Confessions of a Former White-Water Rafting Guide
PJ Stevenson, white-water rafting guide turned director of marketing for West Virginia's Adventures on the Gorge, has spent nearly a quarter-century in the industry, and she's seen it all, from bachelor-party hijinx to aquaphobic guests to nonagenarian regulars. Here, she unpacks the best, worst, and most bizarre things she's seen on the job.
How did you discover you were destined for this line of work?
I came to West Virginia with my mom to go rafting when I was 14. And that was kind of it. I told her when we were leaving to go home that I needed to be a guide when I was old enough. Not that I wanted to, but needed to. When I was 18, I applied for guide training and was accepted. That was 24 years ago, and I’ve never questioned that this was where I was meant to be.
Destiny is a funny thing. I had no intention of working in marketing for a river company. However, there was one fateful day on the river when I hit a rock and broke my leg, which led to light duty work in the office. The following year, I continued to guide but also took on some office responsibilities. After a company merger, I landed in the marketing department, where I’m now the director of marketing. It’s really cool to be able to do this job and still be able to go rafting if I want to!
What do you love about guiding?
River people (and outdoor folks, in general) are really amazing. There’s a very strong bond among our staff and the community, unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. That, combined with having the river gorge as your office and a stream of vacationers with one goal in mind—fun—makes guiding and being a part of this business very fulfilling. Being there for guests while they experience the crazy adventures we offer here for the first time brings back memories of my first river trip. It makes me appreciate the path I’ve chosen.
My niece will tell you that my job is as a convincer, and that I go to work every day to convince people to come have fun in the Big Nature, as she likes to call it. If that were really an official job description, I’d chose it every time. And I get to wear flip flops to work every day. What’s not to love?
What's the biggest surprise you've experienced?
I’ve been in the outdoor industry for 25 years, so it’s safe to say not much surprises me anymore! One foggy morning, I get to the dam (where the Upper Gauley begins) to meet my crew for the day. We had a single guest who was afraid of water and decided that he was going to go rafting to cure his fear. He chose to do the toughest section of whitewater we have, not once, but twice in the same day and paid extra for the smallest raft that we have. It was just me and him in the boat, which makes it more challenging. In the middle of Pillow Rock Rapid, a Class V, he fell out and went deep. His life jacket popped him back up and he looked for me with great big eyes and a smile and said, “I think I’m cured!” (I don’t recommend this as a cure, but it sure was fun that day.)
What's the strangest thing you've experienced? What's the funniest?
Adventures on the Gorge, by its very nature, draws out the fun (and sometimes weird!). Guests come for all kinds of reasons and to celebrate just about anything. It’s not uncommon to see men dressed in embarrassing outfits for bachelor parties or a group of ladies in beaver pelt vests and bikini tops. We used to have a group who would pick a theme for the weekend and dress the part—pirates, Vikings, ninjas, whatever struck their fancy. Each year, it got a little crazier. One of these guys had a prosthetic leg and actually wore different ones that matched the theme.
What's the scariest, or the most intimidating?
Funny that after 15 years of guiding Class IV-V whitewater, my first tourism grant presentation to a panel of 12 people was one of the most intimidating experiences I’ve had in my career.
I was also one of the first women to R1 the Upper Gauley (meaning navigating a small raft by myself). At the put-in, or starting point, I attempted to start my trip three times before finally pushing off. At the end of each rapid, commercial boats were there hanging out to watch and see what happened next. After each of the big Class V rapids, the crowd grew larger. At the end of the trip was a 14-foot waterfall, with a large calm area where people were gathering to relax. It felt like I was dropping into the Coliseum. I could hear people chanting my name right before the drop, a collective gasp, and then cheers as I sailed right through it.
Who is the most memorable guest you've had?
We have had a lot of really amazing guests—people who come from all over the world and from all walks of life. As a part of my job, I get to host cocktail parties on Saturday nights for our loyal guests, and each has unique stories and memories about their time spent at Adventures on the Gorge. A few of the folks I most look forward to seeing each year are Alex, a blackjack dealer about to complete his 100th rafting trip; Frank, a 90-plus-year-old gentleman who rafts the Upper Gauley River with his adult kids; and Shawn, who has three tattoos based on our company logo. It’s so much fun to hear what the past year held for them and to meet the new folks that they are bringing into the fold.
