It may get a bit easier after Sweet Falls, but not much. "Insignificant Number Two," (also called Wood's Ferry Rapid) appears after three miles of relatively calm water, and has been known to take a few guides and rafters by surprise. Until this rapid, however, there is plenty of time for guides to swap stories with their passengerssome of which will be true.
These stories and the questions they provoke are typically a fun part of the trip. For more than 20 years, guide Aletha Stolar says she's probably heard everything. At this point, she insists she can answer most questions with: "Well it depends," "Just around the bend," or "In about 45 minutes."
Of course, many people want to know what it's like to guide. Jenna Swann, a schoolteacher from Virginia, returns every year to guide on the Gauley. She smiles, "I love this 'job' because I get to drive a 'company vehicle' and I have a beautiful 'office.' She relates one of her favorite experiences as the time an all-female guide trip wore dresses and bows in their hair. One of them ended up swimming a major rapid in a prom dress. These are the stories that make the Gauley (and its guides) famous.
Wood's Ferry is the typical take-out for one-day Upper Gauley trip, though some diehards opt to continue for a long day or two-day trip that includes the Lower Gauley. These fun two-day trips usually feature camping on the river and more good times with guides, including old-fashioned camp cookouts.
"Guiding in general is full of laughs," smiles M.A. Reiniger. "We had an English teacher on a two-day trip and one of the guides fixing dinner yelled, 'Hey, Bobby, where's the spatula at?' The teacher told him never to end a sentence with a preposition. 'Okay,' he responded, and then yelled, 'Hey, Bobby, where's the spatula at, you a--hole.'"
The Lower Gauley is not as spectacular as the Upper Gauley, but it is technically difficult and a fun ride for guides and their guests. The Lower Gauley's first major rapid is "Backender" (class IV), a popular spot for kayakers to perform fancy maneuvers.
Some of the rapids that come in quick succession include: "Upper Mash" and "Lower Mash" (huge boulders and waves); "Heaven Help Us" (a ten-foot squeeze); the appropriately named "Rollercoaster;" "Cliffside" (a curving double-drop); and "Rattlesnake" (a windy series of rapids). This is where teamwork and a guide's talent can come in handy.
Near the takeout, "Pure Screaming Hell" provides a final Gauley River rampage. This long run has some huge waves and big rocks that have flipped quite a few boats. I guess it's the Gauley's way of saying goodbye to the guides and rafters who may (or may not) have tamed it on their trip.
The bus ride back to the outfitters provides additional time to learn more about the guides and other outdoor activities in West Virginia. Guide Michael Gray says, "Typically, most people who come to raft the Gauley will stay for two or three days, which gives them time to discover other outdoor recreational opportunities, like mountain biking, camping, and fishing."
Most of the guides pursue these other activities and encourage their raft passengers to do likewise. Guide Joe O'Leary says, "I love the state's beauty and its wide variety of outdoor activities. Even my mother has been back a half-dozen times!"
The whitewater industry has grown tremendously in recent years, with many more creative options awaiting Gauley River rafters. Along with running the river, you can camp, stay in a B&B, enjoy an outfitter barbeque, mountain bike, go horseback riding, bring your whole family, try a ropes course, and much more. There's sure to be a perfect package for anyone.
Whatever trip and outfitter you choose, you'll find friendly locals to match the far-flung guides. Toni Hall echoes the feelings of guides and visitors when she says, "I like the attitude of the locals in this place tucked away in the midst of the crowded East. One time, a local chased after me on my bike for miles, just trying to return a kayak spray skirt I had dropped. With me, the suspicious Californian, I came here expecting rape and robbery. I suspected the worst but the Gauley River gave me the best."
For further information about West Virginia, this fall's Gauley season, and whitewater outfitters, call 1-800-CALL-WVA, or visit the Class VI River Runners Whitewater Rafting Web site.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication