Hope you enjoy my husband's recollection of our whitewater rafting vacation.
Sat July 3rd
We left home in Maryland and set out for a weeklong vacation at Ace Adventure in WV. Whenever we have a multi-hour, caged-in-car trip, we pick up some books on CD for the trip. We've listened to other Dave Barry CDs before that were basically transcripts of his columns, so we thought his book "Tricky Business" would be equally appropriate for kids to listen too. Well, it’s not exactly child appropriate and I think our son’s vocabulary increased to that of a 60-year-old sailor (lots of chortling and snickering from the back seat). We crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and stopped off at the Sandstone Visitor Center in the southernmost section of the New River Gorge. It’s a beautiful building and worth stopping at if you’re driving by.
We called ahead and asked for a cabin near the lake. They did just as we asked and gave us cabin 4. The cabin was indeed close to the lake and the rafting/climbing departure locations. You don't have to spend a lot of time in WV to see how much the coal industry plays a part in WV's history. I believe that cabin 4 is meant to immerse the occupant in the coal mining experience. We had heavy machinery moving rocks around, busloads of helmeted people being shuttled off and hard rock dust filling our lungs. The cabins down near the parking lot are great if you want easy access to the lake (good for letting kids walk to lake), not so great if you're looking for a quiet cabin away from all the hustle and bustle. We figured we'd probably survive the week there, so we stayed. We ended up liking it a lot. I think the Cozy Cabins are a great deal - $150 a night for a cabin with heat/AC, cable TV, full kitchen, bathroom with hot shower and a "real" hot tub. The last cabin we stayed at in WV the “hot tub” turned out to be a rusty old bathtub on a plywood platform. This was definitely a step up.
All the staff we met at Ace were friendly. Even the maintenance guy was helping us to locate retirement property in WV, in spite of the fact that we were from Maryland and considered undesirable foreigners. He said we probably would be okay.
We dumped our junk in the cabin and headed out to take in the local markets (Wal*China), were you can buy everything from plasma TVs to beef jerky. We filled up on food-like products to keep us fed for a week. We ended the day by celebrating our son’s 13th birthday with ice cream cake.
Sun July 4th
We checked out an NPS map and picked out a hike/bike trail (Keeney’s Creek) in the NRG. It seemed good on paper, so we loaded up the bikes and drove off. We turned off Rt. 19 and started down the paved road that would take us to the trailhead. 30 minutes later, the paved road was definitely gone. We passed a "Stupid Dog Crossing" sign and a pickup truck with most of its body parts attached with duct tape. We were thinking a Dairy Queen trip sounded good right about then. After several stops scanning the woods for something resembling a trailhead, we pulled up to a wide area in the road and saw a U.S. Govt (not NPS) car pull out of a dirt road. We asked if this was the Keeney’s Creek trail; he said he didn't know where that was, but we could bike this road if we wanted. Well, what the hell, we started pedaling up, and up and up. We were going uphill continuously for maybe 3/4 of a mile in 94 degree heat. We came to a couple of large downed trees across the path. That was ample evidence to us that we should turn around and coast downhill and go to DQ.
We returned to our cabin at Ace, and prepared ourselves for the "Battle of the Blob" competition by eating vast quantities of boxed Wal-Mart food. This was a competition on the lake where a small person sits on one end of a large inflatable Twinkie-shaped pillow and a larger person jumps on the other end, sending the sitting person into a low geosynchronous orbit. We played around in the lake waiting for the competition sign up to open.
Once it opened, we ran over like kids hearing the ice cream truck and registered. We were number 2. Not a good omen for the competition. Judges probably won't give high scores to people flinging number 2 into the lake (sorry, my son made me write that joke). My son weighs a little over 100 lbs so we didn't get a lot of air, and our points were in the 5 out of 10 range. Several teams had very large dads and very small children. Many were flung well over 20 feet through the air (kids, not dads). Several of the cannonballized children came up crying. This did not dissipate the blood lust of the crowd. I wonder if this was some sort of early retribution for what these kids will do when they’re teenagers. The competition ended, prizes were awarded, small children re-entered the earth's atmosphere.
We went to the cabin for a quick pizza, and then ran back to the lake to catch the outdoor movie. It took us 30 minutes to realize that it wasn't an avant garde silent movie filmed all in gray. The projector was busted. Well, probably just as well, we were getting up early for a raft trip on lower New River.
