Gauley Season- The First Ten Years

I’ve always enjoyed other people’s stories of their first runs of the Gauley River, but they’re very different from the early days I knew. John Berry tried to run the river in open canoes sometime before the dam during the mid 60’s and Sayre Rodman made the first successful run in rafts in 1966. The first closed-boat run of the river was in the summer of 1968 and in the next couple of years a handful of boaters followed. My first run on the Gauley was in October of 1971. A recent college graduate, I’d been hired to teach seventh grade Biology in the Washington, D.C. area. I’d taught myself to paddle with friends in a college outing club, first in open canoe and then C-1. I was looking forward to trying new rivers, and I had deliberately moved into this vital center of East Coast whitewater paddling.

Back then racing was a great way to meet good boaters. I’d heard about the Gauley and was interested, but wary. The river was spoken of respectfully by John Sweet, Tom Irwin, and the other Penn State paddling gods I’d met at the Loyalsock Slalom. Then at the Fall Savage Race I got into a team run with Ed Gertler. After the run he asked me if I was planning to run the Gauley. When I questioned my fitness, he admitted that he was tripleader for the CCA and that he thought I could handle it. That was all I needed to hear. I think this was the third “club trip” to run the river.

Twenty-two years ago the West Virginia highway system was a bit more basic. Route 19 did not exist in its current form, and its junction with Route 60 was a battered meeting place of two-lane country roads. Coming in from Clifton Forge at midnight, I had to get out of the car, push the undergrowth aside, and read the faded road signs with a flashlight. We found Summersville Dam at 2 AM after getting lost several times. There were only a handful of us, so the Corps let us sleep in the pavilion near the playground. The next morning sixteen of us from CCA met Ed and Barb Brown in the gray morning mist at the base of the dam. In addition to the hard-boaters, John Dragan’s Wildwater Unlimited was running a few of his rafts down. At the time he was the only outfitter on the New River, and he was doing the Gauley with some of his most experienced customers. A handful of others put in later. No one else was there.

The rapids at first seemed powerful, but manageable. I was doing fine until Pillow Rock Rapid. We scouted, but I had no idea what I was getting into. Once in the rapid, I found out too late that it was the biggest water I’d ever seen! I ran up against the big pillow near the left-hand rock wall, flipped instantly, and swam. My foot caught in a thigh strap; the C-1 went to one side of Volkswagen Rock and I went to the other. I got dragged over the top of the rock and was driven down to the bottom of the river like a pile driver. I guess I was too stupid to let it shake me up.

The only takeout we knew of was the railroad bridge at Peter’s Creek. It made for a long day, especially with swimmers in every major rapid. We portaged Iron Ring without question, noting the corpse of a horribly battered deer in an eddy below. Approaching Sweet’s Falls, I was warned in no uncertain terms that the hole at the bottom was an absolute keeper. Bill Funk had kayaked the drop the previous year, but he refused to discuss his route. He said only that the line was only 6″ wide and to miss it meant certain death. As we approached, mist rose up from the lip of the drop, turning my bowels to jelly. Terrified, I grabbled the center eddy and hustled carefully over to the far-left chute. I’d never seen anything so mean-looking!

Below here, it was a hard push to make the tracks before sunset. Koontz’s Bend passed quickly, since we were too tired to play. I finished the day physically exhausted and mentally drained. I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted to do that again! The Lower Gauley the next day was easier, but I came around a corner and found an eddy full of boats. A swim of Lower Mash followed. After a tough run I’ll close my eyes and see the river unfold ahead of me. I rode home dreaming of enormous holes and waves. Soon I forgot my fear and looked forward to getting back.

Pillow Rock was my nemesis. For years no one knew how to run it, and almost everyone rolled or swam. I was always pleased to roll back up, but stayed in my boat only half the time during the years it took me to figure things out. All this aquatic activity, combined with the words of Idaho’s Dr. Walt Blackadar, inspired the development of the HiFloat Life Vest. In later years as more people came to the river the show continued unabated. I started running without air bags because I felt it gave me “added incentive” to roll. On one run of Pillow, I popped my sprayskirt halfway down. The stern quickly filled with water, and a decade before the first squirt boats, I paddled my Hahn vertically through the big waves. It was only when the boat started to sink that I decided to bail out.

I continued to sneak Sweet’s Falls. Boaters gradually learned that the “killer hole” was an exploding wave in disguise. Dragan at first lined his rafts, empty of customers, around the drop, but eventually the rafts started going over. A few hard-boaters made the run, then many. Intimidated by first-run lore, I was one of the last holdouts. I was scouting Sweet’s Falls one afternoon when Susie Lilly, Barney Lilly’s 15 year-old daughter, came up and asked me how to run it. I told her that I didn’t run the drop, but pointed out the line. She smiled, said “O.K.”, and skipped back to her boat. She ran the big ledge almost sideways, bouncing off of what is now called Dildo Rock and flipping in the frothy mess at the bottom. She quickly rolled up, yelled “Whoopie”, tossed her paddle, and continued downstream. I figured I could paddle at least as well as that, and while the drop still scares me I’ve been doing so ever since.