What's the most challenging thing about being on the water?
Guiding has been the least challenging part of my time in the industry. The most challenging part of my job is getting more people to see West Virginia the way I do. It’s an amazing place filled with the friendliest people who are open to sharing their little piece of heaven with anyone who is interested. West Virginia is often a mystery to people, but there are wild and wonderful things you can see and do here.
How to See a Rocket Launch in Cape Canaveral, FL
There’s a lot of excitement these days about the next frontier - space travel. So far, in 2018, SpaceX launched a car into space with it’s Falcon Heavy rocket - the powerful and reusable rocket that will take us to Mars. The James Webb Space telescope is the long-awaited follow-up to Hubble that will allow us to see the beginning of time itself will launch from French Guiana in 2019. Soon, the first commercial flights to space will launch, giving anyone the chance to be an astronaut (if you have a lot of money to spend, that is). We don’t have any budget tips for taking a spaceflight (yet), but here’s how you can see a rocket launch without breaking the bank. CAPE CANAVERAL, FL The area around Cape Canaveral, known more broadly as the “Space Coast” (how cool is that!) has seen a boom in activity thanks to the increase in space activity, so the area around is worth planning a mini-vacation for. Notably, the beaches are some of the most pristine beaches in the country. In fact, the Space Coast offers such a unique experience that it was named to Lonely Planet’s Best in US list for 2018. Orlando is only about a 45-minute drive west, and the Spanish colonial town of St. Augustine, Fla., is only about two hours north. Reasonable flights into Orlando can be found roundtrip from most major airports. Hotel rooms can be found nearby for under $100/night. You’ll need to rent a car, which you can do for as little as $23 out of the Orlando airport. PICK A THREE-DAY LAUNCH WINDOW There are frequent launches from Cape Canaveral through the summer seasons. You can find the schedule for space-flights around the world is published at spaceflightnow.com. If you choose to go for the launch of a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, then you’ll also get to witness the landing of these reusable rockets. Keep in mind that rocket launches are highly dependent on weather, so there is a possibility that the launch you want to see has to be rescheduled. Plan to be around Cape Canaveral, Fla., for at least two days—the scheduled day and the day after. (We suggest you arrive a day ahead of the launch date so that you can take a tour and snap photos up close of the rocket on the launch pad.) WATCHING THE LAUNCH Rocket launches are open to public viewing, so there are many ways to watch launches without paying admission, even from a nearby beach! You can find a list of launch locations at the Space Coast information page. Listen for launch details on the radio on AM stations 1240 and 1350, and plan to deal with a lot of car traffic on launch days. You don’t want to pick the wrong place and be downwind of the smoke! The Kennedy Space Center offers several options for viewing shuttle launches, and tickets can be purchased at kennedyspacecenter.com or by phone at 321/449-4444 about six weeks before a launch. Launch viewing is included in the price of a ticket to the Center, but upgrades for better visibility can be added for an additional $20-$49. The Kennedy Space Center is also an interactive museum, great for families and space nerds alike. Daily admission is $50 for adults 12+ and $40 for children under 12. The price of admission includes access all of the Center’s exhibits like “Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted,” as well as entry to the IMAX theater to see incredible space documentaries play out on huge screens. A WORD OF CAUTION If your launch is rescheduled up to the day before, your tickets will be valid for the rescheduled launch date. But if you enter the Center and the launch is rescheduled to another date, your launch viewing tickets are considered “used” and you'll have to buy a new ticket for the new launch date. And if a launch is canceled (or "scrubbed," in NASA lingo), you don't get a refund.
