River Rafting Lessons from the Gauley
Sixteen Orion River Rafting guides trekked cross country in a revitalized school bus last September to test their skills on one of the premier white water rivers to be found anywhere in the world - the Gauley River in West Virginia. The Gauley River, dam-controlled and administered by the National Park Service, offers two sections of river to whet your white water appetite which are not-so-cleverly known as the Upper and the Lower. The Upper reach of the Gauley, which sports five noteworthy drops, was the section where we spent four lengthy days recreating and - ultimately - getting schooled.
Here is what we learned:
Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. Whether it was the kind-hearted campers at the put-in who welcomed our oversized rig to crash their party or the boaters strewn throughout the river offering encouragement and advice or the acquaintance of one of our party who was willing to take time out on a Friday to show us all the well-worn, white water routes, we found nothing but people willing to give. It certainly made our stay more comfortable.
Constant water levels are your friend. Unlike many dam-controlled rivers I have encountered, when they say “dam-controlled” on the Gauley, they mean water levels that remain constant for hours and days. Once you are familiar with the set water level, you know - pretty much - what the river is going to do at any given point along the way. At the least, you know exactly how much rock will be exposed, exactly how big the wave will be and just how the ‘sticky’ the reversal will be.
Back country roads in West Virginia are hell. Even though the Gauley is one of the most popular rivers in the world, and even though it is administered by the National Park Service, the roads in and out of its egress sites are narrow, rutted, pocked with boulders large and small and hell on a one-time 48 passenger school bus. Just try getting lost on one to really learn how hellish they can be.
When difficult white water is not also frigid more fun can be had. I wouldn’t say the waters of the Gauley were warm, but they were nothing like the snowmelt, glacier and cold rain fed rivers of the Pacific Northwest where neoprene is fashionable deep into summer. I am a cold water wuss due to my Southern roots, but even I relaxed a notch in the temperate waters of West Virginia.
Even dam-controlled rivers can surprise you. There is an air horn near the launch site for the Upper Gauley which is operated by the Army Corps. The Army Corps are responsible for the dam. The purpose of the air horn is to alert boaters and anyone along the banks of the Gauley downstream of the dam that there is going to be a sudden rise in the water level. It still surprised us on one of our two run days but, fortunately, it merely made for a better tale to tell.
Don’t let the local white water boaters egg you on to do something stupid. The attitude of white water boaters on the Gauley is schizophrenic. On the one hand, they are highly cognizant that a majority of the rapids on the Gauley, both Lower and Upper, are dotted with undercut rocks which are especially hazardous to swimmers. On the other hand, “cash for trash”, meaning tips are better when rafts unload guests, is a definite rallying cry and guides bored with the ‘safe’ routes tend to opt for style over safety (assuming the undercut rocks are as ubiquitous as they claim).
Due to opting for style over safety in the terminal Class V rapid - Sweet’s Falls - partly in response to the local peer pressure, we wound up parking a raft permanently in the middle of the falls and then having to abandon it because it was draped over a boulder midstream. At least that was an easier lesson to learn than having someone in the raft, or several someones, seriously hurting themselves, or worse.
The white water of the Upper Gauley River was everything we had hoped it would be and, as a bonus, we came away with a few lessons firmly planted in our minds and only a small dent in our pride.