ALONG THE NEW RIVER DRIES — Ironically named, the New River is an ancient waterway that snakes its way across the Appalachian Plateau from North Carolina to West Virginia. As one of the world’s oldest rivers nears its terminus, just below the iconic bridge that bears its name, there sits a relatively short stretch of the river that has been bypassed with man’s intervention.
The New River Dries (or just The Dries) is a 5.5-mile stretch of the river that is rarely paddled — though highly coveted among whitewater paddlers. However, until recently, this secluded section remained mostly obscured and seemingly lost to history. The Dries was named for its limited water flow down a stretch that once was a raging torrent replete with massive boulders and rock gardens that create a steady, yet technical series of whitewater rapids.
Geologically speaking, it took millions of years for the New River to cut the path that we know today. However, in the early 20th century, a tunnel was dug through the mountain that would change the course of this primeval river, leaving a section predominately dry year round.
Though West Virginia is no stranger to industrial accidents, the disaster that occurred in the 1930s at Hawk’s Nest is perhaps one of the worst tragedies in our nation’s history.
In 1930, Union Carbide needed an energy source to power its metals plant in Allow, West Virginia. What followed was an engineering feat that would involve drilling a 3-mile-long tunnel through Gauley Mountain. Once completed, the river would be diverted to a hydroelectric plant at the lower end of the tunnel.
To accomplish this task, hundreds of men, mostly poor African Americans, were employed to burrow through the mountain. As the men bored their way through the rock, creating a 30-foot-wide tunnel, they unknowingly released large amounts of silica dust. With dry drilling, blasting, poor ventilation and safety protocols virtually nonexistent, the workers entered and exited the mountain unaware that they were walking into a veritable deathtrap daily.
Being exposed daily, the silica dust wreaked havoc on the men’s lungs as they chipped away in the dark confines of the tunnel. Over time, the workers began to show signs of a lung disease called silicosis. Breathing became difficult as scar tissue formed in the lungs, causing the painful deaths of hundreds of workers. There were over 750 confirmed deaths due to silicosis, though some estimates go exponentially higher.
With deaths occurring at such a rapid pace, the ensuing problem became one of how to dispose of the bodies. Many of the men died from silicosis months and even years after the tunnel was completed. However, with so many men dying during the construction, an accurate account of the death toll still remains a mystery.
Once completed, the New River was diverted and the tunnel has remained in almost perpetual operation since. The dam, located right below Hawk’s Nest, diverted the water into the tunnel. Aside from a few random and select release dates, The Dries have remained virtually dry.
In 2020, it was deemed necessary to inspect the tunnel that has had millions of gallons daily flowing though this man-made waterway since its creation. For a short period, the water would be diverted back onto its original path (millions of years in the making) thus “rewetting” The Dries. This has created a regular, though temporary playground for kayakers and an opportunity for commercial whitewater rafting excursions down this abandoned stretch of river.
And while the New River area is widely known as a Mecca for whitewater enthusiasts, this “new” section of an old river has come alive in recent weeks.
“Normally, there is roughly 10,000 CFS [cubic feet per second] of water being channeled through that tunnel,” said Dave Arnold, founding partner of Adventures on the Gorge. “Now that volume is being allowed to flow down its natural route below the dam and wetting The Dries.”
“This section was dry long before commercial rafting was even a concept here in the region,” added Arnold. “We now have a unique opportunity to take people on a trip of a lifetime.”
While other outfitters are also taking advantage of this anomaly, Adventures on the Gorge is leading the charge and is offering trips weekly during this unprecedented time.
“The Dries trip is a rare, half-day experience,” said Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge. “It’s unlikely that this opportunity will present itself again during our lifetime.”
“They will continue draining the lake until Nov. 2,” he said. “Therefore, we can likely continue running The Dries throughout October.”
For more information on availability on The Dries, contact Adventures on the Gorge online at adventuresonthegorge.com, and be prepared for the trip of a lifetime. As for me, I ran it last weekend and I know that I’ll surely be talking about it for years (decades) to come.