Friday, July 10, 2009

Whitewater Rafting – The Out-of-Raft Experience

Concurrent with Tillerman’s Write a Review group writing project, I planned a little rafting trip as an interesting activity during a visit with my dad in South Carolina. I thought the two would dovetail nicely, and I could write a simple review of the trip and the company who ran it, Wildwater, Ltd.

It should be made clear here that Mrs. Yarg and I are complete neophytes at rafting. She has never been, and I have been only once before. I should also confess that we are not thrill seekers or adrenalin junkies. Planning and surfing in sailboats is enough for me. As a couple, golf and the nature watching version of kayaking are fine with us; skydiving and rock climbing are not.

Anticipating doing the review, I began writing in my head. I found out later that that review had already been written by an Atlanta newspaper and appears on the Wildwater’s website, It contains all the basics:

  • Wildwater Ltd. is widely considered one of the best commercial rafting outfits
  • The trip has laughs, excitement, and splashy outdoor fun
  • The guides are young Bohemians with an encyclopedic knowledge of the river
  • All safety precautions are taken – PFDs, helmets, safety talk about feet first swimming and safety ropes
  • The Chattooga is designated a "wild and scenic" river
  • Rapids have colorful names like Corkscrew, Last Supper, and Deliverance

And everything in that review is correct. But our experience of the trip was more aptly described by our guide’s term – out-of-raft experience.

It all begins with the reservation when they ask which trip you want to go on. The question is: Class III rapids or class IV rapids? Our knowledge of rapid classes is limited to Meryl Streep running a class V in The River Wild. We don’t want that. One of the kids working in the office says, “You want the Class IV. Class III is a little boring.” Class IV it is.

I looked up the definitions later and this is a Class IV (italics are mine):
Class IV/Advanced..... Intense, powerful rapids; turbulent water; may involve long, unavoidable waves, holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure; may require "must" moves above dangerous hazards; risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high; group assistance to swimmers requires practiced skills

Other fun facts not fully appreciated at the time of registration:

  • This is the river on which Deliverance was filmed
  • The Chattooga contains the steepest section of river commercially rafted in the Southeast
  • What I used to think of as small waterfalls are more properly classified as Class IV rapids

All through the safety talk, I am thinking these commercial rafters sure take all the precautions and cover all the bases, but overdo it a bit with a “scared straight” tone. Insisting that we wear PFDs and helmets to cushion falls in case we slip while walking on rocks while not rafting seems a bit much.

The first part of the trip on the river meets all expectations. There is excitement, splashing, and good wet fun. The guy next to me, Don, seems to have been rafting many times and wants all the excitement he can get. With a bump on a rock that is far from extraordinary, Don flies out of the boat into the cool water and seems to enjoy the unfettered ride until the burly guide deftly plucks him back into the boat.

Our guide’s path down the river seems a bit less expertly chosen than Meryl Streep’s or even Burt Reynolds’ and Ned Beatty’s, but I try to make some allowances for reality being different than movies. After getting stranded on submerged rocks a couple of times, and having the guide jump out to wrestle the raft free, Don says “I don’t think he’s the best guide.” After some casual questions from Don, the guide reveals that this is only his second year of rafting, but reassures us with a description of the rigorous training program for guides.

We follow rather simple paddling instructions as the guide does all the brain work and steering. “On this next rapid,” he explains, “everyone has to lean as far as they can to the right.” As the raft seems to climb a rock sideways just before a several foot drop off, we all lean hard right to counterbalance the tilt of the raft. The raft then does a 180, making right left, and we find ourselves leaning hard to the low side of the raft causing both Don and the guide to hurtle into the water. Unpinning himself from between the raft and the rocks, the gasping guide struggles to get the raft marginally under control as we do a spin or two while hauling in the swimmers.

Mrs. Yarg and I exchange concerned glances. We are beginning to worry that the brains and skills of the operation may not be as brainy and skilled as these two trusting neophytes had hoped.

I always thought of whitewater sports as an exercise of skill and grace through a turbulent and chaotic situation. I also thought the object of the game was to thread the raft between the rocks without hitting them. Apparently I was wrong. I have a new respect for the ruggedness and abrasion resistance of inflatable rafts.

As we approach what appears to be a rather long but manageable set of rapids, we watch the boat in front of us intentionally doing 360s down the rapids. As we enter the whitewater, the guide asks if we want to do 360s too. Mrs. Yarg succinctly says “no,” at which time the guide starts spinning us. At about 270 degrees, we roll up on a rock, and Mrs. Yarg and I are ejected over backwards into the river. Repeated capsizes in my Laser have taught me to remain calm in these dunking situations, but the ensuing rapid horizontal movement I experience is new and unsettling. I come up grabbing at the first thing I see which happens to be Mrs. Yarg who, fortunately, has succeeded in latching onto the raft. After floating at high speed with feet up to repel sharp objects and a few ricochets off sunken rocks, the subsequent yanking haul in doesn’t seem so bad. I suggest to the guide that perhaps 360s should be limited to a horizontal plane.

