Putting the Wild in Whitewater

  |  Gorp.com
West Virginia whitewater rafting new river gauley river
Letter Bomb: Postage Stamp Rock in all its humbling glory (courtesy, Wildwater)

I arrived in Fayetteville, West Virginia, two days before that fateful run over Sweet’s Falls and into Postage Stamp Rock, intent on paddling through the first two days of the Gauley River rafting season. In the southern portion of West Virginia, unlike most of the world’s top whitewater rivers, aspiring paddlers can trump the unpredictable aspects of nature and mark the exact high-water day on their calendar, thanks to the most unlikely of suspects: the U.S. Congress.

Since its construction in 1965, Summersville Dam has opened its floodgates to drain the water from neighboring Summersville Lake as a preventative measure against flooding from the winter rains, transforming the otherwise mellow Gauley River into one of the planet’s most celebrated, consistently challenging stretches of whitewater. Combined with the nearby New River, which turns into a mess of rapids with the spring snowmelt, and you had the template for a stellar rafting industry. The only problem? The dam’s release was never predictable, which made running the Gauley something of a guessing game, tolerable for most river rats used to waiting for the next dream run, but very difficult for luring potential weekend rafters. Enter the U.S. Congress. After several years of careful negotiation by a fleet of local raft outfitters, who begged, pleaded, and recited the right kind of logic (read: economical), in 1985 an act was passed in Congress that added recreation to the list of official uses, thereby authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release the water at set times each fall.

The Gauley season was born: six long weekends (from Friday to Monday) starting the first Friday after Labor Day and closing with the Bridge Day Festival (the world’s largest BASE-jumping event) on the third weekend in October—all told, 22 days dedicated to traversing 24 miles of West Virginia’s most riotous whitewater, with more than 60 named rapids, over a dozen outfitters, and as many as 80,000 people rafting, kayaking, flipping, floating, swimming, and screaming their way through an Appalachian adrenaline rush.

Wildwater would be my guide, and in many ways they were the most logical choice. Prior to this trip, my rafting experience was limited to one lazy foray down the Great Falls section of the Potomac River and countless hours on an inflatable in the backyard pool of my suburban childhood. The Gauley was a different beast altogether, and who better to introduce me to the best in West Virginia rafting than the oldest company in the business?

But when I showed up that Friday morning after Labor Day at the Wildwater HQ, bleary-eyed from too little sleep and shivering in the morning chill, ready (or not) to spend the next two days rafting the Gauley, the old joke that should be one of life’s slogans came back to haunt me:

Want to make God laugh?

Make a plan.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 20 Apr 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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