Mon July 5th – Lower New River Rafting
We started our morning waiting for the New River bus ride, talking to one of the young laid-back river guide types who are there just having a blast for the summer. I think his name was Tim. Nice guy. We told him we were also doing the summer duckie Gauley trip. He said it was a great trip. We expressed concern that the Gauley is supposed to be challenging and being old people, our definition of challenging whitewater is the hot tub jets on high. He said we should be okay and most people survive. The fact that most people survive is probably reassuring to most people. We started mentally reviewing our medical plan.
We boarded the bus and got the "you are about to die" speech. Stopped off and got our raft and our guide, "Big Wave Dave". Great guy, we gave him 10 out of 10 paddles for guide excellence. There are tons of reviews of the New River, so I'll spare the wave-by-wave replay. Dave did provide us with invaluable information, like the definition of FOFO. FOFO is an acronym for “Full On Freak Out”, a term that describes how people act irrationally when about to be pummeled to death by rapids and boulders. I vowed to act in a mature manner if I faced imminent death by peeing my pants in a calm manner. My wife set herself apart from the rabble by donning her helmet backwards, earning her new name of "River Dork".
Lunch was provided and it was your normal grilled animal parts that stayed with us the rest of the day. A 22-foot jump rock provided a fun diversion. One woman ran up to the edge, had second thoughts and tried to stop. Inertia took over; her legs were still backpedaling as she landed face first in the water. This made the videographer deliriously happy. I didn't do so well on the swimmers rapids. In true hippie style, I "became one with the river". Meaning, gallons of river water entered every bodily orifice, some I didn't even know I had. We finished off the raft ride and were greeted by a shuttle bus with coolers of soda and beer on the front of the bus. One of the guides proclaimed that only in WV can you drink beer on a school bus. Obviously, he hadn't been on a PG County school bus in Maryland in the 70s.
Later we watched the video they took of us on the river. It was better than the movie they showed the night before. It cost $40 to buy. At last, we soaked in our private hot tub and fell fast asleep.
Tues July 6th – Rock Climbing
Rock climbing - we started off early and were cheerfully met by our guides, Kristy, Kelby, and Bob. Two other climbers joined our group, a dad and his 12-year-old son. Kristy drove us to a rock face a couple minutes away on the Ace property. It was about a 70' natural rock wall with climbing gear already strung up. Mom and Dad had never been rock climbing and consider climbing out of bed an adventure. Our guides assured us that we should be okay, most people survive. This appears to be the WV slogan "You'll probably be okay". First we all repelled down the rock face. Our son, who hasn't watched enough Michael Moore movies to be afraid of everything, flew down with no problem. My turn, I leaned over the edge with shaky legs (I don't like heights) and proceeded down, hoping to avoid the bodies of people that weren't in the "probably survive" category. I fell down the rope as graceful as a pregnant yak on a Yo-Yo string. Bob still shouted down "great job". I think he'd tell me I'd done a good job even if I'd done a FOFOPP (FOFO + Peed Pants).
Over the years, I've notice 3 types of excursion guides. Type 1 looks at you with disgust as they realize that it will take all their strength and technical skills to keep you from killing yourself while walking to the outhouse, but they tell you that "you’re doing great". Type 2 is like Type 1, but they tell you how much you disgust them. Type 3 is just happy they’re doing their thing outside and if you happen to be along for the ride, well that's cool too. Our guides today exceeded Type 3 – they were great.
I climbed up one route after another with much sweating, coaxing and knee knocking. Later, while sitting at the bottom, taking inventory of the fingernails I had left, I looked up at the builders at the top of the rock face who were constructing a deck for a future zip-line stand. I was concerned that they were doing construction literally overhead of our ropes. As I watched, one guy sawed off a rail cap and let the excess lumber tumble down the rocks towards us. About halfway down, he gave a "lookout". The wood landed a couple feet from one of our guides. Now, either this man doesn't understand how gravity works, or he was trying to impale someone. I've heard all the "unnatural" things that happen in WV, but I've never heard that gravity was optional. So I'm left to believe, as my wife succinctly put it, that "he's a real d--khead". So, the guides were great, 10 out 10 carabiners for guide excellence. The location would have been a 10 for us beginners if it weren’t for the Bob the Buffoon Builder.
