Beguiled on the Cheat
It’s either feast or famine as far as rain is concerned around here. A few years back, there was a prolonged drought, but these past two years we’ve been inundated. The first time we paddled the Cheat River was during the drought. We spent a lazy day paddling in ‘duckies’ (inflatable kayaks), and although there was little whitewater, we were happy to have the river basically to ourselves.
Two guides took us through the Cheat Narrows, showing us their favorite spots. We indulged in oar-splashing battles, paddling races, and lazy swims alongside our duckies. One stop at a deep spot by a giant boulder was a big hit with our son, who repeatedly leapt from the rock into the river. Although it wasn’t an exciting trip by any means, we did go through some modest whitewater at a place called Calamity Rapids. It didn’t look that challenging, but I somehow ended up going backwards through it.
During the last few years, we’ve made several whitewater trips out West, the most memorable along the Snake River in Wyoming. Those trips, mostly through Class III rapids, only whetted our appetite for whitewater adventure. It seemed inconceivable that we lived just hours away from some of the finest whitewater rivers in the world and hadn’t yet taken a full-blown whitewater trip there. Not wanting to let another whitewater season pass, we booked a trip on the Cheat again, this time opting for a Cheat Canyon trip.
When we called to make reservations at Cheat River Outfitters, we were told the river was running so high that no rafts were running that day, but they were probably going to run the next day. This was Father’s Day, and we were delighted at the prospect of high water and a whitewater action for our Father’s Day family outing.
Gearing up, paddling down
It was downright chilly the morning we assembled at the rafting center. Many of the rafters wisely chose to rent wet suits. Not being particularly susceptible to the cold, I opted just for quick-drying synthetic clothing and a nylon jacket. After signing waivers, we were given a safety spiel, during which it was repeatedly emphasized that the river was going to be rough that day. It was so convincing, in fact, that one couple decided to bail. The rest of us were issued life jackets, helmets and paddles. Then we were divided into four groups, six or seven to a raft along with a guide, and given further instructions.
Six outdoorsy German students made up one group, while another group consisted of a group of four French tourists and two nervous-looking middle-aged women. The third boat had a mother-daughter team and two couples. Our boat consisted a very game and fit family of four from Philadelphia and us. Hoisting our rafts, we made the short trek to the river.
Having been on several rafting trips, we pretty much knew the drill, but it’s always interesting to see how each river guide manages his group. Our leader, Mike Wohleber, was the head guide and a seasoned pro. He quickly sorted us out and had us paddling together as a team. It helped, too, that everyone in the boat had been rafting before.
The river was a roiling, frothing muddy brown, quite unlike the clear dark teal beauty I remembered. The strong current carried us along, so we paddled only to maneuver. The first few rapids were purely warm-ups, Class III and fairly exciting but not threatening.
Commercial rafting companies generally don’t take customers through anything high than Class V rapids. Class VI is for experts only, while Class VII rapids are completely unrunable. During high water, the Cheat River Canyon's normal Class III-IV rapids—Decision, Big Nasty, Even Nastier, Fist, Tear Drop, High Falls, Maze, and Coliseum—become very challenging Class IV-V rapids
"Stay in the boat"
As we approached our first Class IV rapid, dubbed "Big Nasty," Mike gave us a final word of advice: "Stay in the boat." This was delivered half in jest, half in earnest. He’d already instructed us on what to do when (not if but when) we fell out or capsized.
Through the rapids, the most important thing, we were told, was to keep paddling, no matter what. Some folks, awestruck by the daunting rapids, simply stop paddling and start looking for something to hold on to. They forget that they’re not mere passengers. Trouble is, in order to get through serious rapids, you have to paddle like hell. Otherwise, the boat can be pinned to a rock, swept into a "hole" (a swirling mass of water that entraps or flips a raft), or left to the mercy of the river.
From my position in the middle of the raft, I couldn’t see what was up ahead as well as my husband and son perched in the bow, but I could sure hear it, a raucous roar that left little doubt about what was in store. Mike had us paddle a few strokes to position the raft, and then as soon as we hit the rapids, he yelled for us to paddle for all we were worth. It seemed like mere seconds, but it was probably longer, before we emerged from Big Nasty, jubilant. We "high fived" our paddles, then made our way to an eddy to watch the other three rafts successfully negotiate the rapids.
It was still early innings, though, and next up was "Even Nastier." "If we’re going to flip on the river today, this will be the place," Mike predicted. "If that happens, make for the shore immediately or you’ll be swept right into another set of rapids."
Even Nastier was true to its name, but by paddling all out, we made it through. No sooner had we done so, though, than the two rafts behind us came to grief. The first was pulled into a churning, whirling, whitewater ‘hole’ and spun about madly before finally capsizing. At that moment the third raft swept in right on top of the hapless rafters still trapped in the whirlpool. Chaos ensued.
A group of onlookers on rocks jutting out into the river quickly helped out, tossing rescue lines and shouting encouragement to those swimming for the shore. We struck out to intercept people being swept downstream, pulling one, two, three, four sputtering, gasping rafters from the water. The people we’d rescued were shivering and blue-lipped from the combined effects cold and shock. It took a while for everyone to regroup on the riverbank downstream; incredibly, all the equipment had been recovered and no one had been seriously hurt, though there were a number of cuts and bruises.
Rescue at "Even Nastier
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
Ahead lay "The Big Five": Fist, Teardrop, High Falls, Maze, and Coliseum. Fist sent me sprawling, and for a moment I was sure I was going overboard, but at the last split second I grabbed onto the guy behind me and managed to stay in the boat. Teardrop shook loose the petite woman seated next to Mike, but he fished her from the water with a practised, seemingly effortless, scoop. At High Falls, the raft bucked so violently that I was thrown backwards, my torso and head nearly in the water before Bob, the man behind me, once again saved the day and grabbed the arm I’d flung up. Amazingly, we all held onto our paddles.
Some weren’t so lucky, however. What we’d begun to call "the unlucky boat" flipped again, this time rather spectacularly in a treacherous spot offering little chance for a rescue. One man was momentarily trapped under the raft, while several others were swept through a relentless set of rapids. One woman managed to pull herself onto a large boulder, but she was the luckiest. When we pulled one of the victims out of the water, he said he’d broken his leg. We paddled to shore where Mike examined the leg, which, indeed, seemed to be broken. After the leg was in a split and the injured man made as comfortable as possible in the center of the raft, though, there was nothing for it. The only way off the river at that point was through one more set of rapids.
When we finally emerged from Coliseum Rapids, I glanced at my watch and was surprised to find it was nearly four in the afternoon. I’d been so intent I hadn’t noticed the hours slipping by. A rescue squad had been called and was waiting at the take-out point for the man with the broken leg. Soaking wet, bone weary, and giddy with relief, we hauled our raft up onto the riverbank. I realized I’d been lucky that day, having emerged with only a few calluses.
Perhaps it was foolhardy, but I was certain of one thing: I’d be back someday to do it all over again.