Surviving the ‘biggest, baddest’ whitewater in West Virginia (video)

Rafters make their way through Sweet’s Falls, one of the five Class V rapids, on the Upper Gauley River, Sept. 11. The 14-foot falls were named after John Sweet for his first descent of them in 1968.
SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail photos
Doug Ludwig, an Adventures on the Gorge rafting guide, talks to his crew moments before putting in at the launch site of the Upper Gauley River, located at the base of the Summersville Lake Dam, Sept. 11 — the opening day of Gauley whitewater season.
Brian McCormick, raft guide for the Gazette-Mail reporters, talks about his years of experience as a white water rafting guide during lunch provided by Adventures on the Gorge during the Upper Gauley trip. McCormick, a native of Arizona, has been guiding on the Gauley since 1996.
Brian McCormick goes over correct paddling techniques as others gather around their river guides to listen to safety instructions before carrying the boats to the launch site at the base of the Summersville Lake Dam for the opening day of Gauley whitewater season.
Water is released from the dam at Summersville Lake near the launch site for rafters during the first day of the 2015 Gauley rafting season, Sept. 11. The forced release creates more than 100 rapids along 25 miles of the Gauley River, with more than 60 of these being Class III to Class V rapids.

SUMMERSVILLE — Standing near the rim of the New River Gorge, Dave Arnold looked me in the eye and like a coach to his player said, “When you are in the big five, it’s go time.”

I nodded my head, “OK.”

I didn’t want to admit to the managing partner of Adventures on the Gorge — a 40 year rafting veteran — that the thought of facing off against the five Class V rapids on the Upper Gauley River had me wide awake by 6 a.m. Or that visions of myself getting thrown out of the raft and swimming the violent sections of the river on the opening day for the Gauley’s whitewater season had served as a far better wake-up tool than my cup of coffee.

Little did he know that I had already dropped a few less-than-pristine words as I searched to find my quick-dry shorts and set off, already late, to pick up Gazette-Mail photographer Sam Owens.

“Have you rafted before?” he asked.

Sam looked up at Dave with her big, hazel-blue eyes and answered, “No.” She laughed nervously. The poor girl was about to have her first rafting experience on one of the “biggest, baddest” whitewater rivers in the world.

“Don’t panic. Be calm,” he soothed.

I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty confident.

“I’m from Tucker County,” I told him. “I’ve rafted the Cheat River many times.”

Later, smashing into the Upper Gauley’s first Class V-rated rapid, Insignificant, with a wall of water hitting my face, I realized how silly I must have appeared to Dave. Sure, they both have whitewater, but comparing the two West Virginia rivers is like comparing advanced algebra to simple addition and subtraction.

We boarded the bus headed to the base of the Summersville Lake Dam. After pushing past life jackets and stepping over paddles, we squeezed into one of the last remaining seats. “There’s no personal space in rafting,” Sam commented as we settled in the back with the raft guides.

Even sitting next to the even-keeled professionals, I could feel a high level of anxiety mixed with excitement coming from the crowded bus.

‘Are people always this nervous or is this just because it’s opening day?’ I wondered.

Our trip guide, Doug Ludwig, a tall, Putnam-County native with long dark braids running past his shoulders, sprung onto the bus and immediately broke into a safety speech that felt more like a stand-up comedy performance.

Rambling off funny phrases a mile a minute, Doug met the group’s anxiety with a high-energy call to action.

“It’s chalk talk time, guys. We expect you to work out here. … We take rafts down the river, guys, not the river takes us,” he yells.

Doug trains the group on what to do if you get thrown out of the raft, how to assume the floater’s position with toes up and feet in front, how to know what edge of the river to swim toward if you find your butt out of the boat. And to always listen to your guide.

“If I start yelling at you, don’t get all sensitive on me. If you need a friend, get a dog.”

People are laughing at his jokes, but it’s clear they’re listening closely — for fear that they might actually have to apply his teachings.

Someone asks about the rapid Pillow Rock.

“It’s probably one of the biggest, baddest rides in the world.” He doesn’t hold back, “… This is not Disney World.”

When we exit the bus by the river’s put in, you can hear water roaring from an overflow tube that juts out of the dam. I feel my stomach do a few summersaults and I’m reminded of Dave’s wisdom, “You have to have a healthy respect for the river.”

Maybe this nervousness is a good thing.

A handful of blown-up rafts stretching 16-feet in length sit in a line. The guides are already standing next to their chosen one. Our guide, Brian McCormick, greets us warmly. Brian is in his early 50s, although he’ll tell you that he’s “17 forever!” He’s got a full, grey-speckled beard and shared that he had just rolled into Fayetteville yesterday, Sept. 10, after guiding on the Rio Grande River in New Mexico all summer.

If he’s nervous, you can’t tell. He’s calm, talks slow and with ease. And while his six amateur rafters were gripping the edge of the boat, Brian was sitting with legs crossed and shoes off guiding from the back.

He described himself as a “migrant wave farmer.” After West Virginia, he’ll head to Arizona to work on the Verde and Salt rivers before returning to the Rio Grande for another guiding season.

One couple in our group, Joey and Brian Beal from Ohio, have rafted the Gauley once before. The other couple, Doug and Cheryl Scardis of Texas, flew up for their first rafting experience in West Virginia. We all get acquainted as we carry our raft to the put in.

Almost immediately on our 11.5 mile journey, we hit a Class III rapid — just a little taste of what’s ahead.

Cheryl and Doug get situated on the edge of the raft. Joey tests to make sure her GoPro camera is working. And as we float down the river, the group of seven shares stories of getting to West Virginia and comment on just “how gorgeous the mountains are.”

I’m a West Virginia native. Of course I know how gorgeous our mountains are, but I had no idea how beautiful the Gauley River is. Looking up through the steep, forested canyon or studying a large rock’s lichen pattern, it was easy to get distracted.

Luckily before every Class V rapid — Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweet’s Falls — Brian would bring our attention back to the task at hand and provide instructions for where to swim if you fall out, the undercurrents to look out for and so on.

I could feel my back heel dig in to the edge of the boat — I still have a blister on my heel from the friction — and my grip on the paddle tighten before every rapid.

And then we were in it. Crashing into rapids. Many times, I wondered how our boat was going to miss a large rock as we moved quickly toward it or how on earth we stayed in the boat when we plunged over the fourteen- foot Sweet’s Falls. At times, huge waves of water crashed into us, sometimes pushing us from the edge of the raft and shoving us into each other toward center of the boat.

I looked at Sam after every successful completion. I didn’t think her eyes could get any bigger. They did.

It was the type of exhilaration that makes you grit your teeth as you put your head down and paddle with all of your might, listening to your guide’s commands. And when it’s over, you can’t stop smiling.

But there’s such a thrill of accomplishment that after you complete one rapid successfully, you feel like carrying your boat up the river and doing it again.

In fact, I’m thinking a lot about doing it again.

The 22-day whitewater season will last until the middle of October. A previous report by the Gazette-Mail estimated that 60,000 thrill seekers will make the journey to Summersville to kayak or commercially raft the river.

Maybe I’ll be one of them again, just as soon as this blister goes away.

Reach Anna Patrick at anna.patrick@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4881.

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