Travel 101: The Best of Florida
Florida is a big, beautiful place with something for every style of traveler. Here, we've narrowed the list a bit, with options that will please everyone in your family. THE SPACE COAST Just about an hour’s drive from Orlando, the Cape Canaveral area is one of Florida’s jewels. Cruising the “Space Coast” between Titusville and Melbourne is a thrilling way to delve into America’s past (this was, after all, the center of the national space program in the 1960s) and enjoy some of the state’s finest natural wonders, too. The Kennedy Space Center is the must-see here for its great displays devoted to the space program. But you may find yourself just as drawn to beaches and wildlife refuges, and that’s just fine. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to egrets, herons, manatees, and even feral hogs. Canaveral National Seashore is a cool place to see loggerhead turtles in their natural habitat. Cocoa Beach is a surfer's paradise—where else can you shop 24/7 at Ron Jon's Surf Shop? You can also pick up the perfect Cuban sandwich in Cocoa. In Melbourne, you can sign up for open-water scuba lessons if you’re feeling adventurous, or just relax at a local eatery with a plate of fried chicken atop buttermilk pancakes. ORLANDO’S FOOD SCENE Sure, we all know that Miami is a mecca for foodies. But Orlando has its own food scene that even some of its biggest fans are surprised to learn about. Devotees of the “big three” theme parks (Universal, Disney, and SeaWorld) may know that the fish & chips at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are magical, and that Walt Disney World and Epcot offer fine dining choices, but when it comes to culinary arts, Orlando is not such a small world after all. The Rusty Spoon has garnered much praise for its creative use of fresh local ingredients sourced from Florida farmers, including butter-poached wild clams and slow-braised Jamison farm lamb collar. International Drive has an array of choices like Ethiopian, Indian, and Japanese fare, and a new Shake Shack (the chain that started as a NYC hot dog cart) has arrived, too. And we enjoy partaking of food trucks like Arepas El Cacao. THE WILD SIDE You’ve no doubt heard that Everglades National Park is a famous Florida park, with miles of fascinating and beautiful waterways and wildlife like alligators. But Florida is also home to lesser known parks and preserves such as Honeymoon Island, a state park with four miles of white beaches and two miles of nature trails where you may spot osprey, bald eagles, and terns. Once known as Hog Island, the decidedly romantic park got a lift when beach cottages were built in the 1930s and the name was changed to more accurately describe its allure. The cottages are gone, but more than a million visitors enjoy the day trip to swim, surf, kayak, and search for seashells along the shore. (You can stay in the nearby towns of Dunedin and Clearwater Beach.) THE KEYS Sunset Celebration at Key West’s Mallory Square is one of those bucket-list items every visitor must experience, preferably with a margarita from one of the nearby stands in hand. Key West is known for its party scene, but just around the corner from raucous Duval Street you’ll find the quieter Bahama Village neighborhood. Tour the “Little White House,” where Harry Truman stayed on vacation when he was president, and the Hemingway Home and Museum and check out the many cats said to have descended directly from Papa’s semi-famous six-toed cat. Just up Route 1, you’ll marvel at Seven Mile Bridge, which runs between mile markers 40 and 47, and Key Largo, where you can rent a bungalow and enjoy a slice of, what else, key lime pie. THE GULF COAST Though Florida is justly renowned for its Atlantic beaches, the western shores of the state are beautiful in their own right and are home to one of North America’s finest seafood scenes, deserving equal footing with Maine’s lobsters, Maryland’s crabs, and Baja’s fish tacos. The marina in the village of Dunedin, for instance, offers locally caught cobia and mangrove snapper that are prepared and turned into tasty fish tacos. In Clearwater Beach, you can watch fishermen on the Pier (and try it yourself) and grab yourself some smoked mullet, salmon, mahi mahi, and mackerel at Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish in nearby South Pasadena. Just across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (which looks like a giant sailboat), check out Skyway Fishing Pier State Park, the world’s longest fishing pier, where the pelicans will entertain you with their antics. A BEACH FOR EVERY PERSONALITY It’s no secret that we’re fans of Siesta Key, just off the coast of Sarasota. The white sands of Crescent Beach are dazzlingly bright, composed of pure quartz that has made its way from the Appalachian Mountains down Florida’s rivers to settle here along the coast. (The Guinness Book of World Records says Hyams Beach in Australia has whiter sand, but we’re not entirely convinced.) Say “Florida” to most travelers and not only Siesta Key but an array of other white-sand beaches spring to mind. We’ve sometimes wondered if the state has a beach for every type of beachgoer. Turns out we were onto something: VISIT FLORIDA has published a Beach Finder app that allows you to adjust your interests and preferences to find the perfect Florida beach for you! ALL THAT HISTORY Along with beaches, fun in the sun, seafood, and America’s space program, Florida also boasts heaps of history. The city of St. Augustine, for instance, celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2015. (Yes, the city was founded more than 50 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.) A trip to St. Augustine lets you travel back to the days of the Colonial Quarter and scenic Castillo de San Marcos, get your pirate on at Pat Croce’s St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, and take a “Frightseeing” ghost tour of America’s oldest city. Discover Florida. With 825 miles of beaches and the world’s best theme parks, there are endless ways find fun every day in Florida. Starting planning your vacation today at VISITFLORIDA.com.
