The Insignificance of Men: Swimming the Upper Gauley's Class V Rapids


Insignificant is a misnomer. There is absolutely nothing insignificant about the rapid known as Insignificant. The naming of Insignificant is legendary. Early explorers of the Gauley River simply arrived at this point below a long rapid of rushing water, house-size rocks, violently crashing five-foot waves, sudden ledge drops, holes and nasty pourovers and proclaimed: “there’s nothing significant above this point.” Even to this day, with all the advancements in whitewater equipment, and clothing, and protective gear; and with the increasingly capable and experienced guides and outfitters who run the Gauley so routinely that many of the most formidable rapids that were once considered unrunable have been downgraded from “dare-devil and life-threatening” to “experts only” to “advanced” to “intermediate” levels of difficulty; Insignificant remains categorized as a true “experts only” Class V rapid.

To put the significance of Insignificant in perspective for those of you who have never gone whitewater rafting or kayaking, a typical exchange between a guide and rafters after cleaning Insignificant might go something like this:

“Wow! That was awesome! What class was that?” Asks the adrenalinized rafter.

“That was a true Class V,” answers the bemused guide, who has been asked this question a thousand times in the last two weeks.

“That was a Class V? Wow! Is there anything bigger?”

"Oh yeah, there are lots of rapids that are bigger, longer, steeper, more dangerous.”

“Really? Have you rafted any of them?” Asks the wide-eyed rafter.

“A few,” the guide answers coyly.

“Have you ever fallen out?” Asks another rafter, a little shaken by Insignificant.

“Oh yeah, I’ve had my share of nasty swims.”

The rafters remain silent, presumably contemplating what a swim of Insignificant might have been like if one of them had fallen out of the raft.

“But Insignificant isn’t the most difficult rapid we’ll see today,” the guide says. “There’s still Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls.”

“Are they bigger than Insignificant?” Asks the timid rafter, now certain that he’s in way over his head.

“Not necessarily bigger,” answers the guide. “Lost Paddle is longer and more dangerous with more undercut rocks. Pillow Rock is bigger in every way, but safer. Iron Ring is short, fast, and steep; and Sweet’s Falls is the highest.”

“And…they’re all Class V?”

“Actually, only Lost Paddle is still a Class V. The other have been downgraded to Class IV+.”

“My God!” exclaims a fourth rafter. What would a Class VI be like?”

The guide takes a long pause and makes eye contact with each rafter in the raft. “Niagara Falls,” answers the guide with a sly grin.

The raft goes silent.

“Paddle forward!” Commands the guide.


I admit it. I wasn’t ready the first time I rafted the Gauley. I was overweight. I was relatively inexperienced, having rafted only two previous times on Class III and IV rivers. But at least I thought I knew what I was getting into. I read books on river hydraulics, I learned the names of all the rapids on the Gauley, I learned what the hazards on the river were and what to do if I found myself out of the raft and heading towards one of them.

The day of my first Gauley adventure dawned cold, overcast, and with the threat of rain. It was forty-two degrees outside and the water temperature was only forty-eight. Wet suits, thermal underwear, wool hats and socks were all required. I felt apprehensive, but believed I was ready. I even had a carabiner clipped to my life jacket to clip onto a throw-rope if I found myself in a life-threatening situation. It’s laughable to me now. In a life-threatening situation, a carabiner is pretty useless and downright life-threatening in its own right if you clip on to a throw rope. But I still carry that gold carabiner with me on every rafting trip. It’s my security blanket. It’s my good luck charm. It’s the repository for my confidence while I’m on the water. Hey, if you think it’s funny, check out some hockey player superstitions.

As it turned out, only two of the seven other rafters in my raft had ever rafted before. I was the experienced one. Kristina had rafted with Joey Anderson, our guide, the previous weekend on the Gauley. My friend Matt had rafted in Colorado once, although not a river this difficult. The other five yahoos had never rafted before, but they were determined to go whitewater rafting, and they were determined to raft the best there was. Lucky me.

We got in the raft and Joey had us practice our paddling strokes. If we were going to make it down the river without flipping or any other serious incident, we had to learn to paddle together as a team. Unfortunately, the tiny fifty-plus year-old woman in front of me didn’t know her left from her right, nor forward from backward. So when Joey called “all forward.” She paddled backward—or at least she attempted to paddle backward. Her paddle barely scratched the surface of the water, not helping propel or control the raft at all.

