October 14th Friday
Planning was next to non-existent for this trip. I had diligently pre-paid and paid fully for the trip. I had checked the Meetup message boards for updates, but mostly it was just people getting rides lined up for themselves. I threw all my camping and back-packing items in a couple bags a few days before. I looked up the directions and tried to find out where we would be camping. I had planned on taking the day off, but had forgotten to put it on my calendar. Newman, the coordinator of the trip, called me at 11am to tell me that some family issues were going ot keep him from coming on the trip and that he was passing me the torch of leadership. I was not happy about this, but figured that I was going camping with a group of adults and the only real coordination would be to tell them to show up Sunday morning for the rafting trip, I assumed that the days festivities would occupy everyone. So, feeling frazzled, I left work a bit early - and honestly I felt like I was sneaking away, I felt guilty leaving when I left and felt like I could get in trouble if I got "caught". All these stressed feeling, in addition to some anxiety induced by that second Starbucks venti, I was just ready to unwind and forget my worries.
I met Cara, Kaya, and Jamie at the New Carrelton Metro station. We packed everything into my car and we left the lot around 2:30. We dodged the DC traffic, cruising around the Beltway and out 66 with barely a hitch. Jamie and Cara chatting amicably. I was on the quiet side, still feeling anxious, and checking my phone for work-related messages or calls. We made our way to 81 and south to 64 West, the sun slowly sinking, the darkness chasing away the day. After dark we got off of 64 and onto some secondary roads, all of us hungry, we passed through a small town that had half the population of the town at the high school football field, and stopped at the Taco Bell. I had no appetite, I had gotten an email from my boss, asking when I had gotten to and left work today. He never sends a message like that, my anxiety notched up and my phone died. I told Cara of my frustration and she said exactly the right thing and made me eat a bit. I felt much better from her words. The rest of the night I let it go and enjoyed no anxiety.
We soon arrived at the turn off to Class VI and the check-in for our campsite. The guy behind the desk gave us some funky directions and we got turned around, crossed the bridge, made a U-turn, made the incorrect right turn and finally found the group campsite! As we stepped from the car the coldness came as a shock. A few short hours ago the temperature was in the 70s and warm. Now it felt to be in the 50's, our breath coming out in puffs of steam. There was a group of 4 women from the Washington Backpackers already there with tents set up and a fire blazing, drinking some spirits and gabbing. We spoke with them and found a dry place slightly removed from them to pitch our tent by car head-light. We stowed all our gear and popped the top on a few beers. The cute little 10 oz Miller Lites Cara had mistaken picked up. We stood around for an hour or two getting to know the 4 women, all of whom knew each other through the marriage of a sibling or relative. The other people from our group had yet to arrive, from reading their posts they were leaving Centreville at 7 or 8 so would not arrive until late (or rather early!). After the fire-wood burned down we climbed into our tents.
October 15th Saturday
Cara was extremely cold over the night and I got to (or was rather made to, but I liked it!) hold her all night. Kaya was cold too and eventually made it into the double sleeping bag as well. I was comfortable, but pushed around a bit! Sometime during the night other people arrived in the field we were staying. I didn't hear much noise while they set up their tents or any thing like that. After they set up though they stayed up for awhile and drank, which is also fine, the curfew was 1:30am and it was after that, and most were quiet - except one girl and a loud and carrying voice, and of course she liked to talk. I didn't know if she was part of our group or from some other group. I couldn't get back to sleep until she retired as well.
As the day replaced the night we got out of the bag so we could make it down to the lodge for breakfast. We drove down to the main campus and parked. There was wind that there was a payment issue, that some people hadn't shown up and that some people were trying to get a free ride. A couple of the 4 women were rather paranoid about it and were accusatory towards the rest of the group that had arrived after us. I think that the other group had woken them up setting up and they were kind of bitter towards them. I was getting a "group divided" feeling already. It felt like an episode of Survivor almost, the tribes were aligning - and I was trying to stay out of the middle of it, because the other "tribe" was taking the bait and puffing up and acting offended and not talking to Jamie, me, or Cara like we were with the 4 women.
People in the group were asking where I was leading a hike, after they got wind Newman pushed the lead on me. I went and got some free local maps and handed them out, pointing out where the trails were and where the Bridge Day festivities were located.
After the buffet style breakfast we went back to camp and put lunches and water in our backpacks and headed towards the Visitor Center to see about a better map. I did find a hiking map, but it was no better or more extensive than that which I'd already procured. Leading out the back of the Visitor Center was a boardwalk to views of the bridge. We walked down to a viewing platform and watched people BASE jumping from the bridge, repel from the top of the arch, and zip line off to one side. While standing there we saw a jumper go, and go, and go - I never saw his chute deploy, Cara said she saw something puff up right at the very end. Everyone gasped and surmised. Had he died? Someone said, "People have died before, and they kept right-on jumping" and before too long people started jumping again. Had we just seen a man jump to his death? Was it faulty equipment? Did he do it on purpose? Spoiler:The full story of the jumper.
We determined to ask around once we got on the bridge, surely people would know.
