During the entire week leading up to my trip to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve my stomach would knot up anytime I thought about our planned whitewater rafting trip. I have fallen out of the boat in class III rapids before and did not want that to happen again.
When it came time to line up next to the spots we would claim on the raft, I stepped away from the front of the boat, sidestepping toward the middle hoping no one noticed. As we floated along and came up to a treacherous place where our guide mentioned there was a possibility of going overboard, the fear on my face was so obvious my boat mates pointed it out. I did not want to fall out of the boat.
Well, I fell out of the boat.
Into the New River, I sank surrounded by water full of air bubbles that I could not breathe. My trusty life jacket bobbed me back up to the surface, and I opened my mouth to gasp for air. But I simply ended up with a mouthful of water from the next wave the river thrust me into. Wave after wave of whitewater crashed into my face and when I finally found the rhythm to catch my breath in between whitewater, I had been swept into calmer waters.
My head swiped from side to side so I could get my bearings and find my raft and a way to safety. I was surrounded by gently flowing water dotted with blue orbs. These were the helmets of the others in my raft. The raft must have flipped dumping all of its passengers into the river. At least I wasn’t alone.
As I floated straight toward a rock, I remembered the guides telling us to not put our feet first and float down on our backs like I had been instructed on a previous rafting trip. A man on my raft asked our guide, Paul, why they had changed that advice. Paul told us the New River has many undercut rocks that could trap you by your feet.
So going feet first was not the best approach.
I was heading feet first toward this undercut rock, the very thing Paul had warned us about. The water swiftly headed straight into the rock, but there wasn’t much whitewater or waves with it. I didn’t know if that meant that the obstruction wasn’t underwater, i.e. an undercut rock. But there didn’t seem to be time to try a different approach. The river was pushing me right toward it fast.
Floating down feet first I put my arms out as well for extra protection and sort of closed my eyes.
“Hey, hey, hey! Right here, right here, right here!”
How did I not notice a giant raft with eight people on my left? The river was that loud and disorienting. Their guide used the rock to stop his raft. He pulled me into the boat.
Whew! I was back in the boat. My guide, Paul, and the rest of the people in my boat were close by so I was able to climb back in the correct raft. I wondered how Paul had gotten his raft and most of the occupants back in such a short time. But I quickly learned my raft had not actually flipped. Only about half of us went into the water.
Later after my sister, Leah, nephew, Noah, and I discussed “going for a swim” as the whitewater jargon calls it, Leah said for a minute, she was terrified.
“All I could think about was getting air,” she said. “And once I made it to the surface, the waves kept me from breathing.”
I didn’t realize it until she said that, but that feeling – the panic of not getting air – was exactly why I was scared to fall out of the boat. But the main difference between my sister and me is I had experience with falling out of the raft. So while I was in the water subconsciously, I knew I could survive it but she panicked.
When you do anything risky or scary, the more you are exposed to it, the easier it gets. Some people are amazed I camp and travel alone. They want to know how I’m so “brave.” I had to force myself to go at first. I wasn’t brave, I was terrified. The more I went, the more I realized it really isn’t scary. But once you freak out all night over what you think is a bear, but instead turns out to be an armadillo, you begin to learn the sounds of the forest better.
The same is true for whitewater. The more you spill into the river, the more you learn to trust your lifejacket and the guides. You also learn to trust yourself and your abilities. I probably won’t have as much anxiety about falling out of the boat before my rafting trip next time.