FAYETTEVILLE — For West Virginia’s whitewater outfitters in the New River Gorge area, this weekend’s reopening of the state’s rafting season is eliciting elevated adrenaline levels and sighs of relief.
Although commercial rafting under new regulations designed to deter the spread of COVID-19 may resume as early as Thursday under guidelines announced last week by Gov. Jim Justice, most outfitters are planning on a Friday reopening date.
Those booking trips with outfitters operating on the New and Gauley rivers this summer can expect the same level of excitement that’s drawn people to guided descents of the fabled whitewater streams for more than 50 years. What will be different this summer are a variety of COVID-19 safety enhancements and several new trip options that enhance social distancing.
Only a relative few early season trips had been run on the New River by late April, when the plug was pulled on commercial rafting activity in the state for an indefinite period in deference to social distancing needs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival.
Instead of taking reservations and running trips, outfitters have been issuing refunds or rain checks, not knowing when, or even if, the 2020 season would resume.
“We ran our first rafting trip the week before we had to shut down,” said Hayes Mansfield, marketing director for ACE Adventure Resort near Oak Hill.
Between then and last week’s announcement on the whitewater season’s resumption, “our reservations were down about 60% from what they should be,” Mansfield said. “Guests want to be sure we will be open when they plan to be here.”
In early May, outfitters watched their cash-flow charts begin to assume a downstream-only pattern, while the coronavirus showed no sign of abating. The need to have a reopening plan ready for consideration when the governor’s “West Virginia Strong” outdoor recreation phase-in rolled around soon became evident.
“If we can get rafting open by Memorial Day, or at least by the first or second week in June, we can still have a season,” Roger Wilson, CEO of Fayetteville’s Adventures on the Gorge, said the week before Justice’s announcement.
“The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is what our company depends on to be successful,” Mansfield said. “It’s when about 90% of our business takes place.”
Being open during that peak period, he said, “gives us a chance to have a reasonably normal season.”
Last week, West Virginia Tourism officials hosted a teleconference with outfitters, regional tourism board directors and others to hash out the framework of a plan for reopening the whitewater season in the safest manner possible.
“The outfitters had worked together to come up with a plan that identified what they thought to be the best and safest practices” for reopening, said Lisa Strader, director of Visit Southern West Virginia. Many of their recommendations were included in the governor’s guide to reopening whitewater rafting, she said.
COVID-19 precautions in place for the state’s summer whitewater season include:
- A maximum of six guests and one guide are allowed on each raft.
- All guests in each raft mu
- st be friends or family who live together or traveled together (or both) to arrive at their outfitters’ locations. If fewer than six people are included in such groups, customers from other families or travel groups may not be added to create a full raft.
- Customers and employees must wear cloth or disposable face masks while on shuttle buses to and from launch and take-out sites. Outfitters are encouraged to provide masks for guests who did not bring them. Masks should be worn by guests and employees alike “where safe and practical to do so.” The last face mask rule gives guides the option of removing masks if they interfere with guests being able to hear and understand paddling commands.
- Windows must be open during shuttle runs, and seating will be limited to 18 people per 55-seat bus to accommodate social distancing between groups.
- Customers must remain on their buses until it is time for their group to board and launch rafts. Outfitters must make a coordinated effort to stagger the loading and offloading of rafts to maintain social distancing.
- Check-in and payment processing should take place outdoors, wherever possible.
- Traditional buffet-style lunches at stops along the river will be replaced by individually packaged lunches.
Employees taking reservation information for area whitewater outfitters are urging those traveling to the New River Gorge area to encourage friends and family members to accompany them.
“Forty percent of our reservations for New River Gorge trips involve groups of two,” Mansfield said. Groups of four to six clients per raft are needed to make trips viable for outfitters. One alternative, Mansfield said, is booking an inflatable kayak, or duckie, trip on the Upper New.
“I’ve heard that most of the people have been calling back with groups of four or more,” Strader said. “I don’t think it will be much of an issue.”
Adventures on the Gorge is offering a new Gauley Loop overnight trip this summer, covering a 2-mile narrow bend of the Gauley River that includes four major rapids — Back Ender, Koontz Flume, Canyon Doors and Junkyard. Depending on water levels, the rapids can be run from three to six times each day.
Adventures also is offering trips on the New River Dries between the Cotton Hill Wildlife Management Area and Gauley Bridge, and family friendly duckie trips on the Upper New that include a stopover for a brief hike and a dip in a waterfall-equipped swimming hole on Glade Creek.
All outfitters that offered summer trips on the New and Gauley rivers last year will offer them again starting this weekend. Wilson and Mansfield said they expect outfitting for the fall Gauley River whitewater season to be similar to previous years, only with smaller group and trip sizes.
“The outfitters and the businesses that benefit from people who come here to raft are really excited to get the whitewater season back online,” Strader said. “Our region’s economy is heavily based in tourism, and this gives people a cause for some optimism.”
But it’s a cautious optimism, Strader said.
“We also need to think about the health of the local people,” she said. “We want to have a cautious reopening — a comeback that’s safe for everyone.”