me. That was the lesson learned that got me ready for all the rest.
Joining the other crews by a fire pit, a fat dinner and all the free beers we can. We enjoyed the remains of the day under starry skies and shooting stars.
Saturday, September 19, 2020: Lower Gauley River
We wake to a cold morning but the sun is coming out. Overnight Gabe and I placed our tent on a platform that shook with every move. Gabe thought there was an earthquake when I adjusted. I was trying to get comfortable in the sleeping bag that I finally opened.
The river goes down overnight. Maybe to a few hundred cfs (cubic feet per second), so much so that you could walk across where rapids ran before. How it works, at dawn the Summerville Dam some twenty miles upriver lets out water in the mornings to refill the river. It will take a few hours for that release to get to us. Plenty of time to try to dry our wet and now cold clothes for today's run. In the meantime, there is breakfast. We will break down camp to be on our way by noon.
Al disappears again. To Ara’s concern, there are snakes out here but Al insists on hunting his wild mushrooms. Why pay $20 when he can take some from here. He is even more anti-social here. He stomps around in PJ bottoms and the combat boots while his only pair of clothes are hanging wet in the cold air. He is trying to dry them next to the waning campfire to use them on this second day of rafting.
After a good breakfast and a bit of basking in the brief exposure of sun (that dries us enough to be comfortable in our departure) we push off. Days of sleeping on hard surfaces take its toll on me. I am stiff all over and barely ambulatory.
In attempts to woo Ara even more Al broods quite visibly. In addition, he attempts to be the antithesis of everything we say and do. Us: “Finally! The sun comes out.” Al: “I hate the sun.” “Ah, coffee goes good after that cold night.” “Never drink the stuff.” “We like girls!” “I hate…um…coffee.” You get the idea.
A final few rapids are taken, but if I am honest, after the Upper Gauley these were a bit anticlimactic. Maybe that is maybe because we are now accustomed to the rush of the greater rapids.
The final part of the river was a steady run, a few ripples. THIS is what Al readily admits is whet he knew rafting in Missouri. Now he knows the difference and I think appreciates it. He has already expressed interest in returning with us next year.
Yeah. Sure Al.
But all sights are set for rafting the river down the Grand Canyon next year.
About the Author
I have always ended up in unexpected places. So I present a collection of my tales told over the years. Places that due to circumstances I might never go on my own accord.