The woman in front of her got nervous and froze when a command was called, afraid of screwing up. So when Joey called a command, she hesitated so long her strokes were always out of sync with the rest of the raft. She would hit her paddle against the guy’s in front of her or the frail fifty year-old woman in front of me, further hampering the movement of the raft and making Joey’s job of guiding more difficult.

The man in the front on the left of the boat proclaimed himself to be an experienced expert rafter. He proved himself to be nothing but hot air in the first warm-up rapid when he extended his paddle and pushed off rocks that passed by or kept paddling when Joey called for a stop. You might think pushing off rocks makes sense, but in rafting, sometimes rocks are used as aids in maneuvering. Instead of helping the raft, this guy was constantly pushing us out of the line we needed to be on to negotiate the oncoming rapids or turns.

The woman behind this man, while full of bravado and excitement on the bus to the put-in, quickly became an irritating whiner after the first warm-up rapid; incessantly complaining: “It’s cold…I’m so cold. These waves are so big! We’re all going to die, aren’t we? I don’t want to die!”

I kid you not. A whitewater river isn’t like an interstate highway. You can’t exactly stop at the next exit and get off at the mall. I turned around and looked at Joey and Kristina. We didn’t say anything. We just locked eyes with each other. We knew we were fucked.

Setting up for Insignificant, Joey told us the line we would take through the rapid. Joey told us about the undercut rock on the right, that if we fell in, we needed to swim away from the rock. Joey told us how important it was for us all to paddle together. This was a major Class V, and we needed to listen and respond to his commands. Joey told us to brace in and make sure we stayed in the raft. It was going to be bumpy at the top of the rapid, and no matter what , do not fall out at the top of the rapid. Alright, here we go. Paddle forward!

I responded and leaned forward to dig my paddle into the water. Unfortunately, the woman in front of me extended her paddle backward and fouled her paddle in mine. It’s the process of digging into the water that actually keeps you in the raft while you paddle. My paddle never touched the water. All my weight and strength I intended to use to move the raft forward went into a great big air stroke. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are if you violate a law of physics. In this court, I was guilty and I was going in. At the top of Insignificant.

Time froze instantly as the intense cold of the water penetrated my wetsuit, paddling jacket, and thermal underwear. Surprisingly, there was no fear. There was no conscious thought. No thinking: “Oh shit! I’m going to die.” No thinking: “Swim away from the rock!” No thinking: “Hang on to your paddle,” or “swim to the raft!” All there was was a feeling of intense cold, a moment of shock, and then a flood of adrenaline and warmth as my body shifted into survival high gear. And then, just perception and reaction as the primitive portions of my brain that act on instinct alone took over.

I remember every indelible moment as if my eyes, ears, and skin suddenly became digital recorders. I remember the bubbles in the gray-green water. Rising to the surface, gasping for breath in the trough of a wave just before its crystal tentacles crashed over me and dragged me under again. The feel of a rock lightly brushing the soles of my shoes before the bottom fell out and I tumbled over into deep water and then popped up to the surface again—just in time to catch a breath and close my mouth before a towering five-foot wave crashed over me and ran up my nostrils, popping up again, spitting out water, taking another quick breath, another monster wave…. And then the voice shouting: “Swim to the raft! Swim to the raft!”

Consciousness returned like a fog burning off, but all my strength had been sucked out of me by the cold water and my body’s struggle to stay alive. I extended my paddle shaft towards the raft and immediately was surprised I was still holding on to it. Cruelly, the other rafters couldn’t figure out it would be helpful to grasp my paddle and pull me towards the raft. Instead, they extended their paddle blades once they realized I was there, but which are impossible to grab hold of. Finally I slipped towards the back of the raft and Kristina and Joey grabbed my life jacket. As we reached the calm pool below Insignificant and I was no more at the mercy of the ender waves, I let go of my paddle and Joey was able to pull me back into the raft.

