ON THE GAULEY RIVER — “Forward! All forward!” our guide yells above the thundering sounds of the impending rapids.
Earlier that morning, we signed waivers, procured the mandatory gear (lifejacket, paddle, helmet and for some, perhaps a wetsuit and a paddling jacket), and boarded a bus that would take us to the put-in just below the Summersville Dam, about a 90-minute drive from Charleston. After brief introductions to our guide and a little coaching on commands, we boarded our 16-foot raft and eased out into the river.
For 22 days each year, starting the Friday after Labor Day, the Army Corps of Engineers begins a series of controlled releases on what was once a completely naturally flowing river. Unlike the New River — ironically named, as it’s one of the oldest rivers in the world — the Gauley is largely dependent on water from the lake being released to help it live up to one of its monikers as “The Beast of the East.”
The large earthen dam was constructed in the 1960s to assist with flood control. As a bonus, it also created a playground and adventure mecca for adrenaline junkies and river rats (like myself) to gather each season to ride what may arguably be the single best day of whitewater rafting in North America. At a minimum, the dam is releasing a whopping 2,800 cubic feet per second.
I got my first taste of the Gauley back in the early ’90s as a college student. As a whitewater canoeist who grew up close to big whitewater rivers in the southeast, I was a proficient paddler and felt the call each fall to come and try to tame (or just survive) this iconic river. Being older and wiser now, I have relinquished my days of open-boating (whitewater canoeing) though I still enjoy riding these monstrous rapids each fall.
Unfortunately last year, I missed my first season due to an imperfectly timed broken ankle, and had to watch from the sidelines.
Rafting on the Gauley River consists of two sections: the Upper Gauley and the Lower Gauley. And while the lower section is still an amazing ride, the upper is what attracts thousands of people each year from across the globe. This section is a non-stop adrenaline-packed ride that features dozens of world-class rapids. The Big Five include: Sweet’s Falls, Pillow Rock (choose to sit on the left-hand side of the raft and you may get the opportunity to tap this rock with your paddle as you careen past it), Lost Paddle, Insignificant and Iron Ring.
Anytime a rapid includes the word “falls” in its name, you can almost guarantee an exhilarating ride is in your future. Sweet’s Falls in no exception. This notorious, 14-foot drop isn’t a waterfall in the traditional sense but rather a series of drops that can eject individuals and flip entire rafts if not executed nearly flawlessly.
“There’s some debate about the definition of commercial,” said Dave Arnold, founding partner of Adventures on the Gorge, an outdoor adventure resort that offers guided whitewater Gauley trips. “However, most people agree that the first commercial rafting season on the Gauley was in 1972.”
Like other seasonal activities, whitewater rafting has a short window each year in which to exist. Earlier this year, that season was in jeopardy with the majority of the state shut down. Rafting season in the New River Gorge typically opens in April and runs until Bridge Day each fall. However, it wasn’t until May of this year that the governor allowed rafting companies to open their doors while adhering to certain safety guidelines issued by the state.
“We’ve implemented increased cleaning protocols on all of our gear and buses,” said Heather Johnson, second generation owner of River Expeditions, one of several outfitters in the area. “Additionally, we’ve also implemented online waivers and are limiting the number of people allowed on each bus to safely social distance.”
“This was a great water year and the lake is full,” said Arnold. “And while we’ve had to implement enhanced safety measures getting rafters to and from the river, the experience on the river will still rank as one of the best in North America.”
“If you’re looking to add another layer of adventure to your experience, consider tackling the river in a smaller boat,” states Johnson. “These rafts offer increased maneuverability and performance while reducing the number of people in each raft to as few as three, including the guide.”
So, what are you waiting on?
Grab your sense of adventure and make a reservation. You have nearly six weeks to take advantage of this wild ride located right in our backyard.
This is the first weekend of Gauley Season with five more to go. And perhaps, I’ll see you on the river where we can raise our paddles in a celebratory salute to the Great Gauley.