Iron Ring retains an evil reputation as far as I’m concerned. During the early years few ran it and many carried. On my second run only Jim Snyder, 16, handled it with any style. Now the situation is reversed; almost no one makes that portage. Lee Belknap showed me the line, and I ran it a few times in the early 90’s. Even though the drop is easier than it looks, I still walk. The Gauley makes me awfully mellow, and all that adrenaline would ruin the mood. And I just can’t get that dead deer out of my mind.

We kept hearing rumors of plans to dam the river. We expected a big political battle, so strange as it might seem today, several of us conspired to lure more boaters to the river. I wrote about the Gauley in the AWA Journal in 1972, and several of us offered to guide groups down the river the following fall. In 1973 I took sixteen Southeastern boaters down the run, including Claude Terry and his son, Mike. With only two runs under my belt I didn’t know the river all that well, but I felt comfortable moving from eddy to eddy. Making a key stop above drop two of Lost Paddle, I was immediately pinned to the shore by a horde of following boaters. I had to fight my way through the crowds to peel out into the next drop. Mike Terry was fearless and I spent the day wondering if he was going to kill himself. His attitude would be more normal today.

One of the things we did was sponsor a downriver race from the top of Mash to the pool at the base of Pure Screaming Hell in the late ‘70’s. I tried it once, but decided that the Gauley was a thing of beauty to be savored, not rushed. Wally Dyer and his partner, Ben Cass, were a top-ranked doubles team from Philadelphia. Wally was an intense, competitive man, but not exactly a big-water paddler. Naturally I delighted in telling him all my Gauley River horror stories before his first race. Looking at the starting list, he saw a pair listed he didn’t recognize. He turned to me and asked pointedly, “Who’s this Singley and Wilkinson?” Now these folks were friends of mine, a couple from Blacksburg who raced in the men’s class because there weren’t enough boats around to form a mixed division. But I made up a story about a hot British team that had won all the races in Canada that summer. I though Wally was going to swallow his trademark cigar! Later his partner came to me and begged me to lay off Wally so he could get some sleep.

For the next few years the numbers of paddlers steadily increased. The boating community was tiny, and the quantity of Gauley Boaters smaller still. But you didn’t have to arrange to meet someone to have a shuttle. We knew who was there by the types of cars at the parking lot. We could tell who was paddling at a distance by the colors of their boats and gear. If we didn’t know you and you weren’t with someone we did, you probably didn’t belong here. One year two small, inexpensive rafts were beached below Insignificant, their floors ripped out from under them by the force of the water. Another year saw a horribly mangled Blue Hole canoe washed on the shore near the head of Pillow Rock Rapid. We chuckled knowingly at these wrecks, and paddled on.

Suddenly  the numbers jumped from dozens to several hundred. For the first time there were lots of people around who I didn’t know.  But most of them were capable boaters who handled the river with class. All these new people were something of a shock to the old timers. There were three very attractive women serving as shuttle bunnies for a group from South Carolina. We got down to Lost Paddle only to find them nude sunbathing on rocks dispersed throughout the rapid. Definitely unsafe, we agreed. Could cause accidents!

We outgrew the capacity of the pavilion at the top of the dam. One weekend I arrived in a driving rain. The pavilion was jammed, and we spent a sleepless night greeting new arrivals and telling lies to each other. The next day a few idiots backed their cars over the saturated lawn to load their gear. They got getting stuck and left huge ruts. This motivated the Corps to keep Battle Run Campground open in future years, and we were banned from the pavilion forever.

That morning the Gauley was running at 5,000 cfs and the Meadow was putting out 10,000 or so. Route 19, which we called “Corridor L”, had just been completed. Many folks hiked into the Lower Meadow to view the chaos. I left before Bart Jackson was hit by a car as he wandered lazily across the road. Just before impact he saw the speeding vehicle and jumped into the air. He rolled across the hood and landed unhurt to one side. The terrified driver was quite relieved to find out

The few who tried the Gauley had wild stories. Tom McEwan hit the hole in the bottom of Pillow Rock and lost his helmet and glasses. He carried out. “Fearless” Fred Young and his group of Midwest maniacs ended up carrying all of Lost Paddle Rapid along the railroad tracks. Lower down Chip Queitzsch, a fellow C-boater, was surfing a big hole at Koontz’s Flume when he caught sight of his air bags floating downstream. The seams of his fiberglass boat had parted, and he and his boat soon followed the bags! Later the day turned bitterly cold. After looking at all the flooded upper tributaries, we settled on the North Fork of the Cherry only to get snowed on. I stayed up in the headwaters for the rest of the weekend.

