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West Virginia Wild Water
Thomas R. Fletcher
The name strikes fear into hearts of the whitewater timid. I know. Been there, felt the fear. The name is spoken in hushed, reverential tones by experienced enthusiasts. All serious whitewater adventurers have either done or long to do this river. It is West Virginia's mighty Gauley River. Without controversy, The Gauley is among the most thrilling whitewater rivers in the United States.
"I have Gauley posters on my wall," a whitewater guide in Vermont informed me.
Although he has yet to do the Gauley, he looks at his poster and dreams--or so he says. Such is the enthusiasm generated by this awesome river. Every year, for six consecutive weekends in September and October, during the annual draw-down of the Summersville Dam, people flock to the area to experience the thrill of a lifetime. During the draw-down the water is released at a constant rate of 2,800 cubic feet per second. No wonder Outside magazine referred to it as "the hillbilly autobahn." The Gauley is a pounding, swirling, tumbling, fast and furious river.
Located in the heart of mountainous West Virginia, the Gauley flows through some of the most remote and gorgeous scenery in the eastern United States. It is channeled through a steep canyon that is an average of 500 feet deep. Recommended only for commercial rafting trips and expert kayakers, the river crashes over and around boulders the size of homes. Riding the Gauley is as pure an adrenaline rush as one could possibly hope for--or want. Just listen to the names of some of the rapids: "Heaven Help You," "Upper and Lower Mash," and "Pure Screaming Hell," with "Hell Hole" in the middle of this Class V beauty.
Having grown up only two miles from the Gauley, I have watched this river my whole life. I've seen it raging at flood stage. I've seen it nearly dry in summer drought. Until recently, I have appreciated this river's majesty from the safety of shore. I have always possessed a healthy respect for fast moving water, and saw no reason to place myself in it. So it took me quite awhile to make the final decision that I would raft the Gauley. Actually it took about a year and a half, and part of the process was rafting a somewhat less intimidating river, the New.
The New River, another of West Virginia's whitewater rivers is no slacker. It makes the top ten list of whitewater rivers in the United States. The New, despite its name is one of the oldest rivers in the world, second only to the Nile. Scientists estimate that it has flowed in its present course for the last 65 million years. It has cut a deep gorge through West Virginia's mountains 2,000 feet deep in places. Actually, the river was there before the mountains--indicated by the fact that it flows across the Appalachian Plateau. As the mountains were pushed up, The New stayed its course and cut through the uprising material.
I took a rafting trip down the New in early spring when the water levels were high. The rapids we rode ranged from Class III to Class V. "Surprise Rapid" was the first Class III we encountered. We watched as the raft in front of us sent all the occupants, except the guide, for a swim. We took the rapids smoothly but my heart was beating double-time at that point. In fact, we took all the rapids smoothly, even the highly technical "Double Z." As we neared the end of our trip, we passed under the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's longest single-span arch bridge and the world's second highest at 876 feet above the river.
The New River experience was thrilling. I would like to say I was immediately prepared to do the Gauley. Such was not the case. I decided I would go watch other rafters and kayakers. The Gauley has two separate sections, the Upper and Lower. The put-in for the Upper is just below the Summersville Dam. I watched one raft, containing seven people entered the put-in. It was as if the raft were shot from a cannon, flailing downstream.
Still not ready for the Gauley, I wondered what kind of training do the guides have? What sort of guidelines do they follow? What qualifies a person to take 6 or 8 people in a rubber raft through such monstrous waters?
It turns out the training is extensive, rigorous, and ongoing. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has established guidelines with which commercial rafting companies must comply in order to obtain and maintain a license. "Whitewater Guide-Trainee Information Sheets" have to be maintained and submitted annually to DNR. Each guide has to be CPR and First-Aid certified by the American Red Cross. Their cards must be kept current. Guides must have a minimum of 10 trips on each river to be certified ("or rivers of comparable or higher American Whitewater Affiliation class rating...of which three trips were on the river portion to be guided"). Regulations state that guides "must have knowledge of the area to be traversed." Each commercial rafting trip has to have a "trip leader." The qualifications for trip leaders are more stringent, roughly double that of the guides.
There is also a certain amount of "risk management" training that guides must have. They are trained to discern whether guests are impaired through alcohol or drugs. Such guests pose a danger to other guests. Does a guest have a look of petrified fear on his or her face? These risks must be identified and dealt with before getting on the river. The guides have the authority and the responsibility to remove any guest whom they deem to be a problem or risk to other guests.
After checking the training standards of DNR, many of my fears were allayed--though not vanquished. The idea of actually going whitewater rafting had required some serious adjustments in my attitude. It is a dangerous sport, bouncing through that pounding, out of control primal element--water. Even after having rafted the New, the Gauley still seemed fearsome.
One of the good things about whitewater rafting in West Virginia is that there is something for everyone, "from the mild to the wild," as the brochures say. There are different sections on the different rivers, and depending upon the time of year, the same river can be completely different. As a rule the Upper New is mild, Lower New is wild, but at high water levels it is all pretty wild. In summer, the New is all pretty mild, more of a float trip. The Lower Gauley is a notch above the Lower New and the Upper Gauley is off the scale in my book. The good thing about the Gauley in fall is that it is a controlled release and the level is consistent. In spring the release is determined by the amount of water flowing into the dam and the release rate may go as high as 12,000 cubic feet per second. I know a few radical kayakers that have ridden it at those ridiculous rates. There is nothing to stop anyone from throwing a kayak in the water and riding the river at any time.
This past summer I had been venturing more and more into whitewater. I did some whitewater canoeing in Vermont. I was working up my courage, knowing that Gauley season would start the Friday after Labor Day. I was secretly gathering courage--then my 16 year old daughter started on me.
"Dad, I want to go whitewater rafting. I want to go on the Gauley."
Where was my rugged macho image? She had never been in any whitewater, yet she had no qualms about the Gauley. I couldn't let on to her that I wasn't sure of myself. I decided we would do the Gauley on opening day--the Lower Gauley. As I was to find out later, she could not have gone on the Upper Gauley. Rafting companies require an age minimum of 16 and that rafters have experience on either the New or Lower Gauley--she didn't have any previous experience. It was just as well, I still was not mentally prepared for the Upper Gauley. The Lower Gauley was quite thrilling. We rode rapids from Class III through Class V. We surfed a few Class III rapids--quite an odd sensation to remain still in one place as the river rushes by. We enjoyed some flat water in between the rapids and therein lies the difference. The Upper Gauley is Class III to Class V+ , and they come rapid-fire with almost no flat water breaks. The Upper Gauley is just one long, fast adrenaline rush. Maybe next year.
If You Go Sidebar:
The two rivers I have described lie in the heart of Central West Virginia. Fayette County is the center of whitewater activity in the state. For a complete listing of rafting companies in the state, phone 1-800-CALL WVA, or check out the website at: www.westvirginia.com. Looking for an elegant, upscale place to stay? Try the Class VI Cabins on the Gorge, for a level of comfort uncommon in the area. “Rough it” in style. Why be uncomfortable when the cozy comforts of home—with maybe a few extras, such as a hot tub on the porch—are available at a reasonable cost?
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS