My experience whitewater rafting on West Virginia’s Lower Gauley river was part of a combined trip to raft the entire Upper, Middle and Lower Gauley in one long day. While this is a big undertaking in itself, the addition of a semi-insane guide made it a day I won’t soon forget!
As I explained in my prior post “Whitewater Rafting – Upper Gauley“, I stumbled into a free run down the river with a crazy rafting company owner who shall be known here as Bill. The Gauley provides plenty of thrills on its own, so the addition of Bill was a mixed blessing. There is no doubt he knew the river intimately. However, his quirks not only caused me a few moments of doubt, and I learned later that he also caused some doubt in the minds of the potential guides he was training. But more on that later.
Word on the water is that the Upper Gauley is the big kahuna of whitewater in these parts and that the lower is a cake walk. Well, I’m not sure what type of cake they are talking about because the Lower was every bit as thrilling to me. It is a bit longer than the upper and seems to have more wave train rapids that just keep going and going. It begins with a bang at Wood’s Ferry (class IV+) and continues through a long series of class III and IV rapids that offer many fun problems to play with. During this section, some of the trainees took turns leading us successfully through large, but relatively simple rapids. Bill continued his running commentary outlining the features that could kill you, but after negotiating so many rapids already the edge was off a bit. Our team had geled and we were starting to look like we actually knew what we were doing.
The Lower Gauley was fun and uneventful until we hit Pure Screaming Hell (class IV) near the end of the run. We were all tired but Bill kept saying “I want it, I want it” in a disturbing manner as we entered the rapid. Judging by the path we were taking, what he wanted was a large standing wave that was clearly outside of the path most other runners were taking. The face was nearly vertical and we drew the attention of a number of other boats in the immediate area. I remember thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea but all I could do is hang on and enjoy the ride. As we steered closer, his only command was “don’t fall out”. I suspect there might have been more than just cigars in his little stash so for the first time on the trip I was just a tad concerned. We hit the wave head on and apparently we didn’t get exactly what he wanted because we ended up very close to an undercut area that looked like the kind of place he had been warning us about all day. The kind of place where you check in but don’t check out. At this point, the spell was broken and he barked out commands that with a good bit of effort guided us to rough, but clearly safer water. Was he messing with our heads? Maybe. After all it was a training run for some potential guides so he might have been testing how they reacted. Whatever he was up to, as soon as we exited Pure Screaming Hell everything went back to normal.
After Pure Screaming Hell, it was all over but some easy paddling. We arrived at the take-out, got out of our rank wetsuits and enjoyed the ride back to home base. That night I understood the mood of the rafters from the night before. They were both happy to have had a great adventure AND relieved that it was over. Would I ride the river with Wild Bill again? As it turns out yes. Would I recommend his outfit to casual rafters? I don’t think so (sorry Bill). Maybe he is different with tourists, but his antics could really turn someone off to the whole experience pretty quickly.
There are a good number of outfitters who make the Gauley run but I won’t recommend one over another as I don’t know them well enough. If you are a beginner, start with the Lower and work your way up if you like it. The lower offers plenty of excitement but avoids the really nasty stuff in general. The best suggestion I have is to search the web for Gauley River Rafting and choose the outfitter that appeals to you. For lodging and food, I prefer to camp on this type of outing as it adds to the adventure. However, there are sufficient (if modest) dining and lodging options in the small towns around the river. Other diversions include the New River Gorge (also great rafting) and the New River Gorge Bridge which is a very impressive feat of engineering. Plan you trip around New River Bridge Day in late October and you can watch as truly crazy people BASE jump from the 876′ high span.
For a great outdoor adventure, whitewater rafting on the Gauley River definitely should have a place on your list.