With hopes of buying a used raft, we left Asheville on a Monday morning at 6:30 and were sitting in traffic a few miles from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia by 1:00 that afternoon. Although the town’s population was allegedly under 500 people, the place had many interesting features that drew big crowds of visitors, at least during summer months. Harpers Ferry sits in a spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses a bridge that spans the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Hikers trek right past a building that had become known as John Brown’s Fort because it was where he had holed up before eventually being stabbed and captured by a group of confederate soldiers led by Robert E. Lee. The town has many bed and breakfasts with names such as The Angler’s Inn, Laurel Lodge, and Stonehouse. There were lots of restaurants too, and I felt interested in trying out either the Potomac Grille or the Cannonball Deli. Our plan was to circle through the town to see what we thought and then head out to River Rider’s to check out the raft. We were staying open to where we would spend the night, and I could see one trip that would have us in Harpers Ferry the first night, somewhere off the Skyline Parkway the next, and then a third night near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Pulling me toward a different plan was that there was a presentation to be given that interested me at our local to Asheville REI store. There was a couple who called themselves Yukon and Bean who’d rafted the entire French Broad River Paddle Trail. One the one hand, it might be fun to extend our trip for a couple of days but on the other, I thought Yukon and Bean’s presentation would give us a better idea of how we could get started on our own explorations of the river. At this point, I hadn’t even considered we would attempt the entire paddle trail ourselves.
Yukon and Bean rafted the entirety of the French Broad River Paddle Trail. Here, they are pictured with their raft at Penrose Access Area northeast of Brevard, North Carolina
We drove the three miles from Harpers Ferry back out to River Riders and saw that the rafting company was as busy and popular as the the town. Hundreds of cars were parked up the hill at the main building and more filled the large gravel parking lot and spilled across the street into a grassy field. The staff of River Riders had inflated and cleaned the raft we had come to see. It looked bigger and in better condition than I had expected. They told us they’d pumped it up the night before, and it had stayed inflated. For the same reasons I wouldn’t open up the hood on a new car I was thinking about buying–I mean, who am I kidding, can I even identify one part of an engine and explain its function?–I did not conduct much of an inspection on the raft. The different sections of material (not rubber but looked like rubber to me) were glued together and the seams where the materials were attached did seem to be coming apart. I wasn’t that worried because, after all, it was a used raft and priced $2,000 less than anything else I thought might work for us. The raft had a black rubber bumper that circled the exterior of the boat, and it didn’t look long from coming off. The person I’d been in touch with via email from River Riders had told me to expect these things and that the issues were cosmetic and wouldn’t impact the performance of the raft.
River Riders is located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
I didn’t haggle over the price. After all, I’d come over 400 miles to see it. I said we’d take it, and I asked if they had any used equipment for sale. Buying a raft turned out to be a lot like buying a new camera, a set of golf clubs, or a video game system. There are always lots of unanticipated additional purchases to be made such as lights and microphones to go with the camera, buckets of range balls and greens fees with the clubs, and a set of four game controllers at $60 a pop so the whole family can play games at the same time. We bought four paddles and life jackets in addition to the raft. The bill came to over $800. The number of times we would have to successfully use the raft in order to get our money’s worth was on the rise. The staff member who showed us the raft advised us to deflate it for the trip home. I had previously thought I might try and transport it atop our van as a way to delay the purchase of the large air pump River Riders staff suggested we purchase. They used a Carlson 6 inch barrel pump that could be had locally in Asheville or on Amazon for $268.95. I noticed the pump we needed cost about half as much as our new-to-us raft. While watching several members of the River Rider crew prepare the raft for our trip home, I made the following observations:
- The air valves were nothing like what you’d see on an air mattress or bicycle. They looked like metal springs with little plastic Xs on the end. They were covered with something that looked like a cousin to a car gas cap. Later, I would learn these are called military valves.
- The raft had seven of these military valves, four around the outside and one for each of the three seats. When it came time to pump the raft up, I was to go from valve to valve inflating a little bit at a time as not to tear the walls that separated each air chamber inside the boat.
- In order to deflate the raft, I could take my finger, push the valve in, and turn it to the left. Doing this, the valve would stay in the open position and the air could escape. Before I got the hang of it, it felt like when I was trying to deflate our raft I was stabbing the end of my finger with the point of a paper clip.
- When using the barrel pump I would eventually buy, the air depresses the valve on the raft. The valve should be in the “out” position–turned to the right–when inflating. If I had the valve in the wrong position, each time I took a break from pumping my raft would resume deflating.
- Pumping up a raft makes for a fantastic tricep workout not unlike doing dips.
- The raft was to be folded not so differently than how I was taught to fold shirts when I once trained to work at the Gap. Note A: I actually never did help any customers at the Gap because I quit after two days of training to take a job as a middle school English teacher and high school basketball coach.
- I was told rafts like to be inflated. Storing rafts folded over is hard on the seams.
Indy the dog, Charlotte, and Isabel with their new-used raft at River Riders in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
With the raft purchased, I inquired about the location of River Riders campground so we could check it out before paying for a camping spot. From the photos I’d seen on their website, I pictured a large open space of grass with trees right next to the river. I knew our girls would prefer a sunny mountain stream to play in, but even at this early stage of my outdoor enthusiast life, I knew there was the ideal campsite I imagined and the reality of what we could find. The actual campground–as opposed to the different ones each family member had pictured–was situated on a narrow stretch of land between a gravel road and the river. There was no room to run around, to play tag, or toss a ball. Our tent would go on gravel or hard ground right next to a couple of massive RVs. It was getting into late afternoon, buggy, and the temperature was in the 90s. I had been thinking there might be a trail where we could walk with our dog into town but the campground was further away than I had thought. The prospect of spending six or so hours before dark in the heat right under the noses of some people hanging out in their RV did not appeal to Megan and me. The girls, however, were excited about getting into their new tent and had understandably had enough of being in the car. Despite strong objections from our daughters that involved some tears, Megan and I decided to head for the Skyline Drive. A countdown timer began in my head. It was now after three o’clock. We had forty-two miles to the entrance of the Skyline Drive. We had not eaten since breakfast. I vaguely knew there were campgrounds on the Skyline, but I wasn’t sure of their locations. Not only had we never set up our tent before, it was still in its plastic packaging. Driving west away from the River Riders campground, I thought about the following potential problems: the campground would be full, Megan and the girls would find the campground unappealing and we’d be up on the Skyline Drive where there were no hotels, or we’d arrive after dark and be left setting up our new tent for the first time in the dark. With the girls ticked off at me in the backseat, I tried to explain that these things were all part of the adventure.