Heater blasting, we bump along rocky dirt roads past farms and barking dogs to the take-out at the confluence of the mighty Cheat and Big Sandy rivers. We pull running shoes over thick socks for the steep two-and-a-half-mile climb out of the gorge. Once at the top we gain downwards momentum for the remaining 3 miles back to the put-in and our stowed boats.
It’s 5:00 p.m. when we finally slip into our creekers on the red sandy shore under the Rockville Bridge. We are both thinking what we are not saying: It’s getting late, maybe we should call this off. The gray sky is tinged with dusk when we push off from shore. We’re paddling hard and fast from the start, negotiating Entrance, Wonder, Zoom Flume and Little Splat without many words—pushing hard to get through the bigger rapids in daylight. We finish the portage around Big Splat in cold, numbing darkness.
The wave trains and boulder gardens below Splat are class III but in darkness they become treacherous and unrecognizable. I bounce off rocks and swing backwards into more rocks. We hug the shoreline using the calm eddies behind large boulders whenever possible. We call out directions above the river’s roar in an effort to stay close without sight.
Blindly, I am swept into an almost fully submerged tree hung between two rocks. For what seems like minutes, I am in a full embrace with the tree—hugging its coarse bark with every ounce of strength. I am rocked in a dangerous slow dance with the water’s surges—my boat rhythmically rising and sucking down in the current beneath the sweeper. I reach for my skirt. My boat and paddle are swept downstream and I am left clinging to the wet trunk, yelling back to darkness, “TREE, TREE, TREE.”
We walk from then on, stumbling along rock- and root-laden shorelines falling, swimming and crawling into darkness. Without sight, the rapids are unidentifiable. Impossibly, the night grows still darker and colder.
First Island Rapid leaps up from the darkness. We stand on the flat rocks on river left and can almost see whitewater crashing down the right channel. Finally, we’re near the end. Our spirits renewed, we scale the steep hillside to find an old logging road leading downstream.
Trudging along the rugged trail, beyond physical exhaustion, I beat myself up. Why didn’t we start earlier, call it off at the put-in, hike out at Big Splat? Why did we let ego and desire trump good judgment and respect for the river?
It is close to midnight when we see a flash of light and hear the distant voices of the search party.