It’s Day One of Gauley Season and we’re fast approaching the notorious boat-clobbering Class V rapid named Sweets Falls—this is the fifth Class V rapid of our day. Our guide, Jo-Beth, is a petite woman with curly hair, a megawatt smile and enviable biceps. Her team, Sweets of the East, are title-holding whitewater rafting racers, so suffice to say they can charm The Beast of the East. The level of charm in our boat right now may be under question, however.
Every Friday after Labor Day marks the beginning of Gauley Season here in West Virginia. It’s when the Army Corps of Engineers begins a series of 22 controlled releases from the Summersville Dam, scheduled for the following six successive three- to four-day weekends in September and October—simply to unleash big flows and monstrous rapids. Pencil it in on your calendar.
Gauley Season attracts adventure-seekers near and far, and the feral nature of the river makes it appealing to those, like me, who are… liberal with odds. The large waves, big holes, dangerous obstructions and continuous unavoidable features that make it provocatively compelling are the same reasons to develop a healthy fear of the river gods. The risk-averse will find running the Gauley either a delightful foray into new levels of paddling nirvana or a good chance to master the fine art of puking off the side of the boat.
“Forward! All forward!” Jo-Beth commands, her soft voice getting louder and more stern with each directive. She’s not yet yelling at us, but she’s certainly ready to use all of our middle names as she calls out her paddling orders. Our boat crew is not exactly the Harvard Crew team. “Right back. All forward. One more. Get down!” We plunge into the 14-foot fall in our 16-foot-long raft. We’re now vertical. This doesn’t look good.
A torrent of cold water rushes over us as Jo-Beth orders, “All back” again. I’m doing a mental check—we made it, we’re all still in the boat, I still have my paddle, best river trip ever! But now we’re in the box canyon to the left of the falls. We hear screams. Two of the mates from one of the boats in our group has gone overboard and are floating our way fast. We’re unable to catch the first swimmer; under the raft, toward the next closest boat, she floats. As we fish out the second swimmer, the bow floods—the entire front half of the boat is under water—and I’m feeling a little less like, “I’m flying, Jack!” and more, “I’ll never let go, Jack. I promise.”
Somehow we’re able to navigate out of the box canyon through a narrow passage without flipping our raft or losing passengers—no small feat. We wait in an eddy for the rest of our group to make it. Some boats aren’t so lucky. One flips, another loses a passenger. Paddles float merrily along by themselves. It’s quite a kerfuffle—but also just your average jaunt through this particular rapid. Within a few minutes, everyone is back in their rightful boat, giving paddle high-fives and cheering.
Gauley Season concludes with Bridge Day, a one-day festival held on the third Saturday of every October. It’s considered to be one of the largest extreme sports events in the world, drawing thousands of spectators and hundreds of BASE jumpers from around the globe who are there to take advantage of the six-hour window of opportunity to legally jump 867 feet off the New River Gorge Bridge. Some jumpers leap simultaneously, turning up the entertainment for river runners on the New River Gorge. I’m slightly relieved I’m not there for Bridge Day because, a jumper myself, I know I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to join my friends for the drop.
Right now, I’m beat.
Though I can hardly wait to continue tomorrow, on the Lower Gauley, I’m happy to have arrived at Wood’s Ferry, the take-out point for the Upper Gauley. We’re ready to retreat to our overnight glamping site at Canyon Doors, where our crew will host us with wood-fired hot tubs, hot showers, gourmet meals and booze. I’m hoping for at least a taste of Appalachia’s famed white lightning. It may not be the hardcore way to run a river, but right now it sounds like the best way.