Another four foot tall roller ran over my head, submerging me for the third time despite my lifejacket. I was in the Potomac River, in water over my head, traveling down a class three rapids called White Horse. The current was sweeping me downriver through the rapids' forty foot long tube of roiling water.
Passing through the churning wake above my head, I surfaced and sucked air in greedily. I swallowed some water and started to cough. The boat that had preceded me through the rapids was in calm water ten yards away and its crew was calling to me to swim to it. (Right: A boat momentarily disappears in the spray as it navigates the rapids between two rocks on the Shenandoah. Compare this to the picture in the post immediately below of the boat plunging from sight in rapids on the Colorado.)
I had lost a watershoe in the active undertow and it popped to the surface ten feet away in the other direction. I swam to it and grabbed it as a fourth foaming wave rolled over my head, thrusting me underwater again.
On Sunday morning I had driven to Charles Town, WV, with a friend to go rafting on the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. After spending eight eventful days two weeks earlier going down a series of class four and five rapids on the Colorado River where it passes through the Grand Canyon, this outing with its class one, two and three rapids was supposed to be a walk in the park. Still, I was on a seven-person paddling boat instead of an 18-person motorized boat, and there were half a dozen series three rapids in the seven mile trip.
(Left: Approaching whitewater on the Shenandoah.) The mid-summer water was low in the Shenandoah and many large river rocks we went over were near the surface. Unlike in the deep Colorado, the bottom was always visible. Whenever a boat got stuck, the guide would hop out into thigh-deep water and manhandle the raft free.
My friend and I had been stationed as paddlers in front because we had taken the trip before and hence, we were considered experienced with rapids. I didn’t tell them about my week in the Colorado rapids.
On one rapids, a half-foot drop into deeper water off a long flat rock just under the surface, we actually got splashed. A few times we were rocked back and forth as we were propelled into submersed rocks by the current. That was how Chris, our veteran guide, was getting us downriver, by catching the front of the raft on underwater rocks and having the flowing river swing the rear of the boat around in a spinning maneuver to get us off obstructions.
He explained it was like being inside a pinball game, pinging down the river. It was fun if uneventful. (Right: A series three rapids on the picturesque Shenandoah.)
When we passed by Harpers Ferry near the end of our ride and slipped into the Potomac, the water got deeper and faster. Coming up on White Horse, which was the fastest, deepest and best rapids, I had asked Chris if I could swim it along with the guide trainee in the boat who was going to swim it as a training exercise. Chris said sure.
I had stepped into the water and after the boat entered the rapids, pushed off into the slipstream. The current had swiftly taken me into the narrow maelstrom.
(Left: Chris. He asked us what was the difference between a river guide and a stock portfolio. Answer: Unlike the guide, the portfolio will actually mature in ten years and make money.) When I came up from my latest immersion, I was past the rapids. Even though I was sputtering from my rough passage through the cresting waters, I had my shoe and I swam to the boat. I took hold of the paddle handle that Chris was extending and flopped into the boat. Wet, bedraggled and coughing, I rolled over and looked up. My friend was looking down at me worriedly.
I smiled at her and thought, Man, life on the rivers is great!