Commercial rafting on the Gauley began in the mid 70’s. The owners were people we’d boated with, and we weren’t shy about telling them that they were making a big mistake. I remember sitting in eddies with my buddies in Lost Paddle, chuckling as those big rubber boats swamped and floundered, totally out of control. Their sweep oars broke, the guides lost control, and guests fell out of the rafts by the score. Pure entertainment! We felt that they’d never be able to make rafting on the Gauley a success. Today, as the guides hold their smooth, precise lines through the rapids, I realize that we underestimated, as usual, the ability of river runners to improve their equipment and skills. I certainly never visualized the crowds that we have today.

Originally we left our boats at the mouth of Peter’s Creek, walking in along the tracks and back out the next day to run the “Lower” down to Swiss. After several people had boats stolen some of us began leaving our craft above Koontz’s Bend and walking out through the mile-long tunnel under the ridge. This split the river distance nicely, allowing us to run the great play rapids of Koontz Bend at the beginning of day two. But the walk through the mile-long tunnel was spooky at best. It took us about twenty minutes to walk through. We almost never remembered to bring flashlights, so we stumbled about in the dark, stubbed our toes on the ties, and floundered in the filthy puddles all the way to the other end. One clown brought a small compressed-air horn and almost scared us to death! I never got caught by a train, but those who did described in detail the unpleasantness of lying face down in the mud as the cars roared by, close enough to touch. Even though the road is unsightly, I wasn’t totally unhappy to see Appalachian Whitewater’s develop an access at Mason Branch.

Another year we were hanging around at Swiss waiting for our shuttles. Not knowing that railroad cars stick out well past the tracks, two fools had parked their vans right next to the rails. A local man drove up and said, “You’d better move them things, ’cause there’s a train a-comin’, and they wrecked some feller’s car last week.” Spurred by the approaching whistle, we did what we had to. One van was easy; we broke in through the side window, released the brake, and pushed it away. The second one we found to our horror had a locking steering column. We got all the people we could find, thirty or forty strong: boaters, guides, customers, and the local man who’d warned us. We grabbed the van and muscled first one end over, then the other. The front end was really heavy, and we had to bounce and skid it a few inches at a time. Nowadays we pay a few bucks to various locals who watch the cars during the day.

The commercial rafting business on the Gauley Continued to grow. Today the need for extra guides is met by hundreds of Western boatmen who travel east for Gauley Season, but during the late 70’s it was not unusual for company managers to cruise around the paddler camping slots below the dam looking for guides. They would offer $120 or more to experienced paddlers who would “push rubber” for a day. That was real money, but I came to play, and the idea of being on the Gauley in a boat full of guests made me nervous.

But while the crowds are a nuisance, they helped save the river by turning it into a major tourist attraction. Dave Brown recalls being ushered into West Virginia Senator Byrd’s office on Capitol Hill. This was the beginning of the Reagan Era and this venerable politician told him that he “didn’t have much to give to environmentalists today.” Brown countered by explaining that outfitters were bringing over $10 million into the area during the four week Gauley season. That got the Senator’s attention! The efforts of AW and Citizens For Gauley River, which coordinated opposition to the project from kayakers, outfitters, and local businessmen, eventually bore fruit. There’s much to do, but in theory the river and its flows are protected.

By the mid 1980’s the scene had changed. The season moved from October to September, trading the majesty of changing foliage for warmer air temperatures. Traffic increased. Cars entering the parking lot below the dam were tightly controlled, and traffic jams at other access points became normal, not unusual. In previous years the area below the dam was like old home week, a huge reunion of East Coast paddlers. Now, rather than seeking out the places where boaters congregate, I tried to avoid the crowds by using off-peak put-in times and access points.

But the crowds are not the whole story. The Gauley during the Fall is an amazing display of the latest high-tech plastic and rubber gear. People have surprisingly good skills, and swims are rare. Innumerable access points and lunch stops, complete with tents, cooking facilities, and graded roads have taken away the wilderness feel. The river is more accessible, and untold thousands have gathered strength and sanity from passing through. But something very special has been lost.

While I still enjoy the river immensely, I miss the wildness we found in the 70’s. The precious sense of exploration and wonder felt by our small, self-reliant groups as they moved carefully and respectfully down a wild, trackless canyon seems indescribably distant today. While I regret the loss of the marvelous camaraderie we shared in the days when everyone knew each other, I meet new people who become friends every year. And if you put on late in the day, when most of the other boats are nearing the end of their run, the years slip silently away, and the solitude and majesty of the Gauley Canyon returns and closes in around you. Get some friends together, and enjoy!