Walking towards the bridge we were told we could bring neither backpacks nor dogs on the bridge. Bummed, we began walking back towards the campsite to lock Kaya in for the day. Right by the entrance to the bridge I asked a uniformed officer just to be sure I wasn't getting fed a line by some random guy. The officer confirmed, but also pointed out a church table off to one side that was volunteering to hold bags and dogs for free. Thanks! That saved us a trip and it gave Kaya time to be outside and play with people and other dogs.
The New River Gorge Bridge is a single arch style bridge that is 3030 feet long, 876 feet high, and 70 feet wide. One side of the bridge is closed for the festival, West Virginia's biggest, with 100,000 people in attendance. This year 421 jumps happened off the bridge. Leading up to the bridge were a few vendors, but once on the bridge the only structure set up is the stage were the jumpers do their thing. On the far side of the bridge were more numerous vendors coming from Beckley.
After taking our time to walk the bridge and see all the vendors and watch some jumpers we headed back across. On our travels we heard the guy that appeared to fall to the river had lived, but we got no more details. Cara, Jamie, and myself saw no one else from the Meetup group, which is how I figured it would be. To try and keep up with any group at all in the throng of people was difficult, going with a 19 people would have been impossible and annoying. After collecting Kaya and heading back to camp we drank a bottle of wine and lounged in the warm sun for awhile, I dozed a bit. We decided to walk down to the main campus from our campsite again, about 3/4 of a mile road walk, but figured it would be easier than driving. Kaya came with us, we were planning on just figuring out the details on the rafting and going on a short hike to the gorge edge. By the time we got there and soaked in the view it was close enough to dinner time that we just got seated outside with Kaya.
I also settled our account so we were paid in full after I found out we had been told we owed more than what we already paid. There were two stories stemming from this. Newman told us we lost some of our discount because not enough people had paid. This didn't ring true, and he had never put his deposit down on this trip, nor paid the final piece. Class VI said that Newman had added meals and wet suit rental at the last minute which is what jacked the price. At diner the four older ladies sat at our table and the rest of the group sat away. I was getting some major vibes of tension between them. I really was at a loss for why there was such apparent loathing. Regardless, I enjoyed the spread. Everything was high quality and tasty including Prime Rib, Duck, Salmon, and Pork tenderloin as well as a good salad bar and accompanying vegetables. After paying for our beers we caught a shuttle back to camp to drop Kaya off and put on some warm clothes. And then we started walking back to the campus to hang out at the bar for awhile, in the warmth! A pickup truck pulled up and we got a quick ride back.
We went to the upstairs pub and drank some beers did a shot and chatted amongst the three of us, watching some TV and having a good time. Apparently there was another bar that also had live music but we didn't know about it until the next day. After we settled up we hopped the shuttle back to our campsite. Being frigid out and tired from the lack of sleep the night before we turned in early. There was some back ground noise, the sound of voices and laughter, the thunk of a bean bag being tossed back and forth from a game of corn-hole. The noises didn't bother me, but rather lulled me into slumber.
October 16th Sunday
Sometime in the dark hours before dawn, probably around 2:30 or 3am. I get woken up by three people conversating. Rather, one guy woke me, the other guy that was up was low toned, and the girl was quiet also. The conversation was very obviously alcohol induced, and had I heard it at any time other than the middle of the night I would've been rolling with laughter. Talking of self-defense, loud guy, "I'm a fighter, one time when I was ten I beat the crap out of a 14 year old, broke his nose and then started pounding on him!" That was his only self defense story. Talk about living in the past. I was waiting for his band-camp story. Next he loudly proclaimed, "my right leg is so powerful. It would launch me at someone." Wow. awesome. STFU. I was not the only one thinking this. One of the four ladies got out of the tent and said pretty much what I was thinking. Synopsis, you're loud. Shut up. Go to bed. Of course this wasn't taken kindly. The guys buttoned their lips, the girl though rose to the challenge and got into a verbal assault with the woman. Anyway, after a few minutes the altercation was over and everyone went to bed. All the children put away for the night, I slept soundly until the alarm.
We packed our gear and broke camp while the sky was still mostly dark. After getting everything down and in the car we drove over for breakfast and the rendezvous for rafting. After one final hitch with the bill and getting it cleared we ate and got our wet suits. The clammy rubber warmed quickly with a few layers over top. We went through the process of getting helmets and life-vests. Everyone seemed to be getting along, there were no more harsh comments. It seemed like the worst was over and we were coming together for white water without any lingering grumpiness.
Soon enough we piled on the bus and headed towards our put in spot. We divided into our rafting groups once there. In our group we had me, Cara, Jamie, Kate, Cameron, Toaha, Sean, and Corbin - the guide. We shoved off into the Upper Gauley river and onto the class V rapids just down river!
The Class V rapids were very fun, Corbin was very informative about each set of rapids and how we would go through them, and if we got knocked out of the raft which shore to swim towards. All the rapids had names, like 'The Tomb Stone", Softey, and Woody, most of the names escape me, I was concentrating on staying dry and alive!
