Putting the Wild in Whitewater

The Gauley River
  |  Gorp.com
West Virginia whitewater rafting new river gauley river
The misty morning at Wildwater HQ (Nathan Borchelt)

A cool, dense mist greeted me early on Saturday morning when I unzipped my tent. The lights of Wildwater HQ were halos in the distance, the rolling hill between us a moonscape that seemed to stretch for miles. The illusion dissolved as I trudged through the dew-laden grass and discovered a huge group of people already outfitted in helmets and PFDs loitering at the picnic tables.

“Don’t sweat it,” Rob said after spotting my panic-stricken face in the crowd. “This group is heading to the New.”

I still had an hour, and spent it with a cup of very strong coffee in a very thin foam cup. The Gauley was running that morning—the Army Corps had agreed to delay the day’s release—and I was on Rob’s boat, which would be the first of two trips down the Upper organized by Wildwater. The paddlers heading for the New climbed onto the bus and after they departed, Wildwater settled into an eerie quiet until the next crop started appearing from the mist—the birthday carousers from Pennsylvania were back for another go, and the father and son from Chicago had extended their stay. There was a church group of late 20-somethings from D.C., some new to whitewater, some not, and three paddling fanatics on their seventh trip down the Gauley who talked about the experience with near-religious zeal.

Once assembled, after the necessary safety song and dance, Rob led the entire bunch on a “Happy Birthday” sing-along for the guy celebrating his 21st, and everyone joined in with surprising gusto, considering it was still early Saturday morning.

The ‘round-the-campfire atmosphere of Wildwater may contradict some people’s image of the unruly rafting world, but the close proximity of the New and Gauley means there are plenty of rafting companies—19 at last count—to choose from, each catering to a particular kind of experience.

“We get families, people interested in running the river without getting flipped. Church groups, the more wholesome route than some of the other outfitters,” co-owner and co-founder Chris Dragan explained. “When people call, we tell them what to expect from us. And if they want something different, we’re happy to recommend another outfitter.”

When we pulled up to the put-in at the base of Summersville Dam half an hour after leaving Wildwater, the stretch of concrete parallel to the river was a circus of school buses, multi-passenger vans, and expectant rafters. People shuttled massive rafts from the vehicles to the river and indie kayakers shouldered their crafts, weaving through the fray. Guides wearing worn gear rallied huge groups of weekend paddlers with blue and green and yellow and orange and purple helmets and PFDs, all walking en masse, almost in a daze, to join the massive line of rafts waiting to get into the river. Rob stepped into the chaos—this was his universe—and we followed. Just beyond the madness, the water glinted under the sterling morning sun with flirting “come hither” winks.

If the New starts at a leisurely stroll, the Gauley forces you into a steady sprint—at first glance the water funneling through the Summersville Dam that day looked more like a garden-hose dribble, but once you surrender to her current, she shoots you right out into the river’s narrow confines and you are off.

The Gauley’s reputation for ferocity is reinforced when you hit the first Class V, the ironically named Insignificant. (Other rapid names like Pillow Rock and the aforementioned Sweet’s Falls can paint the picture that the Gauley is more Hallmark than hardcore. Do not be misled.)

“Forward hard!” Rob screamed, and we dug in and paddled for all we were worth toward the churning center of Insignificant. We hit the rapid full on and our world erupted into water as a five-foot wall breached our raft and crashed all around us. Much to our collective amazement, after clearing the rapid, we were all still on board.

Simply put, the Gauley lives up to every expectation, and the five Class V rapids you encounter within the first 12 miles of the river are manageable by folks like me (aka: idiots armed with an oar) only because people like Rob know what they’re doing. They break down the rapid as you approach it, advise you where to swim and what to avoid if you fall out, and steer the boat directly where it needs to be from their rear-anchor position, all the while telling two bad jokes, playfully mocking a travel writer’s pale skin, and conversing with guides from other outfitters.

We were the first raft for Wildwater, and after we cut through Insignificant, we pulled into an eddy and watched the six other eight-person boats in our group cut through the rapid—a safety precaution that would let us assist any overturned rafts and also gave us front-row seats to the messy spectacle—before assuming our lead position.

But the Wildwater boats weren’t the only fodder for that could’ve-been-me-but-it-wasn’t glee of watching an unruly crash. Unlike the New River, which occasionally makes you feel as if you’re the only boat out there, the schedule-specific Gauley season means you’re sharing the river with as many rafts and kayaks as can fit. Take the dozens of boats from the put-in, add the boats that have drifted down the river while you got in, and add another dozen rafts that put in after you left, and you start to get an idea. The end result? A massive army of rafts that bottleneck above each of the major rapids. But the on-river protocol between outfitters remains remarkably civilized; one outfitter’s flotilla queues up behind the last, and the proliferation of guides both above and below each rapid translates into added safety should a truly messy crash occur. This good-natured approach reinforces the fraternal spirit of West Virginia’s outdoor industry, once a fledgling obsession of the few, and now an industry that floods thousands dollars into this small region of the Mountain State each fall weekend.

I think Rob may have a firm grasp on why adventure addicts have migrated to West Virginia. We’d finished lunch, another deliciously simple sandwich-and-snack-bar affair on the side of the river, and had just shoved off to take on the final stretch of rapids. The river was calm at this moment, the sun blazing overhead, and Rob had splashed a helmet-full of water over his head to cool down. “You got a choice in life,” he said, relating something a fellow river rat once told him. “You can be spiritually rich, when you’re out on the river and the sun is shining and the water’s flowing and you’ve got your paddle in the water. Or you can be economically rich.”

“Can’t you have both?” asked one of our crew members, the same guy who nearly broke his nose after we hurtled Sweet’s Falls and nearly overturned on Postage Stamp Rock.

“You can, I suppose,” Rob replied. “But all I need is the first one. As for the second…”

He shrugged, and let the roar of the river fill the silence.


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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