6 Places to See Endangered Species in Florida
With miles of coast calling to beach lovers, theme parks in Orlando and surrounding areas for thrill seekers, and nightlife in Miami for people who like to party, there's plenty to do in the Sunshine State. But where do animal lovers go? Here are six places where you can spot endangered animals both in captivity and in nature. Orlando: Gatorland Ask any Floridian and they'll tell you the American Alligator is nowhere near endangered—they'll probably point you toward the nearest golf course to find one. In fact, this animal is labeled "least concern" under the IUCN Red List. However, Gatorland (gatorland.com) is a great place to learn about these ancient animals and meet other endangered species native to Florida. A few years ago, two new faces, Neiko and Lucy, brother-sister Florida panthers, arrived at Gatorland. They were raised by a conservationist and needed a bigger habitat, so they moved to Gatorland where they're able to educate visitors on the plight of the Florida panther. There are fewer than 200 panthers left in Florida, and the number keeps decreasing as their habitat keeps shrinking. While there are many things to do in the Orlando area, it's worth paying a visit to Gatorland to learn about what makes Florida's animals special. Tampa: Busch Gardens Employees joke that Busch Gardens is a brewery tour that got out of hand. It started as a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery and beer gardens, and quickly became a park with botanical gardens, birds, animals, and—finally—thrill rides. Today, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has seven roller coasters and is home to 250 species, 20 of which are endangered. Depending on what part of the park you're in, you'll be able to learn about animals from all over the world. There's the Myombe Reserve with Gorillas and Chimpanzees, Jungala with tigers and orangutans, and Walkabout Way, where visitors can feed their favorite Australian animals—kangaroos and wallabies. If you're staying in Orlando to visit Disney and the other theme parks, you can take a shuttle from the city to Busch Gardens and back. There are many things to do in the Tampa area, but Busch Gardens is a fun trip for thrill seekers and animal lovers alike. Bradenton: The South Florida Museum There are many places to see manatees in Florida—SeaWorld Orlando and Crystal River are just two—but if you want to see the oldest manatee in captivity, you need to visit Bradenton. Snooty is the beloved resident of the South Florida Museum and is celebrating his 66th birthday this year. At 1,100 pounds, this 9-foot 8-inch long manatee has greeted more than a million visitors in his lifetime.On top of Snooty, the South Florida Museum has a planetarium, fossil collection, and a wealth of history about Native American tribes in the area. Whether you're a history buff, animal lover, or future astronaut, you'll enjoy the museum and city of Bradenton. Miami: Gator Park If you're staying in the Miami area, it's worth leaving the beach to explore the Everglades. One of the best ways to do that is by airboat. Gator Park Airboat Tours show visitors more than their namesake reptile; they also spot soft-shelled turtles and several species of birds only found in Florida. Plus, the experience of high-tailing it across the Everglades on an airboat is something your family won't forget. When you get back to dry land, check out some of the shows at Gator Park to learn about endangered Florida wildlife and meet some of their resident peacocks, snakes, and macaws. Melbourne: Sea Turtle Preservation Society If you're looking to spot endangered sea turtles in Florida, there's no better way to see them than by taking a sea turtle walk on the coast. You'll arrive around 8:30 p.m., follow the guides to learn about these elegant animals, and watch the Loggerhead sea turtles nest. Floridians take extra precautions to keep sea turtles and their babies safe during the summer. First, they avoid beachfront lighting and draw their blinds to make sure the turtles follow the moon back to the surf instead of getting confused by street lamps. They also remove trash from the beach whenever possible and avoid all areas of known sea turtle nests marked by researchers. If you want to learn how to protect these animals while watching them complete the circle of life, check to see if there is a turtle walk near you. They're not just in Melbourne; you can find them all over the Florida coast. Jacksonville: Zoo and Gardens We've covered just about every corner of Florida except for the north, but there's no shortage of endangered species to see there. Jacksonville Zoo (which has the witty slogan, "more to see, more to zoo") has 92 acres of animal exhibits and more than 25 educational programs. On top of animals, the zoo also has several species of plants that correspond with the animal exhibits around them. Parenting magazine named the Jacksonville Zoo in their top 15 out of 2,000 surveyed zoos. Check the website for special discounts like Father's Day coupons and to find out about special events held by the zoo. Animal birthdays are common, along with conservation fundraising events like "Bowling for Rhinos." The keepers and staff work to make the zoo a place where visitors can see endangered species and interact with them to form a close connection, all while learning something along the way. Florida offers many opportunities to see endangered species. When you arrive, look to see what conservation groups are nearby. These experts know the ins and outs of the area and can take you to meet some gators, see the sea turtles, or get up close and personal with a manatee.
