A Rip Roaring Rite Of Spring

Just a few years ago, springtime white-water rafting in West Virginia was an adventure best left to the young and the restless. Thrilling? You bet. But only if you were willing to brave a chilly night in a sleeping bag and embrace river transit conducted by a few shivering outfitters.

Today, white-water rafting has grown from the sport of hellions into a multimillion-dollar industry in the Mountain State, with 38 licensed companies offering space-age equipment and the finest comforts of home. Now's the time to try it, too. From Apr. 15 to May 15, Appalachian rivers are running at their peak, with snowmelt and spring rains producing some of the world's finest white water. The area has enough capacity, so even last-minute planners shouldn't have trouble finding an outfitter and a room.

Whether you choose the Cheat, Tygart, or New river in West Virginia or the Youghiogheny just north in Maryland and Pennsylvania, a one-day trip is about $50 per person. But shop around. Some outfitters sell weekend packages including airfare, transportation to the river of your choice, the raft trip, shoreside hot tubs, and videotapes of your adventure for about $300.

Of course, you can still rough it. Plenty of economical hotels charging less than $50 a night have sprung up in Albright, Summersville, and other towns all over rafting country. And there are many inexpensive country-cooking establishments. A fine buffet dinner of ham and fried chicken at the Heldreth Motel in Kingwood, W. Va., costs $6.95.

Plan on arriving the night before your trip. It takes up to six hours to reach the area by car from cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Washington, and New York. The closest big airport is in Charleston, a 40-minute drive away. Rest up, have a hot breakfast, and get to your rafting company at least one hour before trip time. There's plenty of preparation that must be done before you "put in."

What you wear will make or break your trip. Most outfitters rent lightweight wetsuit overalls for about $10. Splurge. You'll be miserable if your body is cold. You can also rent rubber-soled wetsuit booties for $2. At the minimum, wear wool socks and an old pair of sneakers. Remember, your feet will be sitting in cold river water all day at the bottom of the rubber raft.

TEAMWORK. Wear a wool sweater or windbreaker over your wetsuit. You can always shed clothing if the day is warm. The new moisture-repellent synthetic apparel from companies such as Patagonia and L. L. Bean is great. Wring it out, and it dries while you're having lunch. Bring a change of clothes for the end of the trip. Most companies now provide heated changing rooms and showers.

White-water rafting, Appalachian-style, is like college rowing. Teamwork is the key in the four- to eight-person oval rafts. By following the instructions of your guide, you position your raft for each rapid--and then scream your lungs out as you shoot down. Many novice rafters get so excited that they paddle too hard and are exhausted by the third or fourth rapid. So pace yourself. Relax and enjoy the blooming dogwoods and redbuds along the canyon walls.

My personal preference this time of year is the Cheat River. It has the most rapids in the shortest stretch. When the water is high, the Cheat is truly memorable, with Class IV and V rapids (the most dangerous is Class VI) such as Big Nasty and Coliseum--so named because kayakers used to pull up on the rocks and watch the rafts capsize.

Those days are all but gone, thanks to experienced guides familiar with the river's nuances. Just make sure you hook up with an established, licensed rafting company. Get the approved list from the West Virginia Tourism & Parks Div. at 800 225-5982.