We headed back to the cabin for a bite to eat and contemplate what to do for the afternoon.
What do you do when it’s 95 degrees and you’re staying next to a lake with giant pool toys? Go on a hike, of course. I think the death talks at each activity had numbed our senses and we agreed that it would be a good idea to leave the lake during the hottest part of the day and hike Long Point trail. This trail had what I consider a normal trailhead marker, but it still looked like we were walking through someone's backyard. I was waiting for someone to come out of their house and tell me that we could hike through their backyard and we'd probably be okay. It was a fairly flat wooded walk to a rock outcropping with sheer drops on three sides. The trail ends with a breathtaking 270 degree view with rivers on both sides and the New River Bridge straight ahead. It would be a great hike/view in spring when mountain laurel and rhododendron are in bloom or fall when the trees in the valley would be all lit up. Given the ashes and debris, it looks like a popular spot for the “younguns” to get together, drink, and drop excess lumber on people below them.
We stopped off at the lake for a quiet soak and cool down and then had dinner at our cabin. We spent most evenings at the lake. It was great to be able to cool off after a day of exerting much energy in the attempt to not to be drowned by the river or impaled by falling lumber. The lake seemed to have a different personality every day, depending on what group(s) is visiting that day. One day felt very much like the pool scene out of Caddyshack (without the Baby Ruth). People were assaulting the lake toys as if they were in a GTA video game (Grand Theft Aquatic). The guard was almost hoarse from yelling at everyone. Teenage girls were making inappropriate comments to adult males and at least one dad was giving his pre-teen son beer. They appeared to be from a church group. They must have belonged to the "Blessed Mother of White Trash" church. It did make me consider going back to church. Other afternoons, there was hardly a ripple on the lake. I'd give the lake a 9 out of 10 pool noodles for lake excellence. It only loses 1 point for the crowd. Being an old fat man, I really want to cool off in peace.
Before we left the lake, we went to the gift shop to buy junk and look at the day’s trip photos. We noticed that the rafting video was available for $55.
That night, we built a campfire, but it was warm enough that we ended up sitting almost 10 feet away from the fire. Seemed silly, so we doused it and went to bed.
Wed July 7th – Canopy Zip Line Tour
We gathered at the climbing area for what we guessed would be the least injury-prone trip. All you do is hang like a sack of potatoes from a rope and slide across a line. And so we left for the zip line tour. There were about 17 other potato sacks joining us on the trip. We took a bus to the same location as the rock climbing. There were 7 lines that you zipped along on this trip. You strap into a harness that is then strapped to a wire hanging between two trees and hurl your body off a stable platform through the tree tops, only being held up with a ½ inch wire. A little disconcerting when you recall it was Bob the Buffoon Builder who built it. My wife came close to a FOFO. When she hurled herself across the line, she used her Kung Fu Death Grip on the harness strap to hold herself up, instead of letting the harness take the weight. After two slides, her arms ached badly - a big concern since we were doing the Gauley duckie trip the next day. I found the zip trip fun, but not as fun as rafting, rock climbing or the duckie trip. My son and wife thought it was a blast. I'll give the guides a 10 out of 10 trees, but the trip an 8 out of 10. We went back to the cabin for lunch and considered what to do that afternoon.
We decided to try and find a geocache on the Ace property. We tried to find the trail where the cache was located by using the Ace map. No luck. We asked the guy at the check-in desk and he said it was over there (waving his arm in a north by north south direction). We ended up plugging the coordinates into the GPS and following a road that appeared to lead in that general direction. We ended up near a house in the woods where the road deadended in the middle of nowhere. A movie image appeared in my head of a crazed mountain man with a shotgun – you know the one. We decided to turn around and leave these people their privacy. On the way back we passed a nice woman taking a walk with her kids. She said her mom lived at the house and as long as we weren't rowdy drunks who would leave trash everywhere, she wouldn’t mind if we parked there to get to the overlook. Given that our application to join the “Blessed Mother of White Trash” church hadn't been approved yet, we figured we could live up to this high moral standard. Once parked, it was a short walk across a grassy field to a rock outcropping that held another beautiful view of the NRG. Our GPS indicated that the cache was near a steep precipice with some loose rocks around the area. Given that this was the first location where no one told us we "probably would be OK", we gave up on the cache and hung out and watched the river go by.
