Putting the Wild in Whitewater
|Oh My Gauley!: A blow-by-blow rage through a Class V (courtesy, Wildwater)|
The end of our day on a rubber raft is fast approaching, and West Virginias famed Gauley River is pulling us toward Sweets Falls. Dont 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 Devils Backbone, but its ominous and frightening whatever they call it. Worse still, its immediately followed by Postage Stamp Rockso 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 Virginias equivalent of a paddlers 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 Sweets Falls, reveling in the spectacle of raft after raft running the churning cauldron. Successful navigation is met with a smattering of applause. Failureparticularly one involving overturned raftstriggers a cacophony of encouragement from an audience that couldve shared the same fate.
Our crew of six paddlers and two guides is determined to elicit the crowds verbal thumbs-up, a confidence based on several factors: Wed 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 namesInsignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ringgive few clues to the fearful, and potentially fatal, encounters that await. We were in good handsour lead guide Rob Dobson had paddled the Gauley so often he could probably run Sweets with duct tape over his eyes. And we are the lead raft in an eight-boat-and-two-kayak flotilla belonging to Wildwater, the regions 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 rafts 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 againwe know this, but the impact jars us and we cant get our act together. Former synchronicity dissolves into a chaotic mess of limbs and oars as we scramble to respond to Robs 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 rocks vertical surface, turning the once-flat floor into a precipitous rubber wall.
Moments later, after Robs 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 couldve been longer, if Rob couldve been convinced, we were all ready to do it over again.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication