Forgive those dreamy smiles on the faces of whitewater rafting enthusiasts. The first weekend of May marks the opening of spring season, and they're contemplating a double shot of brisk, frothy thrills this year. Snowfall in the East was unusually heavy, meaning that the spring melt-off is making the rapids roar from Maine to Georgia. And with the economy still weak, outfitters are offering attractive discounts for the wet-and-wild at heart.
The Internet has made planning a trip a snap. At rafting.com, you'll find a comprehensive overview of what the sport has to offer from 14 of the largest outfitters nationwide. You can also check with state tourism and parks divisions for lists of licensed rafting companies and the amenities they offer.
It pays to shop around, especially now. Premier one-day runs can be had in the range of $60-$70 per person (midweek and group rates are even cheaper), which is about where they were a decade ago. Throw in an $11 wet suit (hey, the water is still cold), a $30 videotape of your adventure provided by the outfitters, two nights' lodging, and a few country meals, and you can still bring it in at less than $250.
For my money, whether you're a beginner, a dabbler, or an experienced rafter, you can't go wrong with the Youghiogheny River in southwestern Pennsylvania, a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh or four hours from Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. The Yough (pronounced Yok) is the birthplace of the rafting industry in the East. A hydroelectric dam keeps the water flow constant through fall, but spring melts really make the rapids sing.
The most popular section is the Lower Yough, with a put-in at Ohiopyle State Park that offers everything you'll need for the journey. First-timers will want a guide, who can lead you through the river's Class III intermediate and even Class IV advanced rapids. Once you've done that a few times and understand their intricacies, you and some friends can guide yourself in the four- and six-person rafts during the more languid summer months when the water level drops and the rapids get calmer.
For seasoned adventurers, the water on the Upper Yough drops in elevation by 900 feet -- same as three football fields -- over 10 miles. Guides-only here -- this is one of the world's premier tests of skills and paddling. If you're bringing children 11 or older, the Middle Yough, a relaxed, gentle float with a few Class I and II rapids, can give the kids a taste of the excitement without fear. (Life vests and helmets are now mandatory in most states for all rafters.) Check with White Water Adventurers (wwaraft.com) for rates and nearby accommodations.
Done the Yough? Springtime is also the right time for the Cheat River, an hour to the south with a put-in point in Albright, W.Va. The Cheat, which relies on a natural water flow, boasts an extraordinary number of Class IV and V rapids in an eight-mile stretch when the water is high. You'll get a hankering to come back every year in early May when the redbuds open and the dogwoods bloom. Or try the Nantahala River in North Carolina or the Chattooga River straddling the South Carolina/Georgia border, both dam-controlled and accessible from Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., or Asheville, N.C.
NATURAL HIGH. Maine becomes a good prospect later in the season, when the weather gets warmer. Northern Outdoors (northernoutdoors.com) offers affordable whitewater adventure packages on the dam-controlled Kennebec, Penobscot, and Dead rivers from the Forks Resort Center in north central Maine. "You get out of the car -- you don't have to get back in for two, three, four days," says co-owner Jim Yearwood. A run with an upscale private cabin for two nights costs about $230 per person. And the resort has fresh lobster on the menu. Corporate groups from BMW, Legal Seafoods, Ingersoll-Rand, and Eastman Kodak have had retreats here. It's only two hours from Portland, Me., or four hours from Boston or Manchester, N.H.
Whatever trip you choose, be sure to savor the small things. Besides the excitement of having walls of water cascade over you, enjoy the flat water, too, and the sheer intoxication of the great outdoors.
By Doug Harbrecht