Putting the Wild in Whitewater

Rafting West Virginia's Most Furious Rivers with the Region’s First Outfitters
  |  Gorp.com
West Virginia whitewater rafting new river gauley river
Oh My Gauley!: A blow-by-blow rage through a Class V (courtesy, Wildwater)
Just the Facts
CLICK HERE for essential info on rafting West Virginia’s New and Gauley rivers, as well as the lowdown on other activities within the region that don’t involve getting drenched.
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The end of our day on a rubber raft is fast approaching, and West Virginia’s famed Gauley River is pulling us toward Sweet’s Falls. Don’t be fooled: This 14-foot drop over a sandstone cliff in the center of the river is timid only in name. Before John Sweet became the first person to successfully kayak the Class V rapid back in 1968, it was known as The Devil’s Backbone, but it’s ominous and frightening whatever they call it. Worse still, it’s immediately followed by Postage Stamp Rock—so named because if you let it, the current will buckle your raft against the rock the way a postage stamp clings to the northwest corner of an envelope. You? You end up in the frothing drink.

At this point in the river is West Virginia’s equivalent of a paddler’s coliseum: a massive gathering of scruffy-haired river guides and crews of weekend rafters standing on Postage Stamp and other rocky outcroppings on either side of Sweet’s Falls, reveling in the spectacle of raft after raft running the churning cauldron. Successful navigation is met with a smattering of applause. Failure—particularly one involving overturned rafts—triggers a cacophony of encouragement from an audience that could’ve shared the same fate.

Our crew of six paddlers and two guides is determined to elicit the crowd’s verbal thumbs-up, a confidence based on several factors: We’d already cleared the four other Class Vs and countless Class IVs that clutter the 12-mile section of the Upper Gauley, a furious gauntlet with major rapids whose names—Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring—give few clues to the fearful, and potentially fatal, encounters that await. We were in good hands—our lead guide Rob Dobson had paddled the Gauley so often he could probably run Sweet’s with duct tape over his eyes. And we are the lead raft in an eight-boat-and-two-kayak flotilla belonging to Wildwater, the region’s oldest rafting company.

As we head toward the rapid, Rob quickly gives us our paddling instructions. “When we get over, drop to the center,” he says with the calm confidence of a five-star general leading his troops into battle, tempered with the ribald camaraderie of an older sibling. “And when we hit, everyone needs to pop up and back-paddle as hard as they can.”

We nod in unison, understanding the concept (dropping down lowers the raft’s center of gravity, back-paddling will keep us clear of Postage Stamp). The river picks up speed and the water shifts into a tight stream of clear, fast-moving ribbons that propels us toward the 14-foot drop. We drop down into the center of the raft as instructed, the boat clears the ledge, and we go weightless. In that instance, it becomes clear that our confidence has more to do with bravado than inherent skill. We know we have to get up to back-paddle as soon as we hit water again—we know this, but the impact jars us and we can’t get our act together. Former synchronicity dissolves into a chaotic mess of limbs and oars as we scramble to respond to Rob’s instructions. Instead, we barrel, broadside, into Postage Stamp Rock.

“High side right! High side right!” Rob bellows, meaning everyone should start climbing onto the right side of the raft, which at this point is the only way to avoid getting sucked into the river. A mountain of bodies clings to the right edge as the raft mounts the rock’s vertical surface, turning the once-flat floor into a precipitous rubber wall.

Moments later, after Rob’s “high side right” command has done its trick and the self-bailing boat has done its job, after reconfiguring our positions on the raft and navigating around Postage Stamp, after wiggling through the remaining obstacles and entering the downstream eddy, we are worn, weary, and wet. One of our crew is bleeding from slamming his head into the handle of his oar, breaking his sunglasses and cutting the bridge of his nose. The crowds on either side of the river cackle and holler with near-ravenous zeal. And if the day could’ve been longer, if Rob could’ve been convinced, we were all ready to do it over again.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 20 Apr 2004 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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