I collapsed on the floor of the raft, panting hard, completely out of breath. Joey asked if I were alright. I couldn’t talk, so I nodded. My glasses were still on, and much to my disbelief, I didn’t even get a scratch. Joey told me I had just missed the undercut rock. I was informed by a guide in another boat that I had been swept over the nasty pourover—where my feet had brushed against the rock—and that the other guides thought I would be trapped in the nasty hole below the pourover. And I was informed that I did a good job of swimming towards the raft and that everyone was amazed that I hung onto my paddle. I don’t even remember trying to swim. Chalk one up for primal instincts.

After a few moments rest while pulled over against the river bank, Joey helped me back to my seat. I put my arm around his back and then resumed paddling. Over the next twenty minutes while I slowly recovered and we headed towards Pillow Rock I didn’t get worried or scared, but instead I realized that I now had a glimmer of understanding of what being an animal must be like—without conscious thought, just possessing instinct, perception, and reaction. A lion stalking its prey does not think about how good a zebra would taste for dinner. A lion perceives hunger, lies in wait, and reacts to a zebra passing by; not thinking about the hunt, but rather just acting on instinct and learned behavior to make the kill.

Deep down inside, I realized that with conscious thought or not, human beings are animals that evolved in the wild. We might sit in front of computer screens and televisions in our climate-controlled offices and homes, but we aren’t meant to. We are meant to be physically active and to run and to hunt and to interact with our environment—not to stalk cold cuts in a deli. I’m not saying that I would choose a wild existence. But swimming Insignificant—or rather, being swept helplessly down the rapid like a lifeless twig—was the most primal, powerful, and humbling experience of my life. And I have never felt more alive than in that eternity of battling for survival—which as the VCR proves conclusively, lasted a mere twenty-two seconds.

And I also realized, probably for the first time, how fragile my life was. A few feet left or right, an instant sooner or later, and I could have crashed into a rock, been forced under an undercut and drowned, been trapped and recirculated in a hole like a sock in a washing machine’s spin cycle or like a piece of paper being flushed down a toilet. Swimming a Class V rapid is merely a euphemism. No one swims a Class V rapid. You are swept to wherever the river wants to take you. Insignificant is most definitely a misnomer. Next to the power of Insignificant, I was about as strong, or important in the general scheme of things, as a speck of dust.

Thanks for reading.

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Henson Ray said...

This read like a movie script. I loved all your descriptions and characterizations. Especially the passage regarding your put us right in your shoes, as it were...very well written. Glad you managed to get through all that. But I know what you mean about realizing how fragile life is. You definitely had some "helping hands" on your side that day...Great job!

September 06, 2008 9:14 AM
Anonymous said...

Cool story here, Matt. I've never had the opportunity to try rafting but wow does it look like fun! The pictures that you've got here (especially the first) add to the excitement. Either of them could hold its own in National Geographic.

September 06, 2008 11:00 AM
Ken Armstrong said...

Beautifully told. You *are* Meryl Streep in 'The River Wild' aren't you?

Actually there is a useful metaphor for life in there somewhere (I think). We don't really 'swim' life either - we are often swept along in whichever route it will take us.

Bravo dude!!

@Jeff: I often hold my own in National Geographic too. Those native tribeswomen... :)

September 06, 2008 12:02 PM
Matthew S. Urdan said...

Henson--Thank you for all the kind words and compliments. The experience was amazing. I have never felt more alive than I was in those 22 seconds so close to something opposite to life. Every once in a while I'll feel that kind of adrenaline again on the river, but very rarely... There will be a few more posts in a similar vein during the rest of Gauley Season.

Jeff--I'd be glad to take you rafting any time.

Ken--such high praise coming from you. And you're right, life has a habit of sweeping us along, and sometimes with just as much force as a Class V Rapid.

Thanks guys, I love reading comments like these--it's nice to take a break from the political world...but since my cousin Rachel challenged me on my Sarah Palin post, we'll be returning to politics on Monday or Tuesday.


September 06, 2008 12:12 PM
rockcreekcreations said...

WOW!!! I've never even been close to a raft, but this read put me into the boat and the water! Thank you!

September 06, 2008 3:05 PM
Amy Lilley Designs said...

I agree w/ Henson...very good is a great 'short story'...sit at the edge of your seat good...every detail remembered good...glad that you lived thru it....GOOD!!!

September 07, 2008 6:10 PM
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