The Perfect Whitewater
by Ben Crookshanks
"The most exciting experience of my life."
Armstrong was not talking about flying jet fighters, or putting a brand new jet plane through its paces at faster than the speed of sound to see if it would work, nor being the first man to set foot on the moon. He was talking about rafting on the Gauley River. For a quiet and intensely private man not given to tossing out insincere, meaningless rhetoric, it's an impressive statement.
As rivers go, the Gauley is not very long, only 107 miles. But the last 28 miles more than make up in excitement, adventure and awesome beauty for what it lacks in length. With five Class V+ rapids, the Gauley is definitely the "wild child" of West Virginia's rivers. It is ranked the number 2 whitewater river in the United States and number 7 in the world. If you set out to design the perfect whitewater river, there would be several sections of the Gauley in the rough draft.
The Gauley begins high in the mountains of Pocahontas County at an elevation of 4,600 feet. It flows west-southwest for 107 miles to Gauley Bridge at an elevation of 600 feet. There it empties into the New River to form the Kanawha River. As you can see, the Gauley, in covering 107 miles, drops 4,000 feet, an average of 37.4 feet per mile. Below Summersville Dam, the river slices through a canyon with walls rising as much as 500 feet above the water. This stretch of river drops an average of 28 feet per mile. By comparison, the Mississippi begins in northern Minnesota at an altitude of 1,445 feet and flows at about two miles an hour for 2,350 miles and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It drops about seven inches per mile. The Nile travels about 4,160 miles dropping a little over 10 inches per mile.
The extreme drop adds velocity to the water as it flows down a riverbed strewn with boulders, some as big as houses. It would not be an exaggeration to say the Gauley River is a modified waterfall, or more accurately, a series of waterfalls. There are over 100 named rapids between Summersville Dam and Sugar Creek, approximately four per mile.
In 1959, two Pennsylvania mountain climbers, Sayre and Jane Rodman tried to raft the Gauley. High water forced them to abandon their attempt. Two years later, they were successful.
In 1968, John Sweet became the first person to successfully kayak a rapid that was later named "Sweet's Falls" in his honor. "Sweet's Falls" sounds peaceful and romantic, doesn't it? It was originally called "The Devil's Backbone" and with good reason.
As summer drags on, less and less water is released from Summersville Lake. The Gauley is calmed a bit, but it can never be called tame. There are still Class V rapids to negotiate.
All of a sudden there's a change. On the first weekend after Labor Day, at the appointed hour, the Army Corps of Engineers releases over one million gallons of water per minute. This torrent plunges headlong toward a rendezvous with the New River. The Gauley is now at its best. The fall season has begun. Whitewater rafting paddlers from literally around the world make their annual pilgrimage to West Virginia during September and October to ride the Gauley's big water. Call AAA Adventure Outdoors at 1-877-868-4578 or visit www.aaaAdventureOutdoors.com to sign up for the ride of your life! Other WV outfitters can be found at www.callwva.com.