After the second Class V the raft behind us flipped and dumped its passengers. We paddled in to the rescue. I pulled in a guy, grasping him by the shoulders and falling backwards into the boat to leverage him in. We were eye tot eye inches apart. The wide saucer-sized eyes full of fear and then gratitude. He thanked me profusely, and that look reinforced that I did not want to go in the drink! We loaded our rescued rafters back into their boat and continued down the river. We would paddle a few times and then rest. Corbin would weave us around kayaks and other rafts, set us at the top of some rapids, giving us some fun lines and keeping us dry mostly. We were very close to capsizing on several occasions but we were fortunate and stayed upright. The adrenaline rushed and we hooted and hollered as we flowed over and around pillows of raging water.
We talked to Corbin, and it turns out he was on the rescue boat that pulled the guy out of the river when his chute didn't deploy. He confirmed that the guy lived, but didn't give much detail beyond that.
As the day wore on and the miles grew further behind us, the sun past it's zenith and the number of rapids ahead of us grew less than the number behind our energy began to flag and thoughts of lunch became obsessive. Finally we came to our break spot and paddled one final push into calm water. We clambered out to a pavilion with a diverse spread. Nachos and cheese, crackers, mash potatoes, hot dogs and hamburgers. I ate my fill and drank some coffee, soaking in the warm sun and listening to the group say some snarky things about one another. Apparently the night before was gone, but not forgotten. The puerile behavior made me rethink about going on Meetups again.
Too soon, as I was just settling back for a nap, the boss- Redneck (aka Larry) called for us to get back in our rafts and head down stream. Around a bend a good spot to jump of a cliff presents itself, some opted to go up and jump off. I decided we had come this far with staying dry, I would try to go the day staying parched!
The day was perfect! In the 70's it was not too hot to paddle and stay comfortable with the splash jackets and life-vests on. The sun shone with gentle autumnal warmth and there wasn't a breeze to speak of. The leaves were changing to their brilliant fall colors, contrasting with the dark blue sky. Shadows were springing up around certain bends in the river with higher sides. With only two Class 2 or 3 rapids left, 'Uncle' Redneck called a storytime in the center of the river. Timing was everything and we were quickly rafted together.
The story of the drowned kittens:
"The rafting company wants me to tell you some history about these parts. On the left shore there used to be a mil town, it went from bustling activity to a ghost town around the time of the Great Depression. One guy lived there after most others had moved on. Well one day he was outside by railroad tracks when a Model T broke down in front of his house. The feller that drove the car came up to the man and asked for help. Being a nice guy the man went and got the missing part from one of his junked vehicles (he was country folk after all, and they always have junk cars sittin' around). The car fixed, the owner of the car asked what he could give to him in payment. The man looked in the back of the car and saw the most beautiful Siamese cats, he talked the man into letting him keep the cats for a spell and breed them, selling the kittens and then giving him the cats back in a year. Settled the man agreed to come back and get his cats in a year.
The man bred the cats several times and made a penny on the gorgeous kittens. Towards the end of the year the female cat escaped and got pregnant from the meanest ugliest barn cat around. When these kittens were born they were twice as ugly and misshapen. The man put the kittens in a basket and chucked them in the river, right here.They floated down. Meow. Meow. Meow and around the bend of the river. Meow. Meow. and suddenly they went quiet. They hit the rapids and drowned.
To this very day, you gotta appease the spirits of the kittens or they will flip people in their rafts. They say a rapid that looks like a cats paw reaches up out of no-where and flips ya."
He looks us and says, "Corbin why don't you go first!"
We float down the river, everyone oblivious to what is about to happen. I have an inkling we are about to get wet. We all play along, meowing loudly trying to appease the cats. Around the bend there is one small rapid, easily avoidable. We headed right for it. Next thing we know, SPLASH!
We are all in the water, the frigid water shockingly cold, I gasped for air and drop the paddle immediately. I was completely buoyant and had no trouble finding the surface. Bodies and paddles were everywhere, some people calling out, but mostly just gasping for air. It happened so quick and even though expected it was still a shock. The river was flat there and it was easy to get back to the boat and hang on the side. We grabbed paddles and Corbin flipped right the boat. Cara pulled me in. Toaha had dislocated his shoulder, and Corbin calmly resets it. Toaha took it without a grimace, and that quick we were back in business. After the rapids all the rafts were close together. In the silence Cara shouted, "Hey Redneck, F you and you cats!" Redneck looks nonplussed and everyone else rolls with laughter. We float on singing the Meow Mix song and warming up.
There was only one rapid left, and people start 'Riding the Bull'. This is when a person sits on the front of the raft and tries to hang on without falling in or out through the rapids. Jamie was elected for bringing it up at the start of the trip. She does a fair job, but less then 7 seconds in she falls backwards into the boat.
Around a bend we paddled up to a sand beach and carried the rafts back to the awaiting trailer and jumped on the bus. Cold beer and lots of banter await on the hour bus ride back to the main campus. Once there we all hustle to get our dry clothes situated and hop in the shower for some much appreciated warmth.
We stuck around to watch our video, which wasn't terribly impressive, and definitely not worth the money. We left tired and sore with a 7 hour drive ahead of us and 7pm! What a long day! My head didn't hit the pillow until 2:30am.