Unlike a sailboat capsize, I don’t see any of this coming. One second I’m in the raft, and the next second I’m upside down in the water. The thought that there are real risks involved in this is finally starting to sink in.

Now the guide is starting to preface his instructions for the upcoming rapids with “There is no reason to fall out of the raft, but when you do…” followed by instructions on which side to swim toward (as if one were in control) and where the rescue ropes will be. Rescue ropes? Yikes!

It turns out that the complete out-of-raft experience includes rescue ropes – beautiful thick yellow ropes thrown by skilled, heroic young men. Yep, you guessed it. The next launching at the second of the famed Five Falls is pictured below. My new best friend, Don, can’t resist diving over me as he, Mrs. Yarg, and I share a triple out-of-raft experience.

As I surface, I realize I am running the rapids without the benefit of a raft. I’m happy to see Mrs. Yarg surface nearby, but no blue rafts or rest stops are ahead on this highway. A golden voice comes out of the trees and shouts, “Catch this!” as that wonderful yellow rope drops two feet in front of me. Without needing additional encouragement, Mrs. Yarg and I lunge for the lifeline, me at the end and she, mid rope. I thought sure that she would provide the pivot point and I would be whipped into the jagged boulders at river’s edge, but our knight in shining PFD runs along the rocks to gradually slow us down until we reach a reasonable take out point. I have never seriously practiced throwing a coil of rope even though I know it might be useful in sailing rescues. I now have a new found regard for this awesome skill.

Nursing scrapes and bruises where thigh met rock and snorting the river water out of our noses, Mrs. Yarg and I shakily anticipate our next attempt to survive the fun we’ve signed up for. Standing on the rocks at the shore and looking at the waterfall I am about to go over is stimulating the fear instinct in me. I am not going to give into it, but all trust in our leader is shot, and the remaining two of the Five Falls are approached with some dread. The guide tells us that he will exercise all caution on the next two, and our approaches will be “textbook.” Why the hell didn’t we try textbook before this?

When there is real trouble ahead the guide hollers “Get down!” and we all duck toward the center of the raft. In this last section of the trip, we continue to cower with heads down long after the “get down” period is over. Somehow we survive the rest of the trip without incident. The guide's official final score for our five tourist raft is seven “swimmers“. (He doesn’t count himself, and the tourists’ count is higher.) I can see from his face that this is well above average. In talking to other guides I find out that the swimmer tally is highly variable, but I am left with the firm impression that the swimmer number should not exceed the passenger number.

In the end, it seems there are several versions of Wildwater Ltd. and their rafting excursions. I guess that’s what outdoor adventure trips are all about. I think that before my next trip I will share with my guide the view that the sport is more elegant when the driver avoids the rocks rather than hits them and when he keeps the passengers in the raft rather than out of the raft. I’m sure an occasional “out-of-raft experience” is an integral part of the sport, but surely there must be a more reasonable balance between swimming and boating.


  1. My first rafting expedition was with a bunch of very young Boy Scouts, and the rapids we were to go over were officially Class II and III, except this was a drought year, so really there weren't any rapids at all.

    My second expedition was with the family, and it was a year of unusually high spring runoff, so rapids that were usually Class III and IV were actually Class IV and V. Our guide was very experienced, and nobody on our raft ended up swimming, but I did NOT find it to be a pleasant experience.

  2. Sorry that at your expense,I laughed so hard at your review that I cried and felt close to fainting from lack of oxygen.

    You two could make a great deal of money by
    selling your story to Saturday Night Live.

    Deliverance was the movie at which I threw up
    because of the high anxiety. It should have been
    an omen to stay away. I am happy that you survived and I will not be trying any class IV rapids soon.

    Kind Regards, Henriette

    PS: Sailing and Kayaking only should be your
    new montra

  3. Those "We didn't know what we were in for" experiences can be more than a little unsettling -- but they make for the best stories afterward.

    I've only been river rafting twice, and one of those wasn't whitewater at all. It was a trip escorting some Boy Scouts on the Rio Grande near Terlingua, Texas, in the Big Bend country. With low flows in the river, I'd call it about "Class one-quarter", with just a few gentle riffles. The real challenge was a headwind and leaky raft that we had to fight to get to our take out point.

    We also did a family trip through the Pilar Race Course section of the Rio Grande near Taos once. With good runoff, the usually mostly class II+ rapids were running an honest class III, maybe barely bordering on IV briefly, but our guide was careful and no one came very close to swimming.

    I occasionally kayak in whitecaps on the lake when the wind gets up, so perhaps that's a sort of whitewater experience.

  4. That looks like a lot of fun! I have always wanted to try river rafting, but never got around to it last summer. I am hoping to do it this summer though! My sister says that the Ocoee river is a great one to go rafting on!