Rafters on the Gauley River this fall can expect to "kiss the pillow" pretty hard at the river's fabled Pillow Rock rapids. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authorized higher-than-normal rafting flows for the September-October whitewater season.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rafters and kayakers are abuzz with the news: This year's Gauley River whitewater conditions are going to be epic.The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the river by releasing water from Summersville Lake, recently announced the whitewater flow schedule for September and October. The schedule features 24 days of weekend rafting-level releases instead of the usual 22, plus nine midweek releases that include six at even higher levels."These releases are pretty amazing for three reasons," said Dave Arnold, managing partner of Adventures on the Gorge, one of the area's largest whitewater rafting companies."We get more days [of commercial rafting], which is the obvious thing. Also, those [supplemental] Tuesday-Thursday releases are at a much higher level, which will make the lower section of the Gauley really exceptional."And finally, by running the Gauley at midweek, rafters can stay and run the New River on the weekend, when almost no one else will be running it."Corps officials have scheduled regular rafting flows of 2,800 cubic feet per second for Sept. 6-9, Sept. 13-16, Sept. 20-23, Sept. 27-30, Oct. 4-7, Oct. 12-13 and Oct. 19-20.The supplemental midweek rafting flows, also at 2,800 cfs, are scheduled for Sept. 17, Sept. 24 and Oct. 1. The supplemental high flows, at 5,000 cfs, are scheduled for Sept. 18-19, Sept. 25-26 and Oct. 2-3.Arnold said his company doesn't plan to run rafts on the upper section of the Gauley during the 5,000 cfs flows.
"It would be too intense for inexperienced rafters," he explained. "Not only does it become faster and more continuous, it also becomes much bigger. At Pillow Rock [rapids], the hole at the end becomes pretty dangerous and hard to avoid. And at Lost Paddle [rapids], the higher flows eliminate eddies where rafters usually stop to catch their breath."Arnold said groups of rafters who wish to paddle the upper Gauley at 5,000 cfs "had better be a super-elite bunch of people who really know what they're doing."He added, though, that the super-high midweek flows would make the relatively tame lower section of the Gauley "lots more fun.""We run the lower section commercially during flows as high as 14,000 cfs. Five thousand is perfectly within our manageable range. At 5,000 cfs, rapids like Stairsteps and Pure Screaming Hell develop much bigger wave trains, standing the boats up almost vertically wave after wave."
The boaters Arnold most expects to see on the upper Gauley during high-flow days are kayakers and noncommercial rafters."Kayakers are going to love this," he said. "It used to be the badge of an expert kayaker to run the upper Gauley [at commercial rafting levels]. Kids nowadays are running waterfalls and stuff. Five thousand cfs on the upper Gauley is doable for them."The extra days and augmented flows are planned because Corps of Engineers officials need to inspect the outlet structures of Summersville Dam, and to do so they have to drain more water from Summersville Lake.
Arnold praised the corps for setting up the releases so that whitewater enthusiasts can best enjoy them."The corps is being really responsive to the changing environment," he said. "They understand that water can be converted into economic development. I give them a high five for the way they've set up the season. I don't know if I've ever gone into a season knowing we were going to get flows like this."He believes the unprecedented conditions will grab the attention of whitewater enthusiasts from all across the country."This will appeal to a national crowd," he said. "This is one of the years they're going to want to come. The Gauley does that. It brings people in from all over."Arnold said he wouldn't be surprised to see kayakers and rafters from other countries on the river this year."When conditions are good, we get people from far away," he said. "One time I saw a guy who had the number 7247 painted on his helmet. I asked him what it meant. He said that he was from Kuwait City, and that he had traveled 7,247 miles to run the river. Such is the allure of the Gauley."
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