Whitewater Rafting Season Is Here!

By Alicia Dziak

The excitement of passing through rushing water at high speeds. The tranquility of seeing the gorge from its core. If you’ve never experienced Zoar Valley from a raft, now’s your chance.

Last year at this time, I convinced my Dad to join me on a trip down the Cattaraugus Creek in a whitewater raft.

I had been rafting a handful of times, kids in tow, down the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania with friends of mine who are guides.

Before that, my only rafting experience was on the Colorado River, when I was in high school. My family took a cross-country road trip, and my Dad thought it would be cool to stop spur-of-the-moment and try our hand at whitewater rafting.  We found a place that rented rafts, hopped in and tried to navigate down the river, none of us having ever done it before. It was a very humorous experience, and I remember thinking how funny it was that anyone could just rent a raft and take it through the rapids. They didn’t give us any kind of instructions, and we didn’t have a guide, so we ended up spending most of the trip stuck on rocks. But, it was a blast and we all loved it.

All these years later, when I got the opportunity to take a trip through Zoar Valley and show my Dad how one should actually raft, I jumped at the chance. I had only hiked in Zoar Valley before and was eager to see it from within.

I received a list of guidelines of what to wear from the rafting company, and the rest was provided. When we got there, we were given wetsuits to wear, along with life jackets and helmets. It was late April, and still chilly. I knew the water temp would still be very cold, and I hoped that I wouldn’t fall in.

Falling in. That’s probably the biggest fear about rafting. And, of course, it happens. In fact, it happened to me before, when my guide-friend took us through some rapids where we hit a rock and he and I were both launched into the water. Luckily, the kids didn’t fall out with us, and honestly, “launched” may be too strong of a word, as it all happened so fast that I don’t remember the actual falling out part, just the part that there I was, in the water. But, I remembered the instructions to keep my feet up and pointed down the river (feet up so they don’t get stuck under rocks and pull you down; pointed down the river so if anything gets in your way, it hits your feet and not your head) and was soon back inside the raft, all in one piece. Anyway, falling out of the raft isn’t as scary as you think it would be. Nobody laughs at you (well, at least not until it’s over) and everybody helps you out.

Back to Zoar Valley: A large group of us piled onto the bus that would take us to the put-in on the creek. When we got there, the guides told us what we’d need to do once we got on the creek and we separated into smaller groups for each of the rafts. Originally, we were part of a group that would be “trying new things” and “very likely to overturn,” so we made our way to another raft whose guests planned to stick with the more “let’s stay in the raft” strategy.

Our raft was the two of us, a couple, and our guide. We all carried the raft down to the creek. It’s heavy, even with five adults carrying it!

Once in the water, we practiced some of the commands that the guide would be calling out when we hit the rapids, most of which involved people in certain positions in the raft moving their paddles in a certain direction. After a few minutes of that, it was full speed ahead as we headed down the creek with other rafting groups.

Whitewater rapids are classified by how strong they are, Class 1 being the easy and calm, up to Class 5, being rough, tricky and requiring much more knowledge to pass through them. The Mighty Cattaraugus boasts rapids in classes 1-4, but most seem to be around a 2 or a 3 at most, so it’s a perfect spot to experience whitewater rafting for the first time.

Heading into any rapids is a huge adrenaline rush. The raft bobs up and down, the cold water splashes in your face, and you feel like you’re almost going to fall in, secured to the raft only by your foot being wedged into the underside of the seat. The rafters must work together to get through each one, and each has a specific “plan of attack” to successfully make it through, clearly communicated by the guide ahead of time.

The hard work of moving through the rapids was broken up with calm waters and the beautiful scenery of the Zoar Valley gorge, where we could see numerous springtime waterfalls pouring into the creek and bald eagles soaring overhead. There are no roads and no people except for the ones rafting alongside you.

About halfway through our journey, we pulled over for a snack of hot soup. Since we had expended so much energy, I had worked up quite an appetite, and my Dad and I both agreed it was some of the best soup we ever had, scarfing down a couple bowls-full each. After some socializing with the other rafters, we headed back onto the creek to finish our trip down the meandering creek.

I was impressed at how knowledgeable our guide was. He pointed out the wildlife, along with other sites along the way, including an old secluded scout camp along the banks, and answered the numerous questions we threw at him.

At the take out, we steered the raft to shore, then used what little energy we had left to heave the raft up some old concrete stairs and onto the grass. (Admittedly, I didn’t pull my weight during this part. I’m not exactly known for my arm strength!)

We ended up right across the street from where we started, so we headed back to the building to get out of our wet suits, then back outside to enjoy hot dogs and pop with our new friends. In total, the trip took about four hours.

All in all, the rafting trip was more memorable than I could have imagined. Besides getting some fresh air and a great workout, I could finally say I had really seen Zoar Valley, and can’t believe it took me all these years to do so! And the best part was sharing the memories with my Dad, who said, “I have lived in the area my entire life and I had no idea that this natural wonder was as close as it was. Rafting was a thrilling, unique experience!”

Spring rafting season in Zoar Valley is pretty short-lived, as it’s based on the creek’s water level being high from the melting snow. Once summer hits, the creek is low, and rafts can’t pass easily through the water. So, what are you waiting for? Reserve your spot now, and get ready for the most fun you’ll have all spring!

For more information about whitewater rafting opportunities in Zoar Valley, visit www.cattraftingadventures.com or www.zoarvalleyrafting.com.