Taken for a ride

An adventure- seeker takes a totally tubular trip down the Potomac River

July 12, 2008|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun reporter

HARPERS FERRY, W.VA. - If you're into tubing, this town is your Woodstock.

On just about any weekend in the summer, hundreds of tubers can be seen taking lazy, meandering trips down the picturesque Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, many with coolers and beach umbrellas in tow.

But we weren't into lazy, OK?

We weren't into meandering.

We wanted some action. Well, as long as it didn't kill us.

So on a recent weekend, my wife, Nancy, and I took a guided white-water tubing trip on the Potomac with River Riders, an outfit that claims to offer the only licensed Class III white-water tubing in the area.

Rapids are rated from Class I (easy) to Class VI (notify next of kin). We wanted a white-water adventure, sure, but we also preferred not to drown in the process. And this trip, which cost $35 each and covered Class I, II and III rapids with experienced guides pointing the way, eased our minds about the drowning part.

Before going out on the water, River Riders tubers are required to watch a safety video that basically shows you how to secure your life jacket, what to do if your tube flips over, how to avoid getting your feet trapped on the river bottom, etc.

I should add that the possibility of "injury" and "death" on the river were mentioned prominently in the video.

But we were assured this was just to keep the lawyers happy, even though River Riders tubers do have to sign a waiver form absolving the company of any liability should something go wrong and the tuber end up at that Big Tube Party in the Sky.

There were 22 tubers in our group - River Riders requires a minimum of 10 on guided trips - and a dozen or so were deaf kids from a summer camp, along with their counselors.

The rest of us were a mixture of middle-aged couples and teenagers, most being introduced to white-water tubing for the first time.

After the video, we got our life jackets and piled onto the bus for the five-minute trip to the river, where our head guide, Ed Shelley, showed us the proper way to get into our tubes (wade in up to your knees, turn around and flop down), how to turn in either direction (paddle with one arm) and the most efficient way to cut through the water (paddling with both arms and your back facing in the direction you want to go.)

None of this was rocket science, and soon we were all in our bright orange tubes, paddling through slow water to the first of a series of gentle Class I rapids.

There were four guides for our trip, all of them outfitted in sleek kayaks. Basically, what the guides did was "herd" the tubers in our party down the river, pointing out hidden ledges and "wave trains" (a long series of waves) and directing us as to which side of the river to stay on.

Ed, who said he was 36, was a long-haired, tattooed guy with a joyful, surfer-dude mentality ("Any questions? No? Excellent!") and more than 20 years of experience as a white-water guide.

He brought up the rear of our tubing wagon train, encouraging the stragglers and counting heads during our on-shore breaks to make sure we hadn't lost anybody.

By the time we hit the first Class II rapids, most of us were wearing big smiles and seemed fairly comfortable negotiating the white-water.

In gentle rapids, there's really no trick to it. You basically go where the current takes you, although some tubers prefer to take on the rapids feet-forward so they can see what's coming.

To avoid scraping against the rocks, we were urged by our guides to flatten our bodies when hitting the rapids. We were also told to lift our butts up in the tube, which would help us float over any submerged boulders that sneaked up on us.

For the next hour and a half, we happily rode the swift current downriver, bouncing over one series of rapids after another as the current forked left and right past boulder islands and marsh grass.

Still, the rapids were substantial enough that a few people flew off their tubes, including three or four of the kids.

My wife came flying out of her tube on the very last series of rapids, Class II's, which was easily the roughest white-water on the trip, with swirling eddies and a couple of 2- and 3-foot drops.

She managed to hold onto her tube, though, which was one of the key points stressed in the safety video.

Immediately, another of the guides, Steffan Waugh, was at her side in his kayak. He guided her to a nearby rock where she could stand and get back in her tube, not an easy task because the rock was covered with slimy moss.

This is one reason why River Riders urges all tubers to wear old sneakers, water shoes or strapped sandals. Climbing over slippery, jagged rocks or wading through shifting river muck is a nightmare in bare feet.

Finally, after that last series of challenging rapids, we reached a calm bend in the river near the U.S. 340 bridge, which was our "takeout" point to exit the river.

All told, we had traveled some five miles on a rollicking journey down the Potomac in a little more than two hours.

Even though it had been advertised that we would tube over Class III rapids, we didn't, according to our guides.

But Class III rapids or no, my wife and I had a wonderful time and were especially grateful to achieve our goals of having fun and not drowning, not necessarily in that order.



River Riders

408 Alstadt's Hill Road

Harpers Ferry, W. Va. 25425



BTI Whitewater

10985 Harpers Ferry Road

Purcellville, Va. 20132



River and Trail Outfitters

604 Valley Road

Knoxville, Md. 21758



Gunpowder Falls

State Park

Rent tubes at Monkton

Bike Inc.

1900 Monkton Road

Monkton, Md 21111



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