The put-in below Summersville Dam is legendary. Huge outlets from the dam release walls of thundering water into the river. The ground shakes, as will your hands as you clutch your paddle before putting in for the first time.
Guide Larry "LV" Vermeeren says, "I love being one of the first trips on the river, with fog swirling over the rapids." He's a Gauley veteran who returns every year from guiding in Coloradobut has also lead river trips in Arizona, North Carolina, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador, and Nepal.
Some of the best stories and scenes take place right at the put-in. One time, a guide named Randy Dotson had such a strong group of psyched-up paddlers that they accidentally started with him still on shore, holding tie-up line. Not wanting to be left behind, he was dragged into the river through the first raging rapids. Eventually the rafters noticed his plight and pulled him safely to the raft. The whole episode was captured on videowhich I witnessed back at Class VI headquarters.
The put-in is also a likely spot to hear the story of the Summersville Dam. Most dams are named after the communities they submerge, and in this case the town that was being flooded was called Gad. That would have lead to the name "Gad Dam," which for some reason was never embraced by its residents. Needless to say, the Army Corps opted for less controversial Summersville, the name of a nearby town.
The first rapid is appropriately named "Initiation," a class VI, and it serves its purpose well. Guides use the rapid to make sure their groups understand paddling commands and the teamwork necessary to maneuver. It can be touch and go, navigating the ocean-like waves, but it offers a good taste of what's to come.
The next major rapid is called "Insignificant," and it's anything but. This class V adventure features a long series of waves and rocks with a big nasty hole in the middle at the bottom. If rafters haven't learned to work as a team by this point, even Bud Frantz will have trouble keeping them out of this swirling mess.
The relatively easy Iron Curtain (class IV) provides the warm-up for class V "Pillow Rock"100 yards of sheer whitewater terror. This house-sized "pillow" boulder on the left side of the river inevitably stops a few rafts and dumps them into the water. It takes skill (and sometimes luck) to maneuver past Pillow Rock and avoid the notorious "Room of Doom," where the water crashes against a cliff downstream.
Of Pillow Rock, guide Enga Lokey says, "It is one of the most impressive rapids in the U.S." She should know, having guided in Colorado, Honduras, Ecuador, and Australia. A Colorado resident, she says, "When all the western rivers have been low for months, we can come out to the Gauley and have six more weeks of big water fun. How could a river guide not hear of the Gauley?"
The Meadow River adds fuel to the fire when it joins the Gauley, and just below that is another class V, "Lost Paddle." The half-mile-long rapid is actually divided into three distinct sections, and each one can potentially swallow passengers, guides, and even rafts.
"If I had to pick one rapid as my favorite, it would have to be Lost Paddle," says local guide M.A. Reiniger. "I like it because it's long, and has quite a few different characteristics that are fun. It is a little tight at the top, the second drop is big and impressive, and that leads you right into another tight and challenging spot with potential for pinning. When you have a clean run on Lost Paddle, it gives you a great feeling of accomplishment."
The next big drop, "Iron Ring," is rated V+, and might be the most challenging rapids this side of the Rocky Mountains. Named for a huge ring that used to be embedded in the rocks beside it (where loggers once attempted, unsuccessfully, to dynamite a channel through the rapids) the river is compressed along the right shore and then funneled down a six-foot slide into extremely turbulent water above a huge boulder. There is no room for a swamped boat in this crooked channel, and the sheer force of the water can endanger anyone trying to swim.
"Sweet Falls" is the Gauley gold medal, and the last class V on this stretch of the river. Named after John Sweet, one of the first men to paddle it, there is usually a ten-foot drop and lots of paddlers waiting below to witness the havoc they can cause. It's a Roman Cathedral-like atmosphere, with the guides and their rafts having their success or failure viewed, photographed, and videotaped for posterity. "Even at my age (a young mid-50s), I still love running Sweets Falls," says Randy Dotson, who grew up at the confluence of the New and Gauley.
Enga Lokey says, "Above Sweet Falls, everyone is nervous, serious, and trying hard to paddle well so that they have a nice line. But as soon as they are sitting at the bottom of the falls, they turn to carnivorous vultures just hoping that every boat behind will crash so they can watch the carnage."
Most trips have lunch either right before or after Sweet Falls, and it's typically quite a spread. The guides carry food down-river on their rafts, and set up elaborate buffets right on the banks. All of the outfitters and their guides take pride in the quality and creativity of these riverside lunches.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication