Paddling whitewater has been a lifelong pursuit of mine, maybe because I’m decades into it and still picking up new things. I’ve learned a lot about technique, reading water, and trusting myself, and I like that the river gives instant feedback. There’s nothing subtle about staying over your boat, and even less about being under it.
My introduction to rivers was through a college friend that took me canoe camping on the Upper New River (in Virginia, above the gorge). That led to a bunch of fabulous trips over the years, stepping up into more and more remote places.
I’m still canoeing, mostly on whitewater, but I’m always looking to branch out and learn new things. To that end, my recent Alaska travels introduced me to small, ultralight (seven pound) Alpacka packrafts, which opened the door to even more wild and remote places.
I got in my first Alpacka about ten years ago, expecting to float easy stuff with camping gear. I did some of those kinds of trips, but I took packrafts down whitewater, too. Along the way, I reminded myself that I shouldn’t just arbitrarily decide where my limits are, just as when I started canoeing. My skills and my tolerance for risk should determine those limits, so I set some aggressive but realistic (and safe) goals.
One of those packraft goals was to run the Lower Gauley in West Virginia, a bigwater river that I know well from previous runs in my canoe. As luck would have it, my friend Lee–with 40 (!) years of experience on the Gauley–was leading a trip a few weeks ago. He was being joined by Jeff and Susan and Chris and a bunch of other super strong paddlers. So, with a great group and a warm day, it was time to see just how realistic my goal was.
As I inflated my Alpacka at the put-in, a few folks were looking on with curiosity–and maybe a little skepticism (well, I might have imagined that second part, as I was a little jumpy). I’ve had a lot of great trips on the Gauley, but there’s been some carnage, too–like Lou’s run of Hell Hole, the bumpy swim that Souzz and I took at Upper Mash, and Bruce and Lori’s cartwheel in Heaven’s Gate. I figured things might be exciting, maybe even entertaining.
With my confidence in check, I took very conservative lines, shepherded along by an experienced group and guided by my own knowledge from past trips. It was good that I’ve gotten out paddling a lot this year, and have taken a bit of instruction. All of that helped me stay over my boat, save for one goofy flip in an easy wave train (so much for consistency). Even so, I couldn’t have asked for a better day and a better group.
There was a lot going on during this trip, and part of the fun was floating a familiar river in a craft that I’m still learning about. That made routine things novel again, pretty amazing. Packrafts are quite nimble and forgiving, and easier to paddle than open boats–except that packrafts are very hard to roll (a flip means a swim, not what I’m accustomed to). Still, they do well in bigger water, and I had to learn to trust the boat.
I also had to trust myself, to know that I’d put in enough time in the boat in progressively harder water in order to step up. There’s not much room for doubt on whitewater, and I reminded myself a few times that success was more in my head than physical. To co-opt a phrase from Yogi Berra, ninety percent of paddling is half mental.
While this run was towards the top of my current skill level in a packraft, there is nothing particularly difficult or scary about the Lower Gauley. There was some risk (there always is), but the most likely bad outcome was that I might take a bunch of swims and ruin the day for my friends (and me). Thankfully, staying centered and in control in big water was a goal that I (mostly) met.
My first packraft descent on the Gauley felt like a nice accomplishment, sure, but I’m already thinking about the next goal. For starters, I’d like to run this stretch again, but with more aggressive lines–and hopefully not test the patience of my friends too much in the process. There’s always more to learn–about paddling, about the boat, about rivers, about myself. I don’t really want to exceed my limits, but from time to time I like to get close enough to see where the line is.