Thurs July 8th – Upper Gauley Duckie Trip
Duckies are one-person inflatable kayaks. They’re used on the Gauley River in the summer because the water level is too low for rafts to maneuver through the rocks, and because people love them. Some of the guides’ names that I remember were: Alyse, Katie, Devon and Megan. Peyton and Carl, the videographers, also came along. (Our special thanks to Peyton for his kind help.) We started the trip with an hour-long bus ride where they gave us the death talk (“This isn’t Disney World.’) and added that "we'd probably be okay". Once we got there, we hiked about a mile down into the valley. We jumped into our duckies and paddled out into flat water where we got 20 minutes of training on how to handle 4 hours of rapids up to Class V. This training included instructions like: 1) if you fall out of your boat get back in quickly, and 2) you'll want your life jacket on when you’re being washed on the destroy-sock setting of the washing machine rapids. After the first couple rapids and watching how the guides were set up along the rapids to help us through, I became less concerned and stopped soiling my armor.
Even though we signed up for the lower Gauley that had a minimum age of 13, for several good reasons they decided to send us on the upper Gauley which had a minimum age of 15. This didn't bother us as our son is a better swimmer than either of us and has rafted more than most adults I've rafted with. However, there was one rapid they wouldn't let him go down as they required kids to be at least 15 year old. It was a cool slide that went through a short "cave" where we had to lie back on our duckies to avoid hitting our heads. Our son alleviated his disappointment at missing this golden opportunity to knock himself unconscious by jumping off a rock into the “flume of doom”.
My wife's injuries did slow her down and cause her much concern that she might not make it down the river, but the guides were able to help out several times and she made it down without any great issues. There was one Class IV rapid where she got hung up on a rock and I came up behind and didn't have the time or ability to back paddle away from her. So I T-boned her and sent her tumbling down the river. (Ask a guide what a “Homer” is - he he.) She was a good sport about it.
The trip was great and overall, we had very few problems. They really set it up so you’d have to work to screw it up bad. I still went swimming twice (Shipwreck and Sweets), but I walked out of the river under my own power and with all major appendages still attached. I consider that a success. I think this was our favorite activity. The Gauley is a beautiful river with cool clear water and massive rocks and cliff faces. We had it all to ourselves that day. The lower New was a blast and Dave was a great guy, but kayaking the Gauley was more personal. I would compare it to visiting a national park. You can visit Yellowstone by either a large tour bus (raft) or you can visit it by hiking backcountry by yourself (kayak). We were a lot closer to the rocks, water, fish and goats. Yes, it was a goat we saw and not an escaped river guide, though I think the goat shaved more recently.
We ended the trip with the coolers of beer and a spine shattering bus ride out of the holler. I'd give the guides and the trip a 10 out of 10 rocks. And BTW, don't buy one of the disposable cameras with the rubber band strap. It won't last. I had another camera that had a string-style lanyard that I attached to the raft with a spare carabiner that lasted the whole trip.
We cleaned up and went back to the big tent to watch the video. This time we were told the price was $65. We got back late, surfed the hot tub and crashed early.
Friday – July 9th
No organized activities planned, so we slept late. We decided to go biking on the Rend trail. This trail travels on a slightly downhill grade for 3.5 miles from Minden to Thurmond. If you have 2 cars, there are parking lots at both ends of this trail so you could just roll down to your second car at the take-out point. It would be a great ride for little kids. Cool views and trestle crossings ending near an abandoned railroad depot now restored by the NPS. It was 95 degrees when we did it. We sloshed back, wet with sweat, for lunch and sent grumpy new teenager to the lake. A storm blew in, so he came back, a little less grumpy.
We were out of pre-fabricated boxed food, so we went to the bar for dinner. It was just what you'd expect, beer and burgers. After dinner, we went to the lake for the last time and took turns on the catapult.
Sat July 10th
Packed up to head home. We had a blast at Ace and definitely will recommend it to others. We are considering a return trip next summer or possibly a fall Gauley trip. On our way out we stopped at the gift shop for one more round of souvenir stuff. As we left, the cashier mentioned that we could get the video for $69.
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Hope you enjoy my husband's recollection of our whitewater rafting vacation.