For the first time in more than 80 years, the full volume of the New River will be flowing through the rugged, 6-mile canyon below Hawks Nest Dam, giving paddlers the chance to get acquainted with the seldom-seen rapids of the New River Dries.
On Tuesday, Brookfield Renewable, the company operating the dam, began the process of lowering the level of Hawks Nest Lake, the 243-acre pool of water created by the dam, by 25 feet to accommodate repairs and maintenance work.
Work on the dam is not expected to be completed until Nov. 8, giving paddlers 60 days of recreational volumes of whitewater to ride in the Dries until the lake begins rising back to its normal level.
The Dries, the nickname for the bypass reach of the New River, ordinarily carries whatever flow remains in the New after 10,000 cubic feet of water per second is diverted from the river into a 3-mile tunnel to feed the turbine-generators at Brookfield Renewable’s hydroelectric plant at Gauley Bridge.
Heavy rains in the New River’s watershed occasionally produce flows that more than quadruple the 10,000 cubic feet per second diverted to the power plant, allowing massive waves to flow through the Dries. But for much of the year, the dam releases flows ranging from 150-to-300 cubic feet per second, enough to allow fish and other aquatic life forms to survive and create a few gentle riffles.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, a river gauge indicated that water was surging through the Dries at a volume of more than 9,300 cfs, while at Thurmond, the site of the nearest gauge upstream of the dam, the flow rate was 6,000 cfs.
“With more water going out of the lake than going in, the lake level is starting to go down,” said Bobby Bower, director of the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters. Once Hawks Nest Lake drops below the intake for the diversion tunnel to the level needed for construction and maintenance, “everything that’s running through Thurmond will be going through the Dries,” he said.
American Whitewater, the nation’s largest advocacy group for paddlers, “is promoting the idea of spending an extra day in West Virginia this fall, running the Gauley River one day and the Dries the next,” Bower said. The draw-down of Hawks Nest Lake, he said, “gives West Virginia an extra paddling opportunity. I believe we will see a ton of paddlers from all over the United States come here to run the Dries during the course of this project.”
The fall Gauley River season, which draws thousands of whitewater fans each year, is made possible by 22 days of pulsed releases from Summersville Dam between its starting date on Friday and Oct. 18.
At least one outfitter, Adventures on the Gorge, has announced a schedule of rafting trips on the Dries, starting Sept. 20 and continuing on Sundays and Mondays through Oct. 19.
Since it took 82 years for the need to arise to lower the lake level to accommodate dam repairs, “I am pretty confident in saying we will not be rafting the Dries in this free-flowing situation again in our lifetimes,” said Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge. “We want to let our guests — many of whom will be coming for Gauley Season — know that we have a second opportunity to make their experience even better.”
Since 2019, Brookfield Renewable has made seven annual recreational whitewater releases of 2,200 to 2,500 cubic feet per second from Hawks Nest Dam as part of its re-licensing agreement with federal regulators for continued operation of Hawks Nest Dam.
Above the dam, as the reservoir level drops, “people will be able to see some rapids that have not been seen for a long time,” Bower said. But he added that officials with Brookfield Renewable and the National Park Service are urging boaters not to venture below the Fayetteville Station river access site during the draw-down, because there are no safe take-out points.
A thick layer of silt and muck on the lake bottom is expected to be exposed when the draw-down is complete, making “getting out [of boats] in that area extremely dangerous,” according to a notice posted by Brookfield.
Hawks Nest State Park boat ramps and the Teays Landing river access site will be unusable during the draw-down, and the road between the dam and the Cotton Hill Bridge, on W.Va. 16, used by hikers, anglers and bikers will be closed. Brookfield will also close the tailrace fishing platform and parking area at its Gauley Bridge hydro station.
Work on the dam will include an inspection of the 3-mile tunnel leading to the hydro station and inspection and maintenance of its surge basin, surge tank and valves.
The dam was completed in 1933. Of the 1,213 men who worked underground in building the tunnel, 764 died of silicosis from inhaling rock dust within five years, making its construction one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters.