A whitewater rafting adventure in Harpers Ferry
by Amanda Creasey, Outdoors Writer
On a Monday morning in late July, I drive my friend Caitlyn, my husband and myself to River Riders Family Adventure Resort in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., with a forecast for severe thunderstorms looming over our heads.
But no one has contacted us to say our whitewater rafting excursion has been canceled or postponed, and, when we pull into the parking lot, River Riders is bustling with people preparing for outdoor adventures—stepping into harnesses for ziplining, renting lockers for valuables or, like us, watching a 10-minute safety video about how not to die while rafting class I, II and III rapids.
When the film ends and everyone is sufficiently terrified, I know what happens if someone falls out of the raft, but I want to know what happens if storms roll in while we’re out on the water. Nobody else asks any questions, though, so I keep mine to myself.
Twenty-three anxious but excited participants, myself among them, and six guides board a bus for the short ride to the put-in. With our helmets in our laps, our personal flotation devices around our torsos and our paddles standing upright beside us, we look like soldiers heading to battle. Our PFDs are our armor and our paddles are our javelins and spears.
A LOT OF WHAT IFS
As we ride, one of the guides tells us that his favorite-ever paddle happened in a downpour. So, I think, he believes it’s going to storm, too, and wants to placate us preemptively.
The put-in sits along a wide, flat, calm stretch of the Shenandoah River, hardly white water. As the guides unload the rafts and tighten our PFDs, I watch first a goldfinch and then a hummingbird fly above the railroad tracks behind us. Hummingbirds are good luck, I tell myself. Maybe it won’t storm.
My husband, Caitlyn and I settle into a raft with our guide, Ashley, who tells us rain makes for a great paddle. So, she’s anticipating storms, too. Once again, I stifle my urge to ask “what happens if ?”
For a few minutes, we paddle along the calm surface of the Shenandoah, still too shy to show us its real rage. Caitlyn and I sit in the front of the raft, my husband behind Caitlyn, and Ashley in the back. She has us practice a few basics: Lean forward, lean back, paddle forward, paddle back. She tells us if someone falls out, everyone’s first priority is to get them back in the boat. She tells us what to do if someone is us: go down the river feet first, don’t stand up and if she throws you the rope bag, grab the rope, not the bag.
Our first rapid is class I. We navigate it without incident, listening to Ashley’s commands — two forward, three back — and laughing as the bumpy water jostles us around like the bus ride did.
In calmer waters once again, we have time to take note of the geese, osprey, heron and cormorants; the rock formations both above and below the water, striated with gray and black and white; and the houses perched on the hills flanking the river. I wonder if anyone up in those houses is looking down at us. A deer stalks, nearly hidden, in the foliage along shore.
We see massive tree trunks deposited in impossible places in impossible positions by floodwaters. Ashley tells us the worst flood Harpers Ferry experienced occurred in 1936, when waters crested at 36.5 feet. Flood stage is 18 feet. Two bridges were destroyed.
Today, gauges read between 1 and 2 feet, but given the forecast for severe storms, I have to work to rid my imagination of thoughts of flash floods barreling down the river towards our rafts.
We successfully clear several more rapids, one a class III, before paddling towards a sandy beach where we can rest and rehydrate. Most of the participants take the opportunity to wade or swim, their helmeted heads floating like fishing bobbers in the still waters.
The guides pass out water and lemonade. I’m surprised by the sweet deliciousness of the lemonade and how much I enjoy it. It has been a long time since I last savored lemonade, and an even longer time since I last whitewater rafted. The storms have held off so far, and I’m enjoying the rafting even more than the refreshments.
As I stand on the banks sipping lemonade and making small talk with the guides, my feet in the warm water, little drops of rain begin to dapple the surface of the river. They feel cool and harmless on my bare arms. I hope they stay that way—harmless, that is. I remember how dark the sky looked when we started.
After a little while, the guides gather their charges back into the rafts and we are underway again. The raindrops have fizzled out and we drift along under a cloudy, but non-threatening, sky.
As we approach the historic district of Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah merges with the Potomac, Ashley explains we’ll spend time in four states today: West Virginia, where our adventure began; Maryland, where we meet up with the Potomac; Virginia, where we will take out; and finally, the “state of confusion” we’ll be in at the confluence, where the two rivers and three states meet. The trip has been full of these types of jokes and puns and fun facts.
We pass the remnants of the two bridges destroyed in the 1936 flood, the church left unscathed during the Civil War as a result of flying both sides’ flags and the faded Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder ad, painted on a Maryland rockface by a West Virginia company.
We enjoy the thrill of two or three more rapids before paddling leisurely ashore to Virginia. Several swallowtail butterflies flit around amongst us. We lug our equipment up a hill and past a waterfall while the guides carry the rafts above their heads.
Back on the bus, I think about the butterflies. They symbolize, among other things, life. I feel grateful no storms materialized and I didn’t fall out—no one fell out. On the ride back, there is a sense of relief, camaraderie and good humor that didn’t exist on the ride out.
Everyone has bonded together and loosened up. People talk and laugh and listen to the guides tell stories, and, as we get off the bus, the first heavy raindrops begin to fall. I am glad we picked the morning paddle.