Conquer Wild Spring Rapids on West Virginia’s New River

Three buddies test their meddle on the water and in the air
By Jacob Fisher

“Adventurous” is one of the last words I’d use to describe my college friend Stephen. But lately he’s gotten even tamer—always glued to his phone and work schedule. So I was surprised when he agreed to join our pal Dane and I to raft West Virginia’s famous New River. With the spring rain, it would be tantamount to rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

We chose to lodge and raft with River Expeditions. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say our trip changed Stephen’s life.

The resort

We cruised across the mountains to River Expedition’s campus in the woods outside Fayetteville. I’d been to adventure resorts before, but when we arrived I realized that River Expeditions was different. They had everything—a pool, a tavern, paintball and hiking—but without the fake glamour I’d noticed at other resorts. There was also an inherent, welcoming feeling that undoubtedly came from the family that owned and operated the resort. This place was real, like it was designed to get us closer to the outdoor way of life.

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Our luxury knotty-pine cabin sat in a hillside brimming with mountain laurel. On the roomy deck, we grilled thick steaks and drank the local brew from Bridge Brew Works. The Momma Rye IPA was so good, I made a mental note to buy more to take back to the city. Dane, Stephen and I sat in the outdoor hot tub, reliving old stories. It was the perfect night.

The zip line

River Expeditions Zipline

Dane and I started the next day by scampering up a cargo net to a wooden platform 20 feet above the forest floor. Steel zip lines connected our platform to the next one hundreds of feet away. We looked down, where Stephen stood at the bottom of the net.

Slowly, like a cat avoiding a puddle, he climbed. “I’m not a huge fan of heights,” he said. I watched as he took a deep breath, and climbed on with a look of determination on his face. At that point, I wondered if he came with us because he was afraid.

When Stephen joined us on the platform, our guide Drew cheered us on as we zoomed on the zip line through woods. It was exhilarating. The last zip traveled 500 feet over a valley and through the blooming canopy, and it was funny to hear the “whooos” of Stephen and Dane as they jumped and traveled toward the platform, their cheers starting out loud and slowly fading as they zipped away. Stephen said he’d felt like an eagle, and I told him he looked more like a cautious baby bird.

Red Dog River Saloon

Later that night we visited the Red Dog Saloon, an authentic West Virginia-style bar with a great beer selection. We watched the sun set from Red Dog’s back porch; it was a warm night and some peeper frogs were singing. When Dane walked back in for another round of Bridge Brews, Stephen asked me, “Do you ever worry that you’re turning into one of those boring office guys?”

“Sometimes,” I said.

“I’m not going to let it happen to me,” he said.

The look of determination when Stephen was climbing the cargo net, and the whoo-ing through the air earlier in the day suddenly made perfect sense.

The raft trip

The next morning the New River was huge and churning; bigger than I remembered from the photos. We started on slow water and our guide, John, used the opportunity to teach us how to paddle as a team.

New River Rafting Guide

As our boat floated toward faster water, Dane started to give a speech worthy of a high school football coach. Lots of, “All right guys, here we go!” and “Let’s do this!” I wasn’t sure if he was motivating us or himself, but the energy from our group was high.

When we hit our first Class II, the splash woke me up like a strong pot of coffee. Dane was in the front of the raft, taking the brunt of the splashes, and Stephen hunkered down beside him with his jaw clenched and eyes narrowed, like a man on a mission. We dunked into waves and followed John’s instructions—It. Was. Fun.

After a streamside lunch, the real adventure began: a thundering series of waves called the Keeneys. John explained that at normal flows the Keeneys were three distinct rapids, but with the higher water they’d become a quarter-mile-long rush of nonstop whitewater.

When we made it to the Keeneys, our raft plowed through the whitecap of the first wave and coasted over the second. We were flung so high I tried to paddle but my paddle just swung through air. On Middle Keeney, we rode a sweet glassy highway between two holes big enough to swallow a car. John navigated us so well we barely even got splashed.

At Lower Keeney, John hollered, “Paddle forward!”

We did.

“Keep paddling!”

We did.

New River Rafting Wave

“Paddle harder!!!”

We funneled into huge roiling rapids. Waves broke all around us. We dipped low into the bowels of the river, then we rose and crashed into a haystack wave so hard that it felt like our boat completely stopped.

“Paddle!” John shouted again.

Stephen and Dane were tossed from their seats to the center of the boat, but Stephen leapt back to his seat and paddled furiously. The raft teetered but we crested the wave and eddied out into calm water.

“Congratulations,” John said. “Y’all just ran some Class V whitewater.”

Stephen was panting but grinning like a Cheshire cat.

We ran the rest of the river that way—smiling and hooting, unafraid. At the take-out, we packed onto the bus and watched the river shrink below us as we crawled up the mountain. We were all tired, soaking in the warm afterglow of adrenaline. Halfway up the mountain we stopped to look down into the gorge.

“Wow,” Stephen said. “Just, wow.”

“Wanna do it again?” I asked him.

“No way,” he said. Then, he reached over and slapped me on the back of the head.

“I’m kidding,” Stephen said. “Let’s come back here soon. I heard it’s a completely different river in the summer.”

I knew he’d never become one of those boring office guys.

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