Hard Crash on Pillow Rock: Joy of Fear, White Water rafting on the New River in North Carolina

Photo by White Water Photography with copyright permission

We paddle straight into Pillow Rock as our guide shouts commands on September 19. The goal of this rapid was to not get sucked under by Pillow Rock’s hydraulic.

Our raft came to the top of a huge drop.

There it was, the infamous Pillow Rock.

Nearly all rafters who navigate the New River--which flows through North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia-- know about this ominous rock.

We came over the top of the rapids and then fell. Paddling with all our might and free-falling like we were on Splash Mountain. We roared in fear. With all the speed we had built up from the steep rapid, we bashed into the ginormous boulder. At moment we crashed into Pillow Rock, my whole body jolted to the left. Squirming with all my might to grab onto something, I decided to lay down on the raft. I had no control over my fate. The raft exited the first part of the rapid, spinning counterclockwise 270 degrees, taking our group to safe waters.

We had no other option than to ram into Pillow Rock. We hit Pillow Rock head-on because that is the safest way to overcome the rapid. If we tried to go next to Pillow Rock, the hydraulic of the rock would have slurped up our whole raft. In this instance, our raft would have completely flipped. We would all be stuck under the rock, attempting to swim out. The water pressure would give us no chance of survival.

During our 8-hour car ride to West Virginia, we could not have predicted such a perilous moment on our vacation. But we knew that we were in for adventure since this area of West Virginia is known for white water rafting.

The Summersville Dam makes this such an amazing site. Built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to control flooding, it has been standing strong since 1966. Later on, in 2001, the dam was adjusted to generate hydroelectric power.

We decided to take this trip in the fall because there is just a 6-week window where the USACE lets out a set amount of water creating peak rafting conditions on the river. The amount of water ranges from 2,400 to 2,800 ft3/s. This opportunity is once in a lifetime.

Photo by White Water Photography with copyright permission

I search for something to grab onto while the raft fights its way to the surface on September 19. I couldn’t find anything and time was running out. I thought I was a goner. Suddenly, I felt a tight grip on my foot as someone pulled me back into the raft.

Upon arrival at the “home base”, we checked in, got wetsuits, life jackets, helmets, and paddles. We boarded the bus, got assigned groups, and headed to the river. Once we arrived at the river, we tossed the raft in the water and were on our way.

Our first level four/five rapid offered a huge drop with a ton of white water sitting at the bottom. Before the rapid, our guide warned us that he was going to give a lean in command toward the bottom of the rapid. Instead of calling for us to lean in, he demanded we keep paddling.

“Four strokes forward! Four more!” he said.

This didn’t allow for the left side of the raft to brace properly. After a speedy descent, we rammed into a ton of white water. This forced the nose of the raft, along with me under the water. Then, once the tip of our raft reached the surface, I got flung out. The man sitting to the right of me immediately dropped his paddle and began to lunge to the left, fully extending his body. He grabbed me by my right foot and yanked me halfway back into the raft. While halfway out of the raft, we exited the rapids. After 30 seconds of being dragged in the freezing cold water, he grabbed me by my right arm and pulled me all the way into the raft.

As I looked at my dad, he was laughing at me. There was a huge smile on his face, seeing that I was drenched.

While I caught my breath we attempted to exit the rapid. While I was catching my breath, the strong current of the water forced our raft to the left side of the river. We were immediately pushed into a narrow pathway made of 15-foot rocks. I was imagining the rocks as bumper cars when we got bounced back and forth. As we were smacking against the rocks, I kneeled toward the front trying to find something to grab on, but nothing was sturdy enough to give me the safety I needed. Instead of continuing to search for something to grab, I decided to just lie down on my stomach. This helped prevent me from flying out of the raft for a second time.

After two long days of rafting, our bodies ached as if we had just run a marathon. We showered at “home base”, hopped in the car, and began the best 8-hour car ride I have ever experienced.

During the trip home, my dad and I relived all of the close calls, splashes, and excitement we endured, enjoying newly made memories will last. Going white water rafting on New River is as real as it gets, far more exciting than any roller coaster in the world. There is no set track that the raft follows, and you never know what’s coming next.

My dad and I bonded like never before. We experienced pain, happiness, and love all in one weekend.

Photo by White Water Photography with copyright permission

While we paddle, splashes of water overtake the left side of our raft on September 19.

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