Wild & Wonderful Leaf-Peeping Destinations You Haven't Seen Yet
Leaf-peeping season is flying by, but there’s still time to catch the colors in all their glory—if you know where to look. Enter: The fall-foliage map from Hipcamp, a website that aims to get people outside and into nature via campsites at national parks and private properties around the country. Input your travel dates, tailor your search by price, group size, amenities, activities, or terrain, and the results will reveal where leaves are still at their peak and what properties are available to book, so you can choose a location and pick your accommodation in one fell swoop. Having a tough time deciding between New England and the Smokies? Let the destination be your guide. From glamping in the Adirondacks to snuggling up in a tipi at an animal sanctuary in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, these are not your average drive-in campsites. Glamping at Wintergreen Lake in the Adirondacks. (Courtesy Mariah Baron) Get away from city life and back to nature with a glamping trip to Wintergreen Lake, a private retreat in the Adirondacks run by the same family for seven generations. Go for a hike and feel the leaves crunch beneath your feet, then spend the afternoon on the water, canoeing or kayaking, before heading back to home base: a platform tent kitted out with soft rugs, cozy linens, and mood lighting, courtesy of string lights at the entryway and lanterns at the bedside. A nearby cabin with full electricity and comfy couches supplies an extra lounge area, while the lakeside firepit—complete with a pair of the region’s namesake Adirondack chairs—provides the perfect position for star-gazing, bird-watching, or canoodling. Butterfly Farm Sanctuary's EarthSeed tent. (Courtesy Bryan Collings) In the Great Smoky Mountains, the Butterfly Farm Sanctuary offers an Instagram-worthy photo op for anyone seeking personal clarity minus the roughing-it part of the outdoor experience—in the spiritual retreat’s EarthSeed tent, you'll find solitude without sacrificing the amenities. With its queen-size bed, carpeted floors, and in-tent furnace allowing for year-round use, nearby bathroom and kitchen facilities (vegetarian cooking only!), and a private deck for morning meditations, you’ll be saying “serenity now” in no time. Beechwood Cabin Tent. (Courtesy Andrew Shepherd) For something similarly civilized but a little more spacious, consider one of the cabin tents at Thus Far Farms in South Carolina—it’s the best of both worlds, with sturdy wood flooring and metal roofing, plus canvas tenting to remind you that you’re out in the elements (but still keep you warm and dry). There’s a kitchen with a camp stove and dish-washing area for easy meal prep, dining tables inside and out, a wood stove, and an indoor toilet; the solar-heated shower is just steps outside the door. Forage for mushrooms at Hawk Meadow Farm. (Courtesy Ezekiel Gonzalez) Fans of fungi will appreciate a stay at a working shiitake farm in the Fingerlakes, set on 60 acres of woods and fields in the middle of wine country, complete with a crystal-clear stream, plenty of leafy colors, easy access to vineyards, and log-grown fresh mushrooms for breakfast. If 'shrooms aren't your thing, try taking in the stunning views of the Blue Ridge mountains from a private perch on a North Carolina farm, just outside of Pisgah National Forest. Pitch your tent at one of the secluded campsites, explore the property’s fields and trails, and revel in seclusion under the stars. But only if you want to be alone—the property is also home to a music and arts retreat, so the vibe is warm and welcoming, with live jam sessions and a community house with a wood-burning stove. Be sure to tour the solar-powered recording studio and tropical subterranean greenhouse before you make tracks. Further north, on the banks of the Winooski River in Vermont, a public campground called Onion River plays host to campers, hikers, and leaf-peepers from May to October. It’s not quite as private as some of the other places mentioned here, but the beautiful surroundings more than make up for it. Go for a dip in the river if it’s not too cold, pick apples from the orchard, and wander the trails before heading back to your site for a quiet evening around the firepit.