Good Gauley, Miss Molly! Rafting just doesn’t get any better. It’s not about mastery (no one really masters this river) as much as communion with an incredible force. It is a combination of adventure, camaraderie and scenery that leaves rafters in a state of sheer euphoria at the end of the day – and planning their next ride on the “Beast of the East.”
The Mountain State’s pride and joy ranks seventh among the world’s raftable rivers and second only in the United States to the Colorado River. Unlike the rivers in distant lands, the Gauley is close at hand, with the best of equipment and après raft amenities. In 1988, the Gauley River National Recreation Area was established to protect this precious resource.
Today the National Park Service oversees 25 miles of the river and 11,000 acres of surrounding wilderness. It is a remote, wild region accessible only by raft or kayak – and an area of incomparable beauty. Outfitters advise rafters to polish their paddling skills on the New, and then graduate to the lower section in preparation for the Upper Gauley. To really enjoy this big whitewater ride, you need to have some mileage on your paddling skills. With more Class IV and Class V rapids than any other Eastern river, it is one of the most intense experiences in commercial rafting and sheer nirvana for experienced paddlers.
There’s quite a contrast between West Virginia’s two prized rivers. The Gauley is twice as long and twice as steep as the New. Dropping 668 feet in 28 miles, the river churns through 100 rapids. Fifty of them are major challenges ranging from Class III to Class V-plus, pushing the boundaries of raftability. Often the rapids come in quick succession – each presenting a different technical challenge. The river can be rafted from spring to late fall depending on natural flows, but the legendary “Gauley Season” begins when water is released from Summersville Lake for six weeks after Labor Day. The season is short but so sweet that rafters come from all over the world to make the run.
When the Corps of Engineers opens the gates on Summersville Dam, wild, roiling water gushes out as fast as 2,800 cubic feet per second. Rafts launch into this maelstrom and are quickly caught up in the raging waters.
One of the first major rapids is misnamed Insignificant, which is amusing once you’ve negotiated it – dodging rocks, slipping over a rock shelf, scuttling across the flow and dropping into a watery chasm. It’s a significant wake-up call for the Class V+ Pillow Rock, an 80-yard stretch of the most difficult whitewater on the Gauley. Water pillows against the face of a massive boulder and delivers a powerful blow to daring rafts that climb too high. Negotiating this rapid can mean the difference between a smooth ride and learning how to high side. Then there’s Lost Paddle, a half-mile chute with five big drops including a perilous passage through 10- to 12-foot waves. Sweet’s Falls, a 14-foot drop on the upper Gauley, was considered impossible to navigate until John Sweet ran it in 1968, hence the name.
The Lower Gauley lacks the sustained frenzy of the Upper, but it’s not to be taken lightly. It has up to Class V rapids with evocative names such as Upper and Lower Mash, Koontz’s Flume, Gates of Heaven and Pure Screamin’ Hell.