Putting the Wild in Whitewater

  |  Gorp.com
West Virginia whitewater rafting new river gauley river
Cutting through the cauldren of the New (courtesy, Wildwater)

Wildwater HQ is a massive wooden building just off US 19, composed of a dining hall, a gear and gift shop, bathrooms outfitted with showers, and a fleet of picnic tables next to a crate filled with yellow plastic helmets and a massive pile of worn orange and yellow PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices, or life jackets in standard parlance). The place was alive with activity. People from every imaginable walk of life milled about, drinking coffee and joking with nervous energy: a father and son from Chicago on their fourth trip to run the Gauley; a crew of rowdy contractors from Pennsylvania who came to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday; a group of Amish who drove throughout the night in a huge white passenger van for their annual pilgrimage to Fayetteville. The river guides were your typical rogue’s gallery, blessed with boundless energy, wide smiles, and creative facial hair, their arms as strong and sinewy as coiled springs. Among them I spotted Rob Dobson, part owner of Wildwater, who waved me over.

I’d met Rob the night before—he and his wife converted their first Fayetteville home into a quaint, bungalow-style rental where they were kind enough to let me crash. He’s well over six feet tall, his skin bronzed from spending most every day in the sun, with a lean, muscular physique that would intimidate if it weren’t accompanied by a perpetual, gregarious smile. He’d once worked for Patagonia, traveling the world as a sales rep and product tester for their line of paddling gear, taking on whatever whitewater the locals would point him toward, before the Gauley’s reputation led him to West Virginia. Since then, the charm of the place has held him fast.

“Got some bad news. But I’ll let this man tell you,” Rob said, introducing me to Chris Dragan, an older man with glasses and a scruffy mane of graying hair wearing shorts and a Wildwater T-shirt.

“The Gauley is running too high,” Chris said, explaining that the day’s trip wouldn’t happen, not for Wildwater or any other rafting company. An unusually wet summer, combined with the scheduled water release, had elevated the world-class river to dangerously high levels. Chris is one of the founding members of Wildwater, and considering he has been in the game since 1968—long before the official Gauley season even existed—his soft-spoken words carried weight. “She’s running at over 20,000 cubic feet per second.”

“That’s right, folks,” Rob interjected, talking now to the motley collection of people gathered around the picnic tables. “The Gauley is running at 20,000 CFS…that’s 7,000 above normal. We’re talking massive whitewater, 20,000 cubic feet rushing at you every second. Put a little rubber raft in there, and it’s not a pretty sight. The Gauley hasn’t been this high since ’89. That’s the bad news, and I’m sorry to give it. But the good news is, the New River is running way above normal for this time of year. Talking nine feet, which is where the Gauley should be. So you will all get what you came for.”

It seemed that, even with an act of Congress, the engineering expertise of the U.S. Army, and Wildwater’s 36 years of experience, Mother Nature was still calling the shots. But West Virginia would provide.

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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