Whitewater rafting, where bravery counts Adventure: In autumn, the Gauley River in central West Virginia pounds, swirls, roars - and invites hardy types for a thrilling ride.

August 09, 1998|By Thomas Fletcher | Thomas Fletcher,special to the sun

The name strikes fear into the hearts of the whitewater timid. I know. Been there, felt the fear. The name is spoken in hushed, reverential tones by experienced enthusiasts. All serious whitewater adventurers have either done or long to do this river. It is West Virginia's mighty Gauley River. The Gauley is among the most thrilling whitewater rivers in the United States.

"I have Gauley posters on my wall," a whitewater guide in Vermont informed me.

Although he has yet to do the Gauley, he looks at his poster and dreams - or so he says. Such is the enthusiasm generated by this awesome river. Every year, for six consecutive weekends in September and October, during the annual draw-down of the Summersville Dam, people flock to the area to experience the thrill of a lifetime. During the draw-down, the water is released at a constant rate of 2,800 cubic feet per second. No wonder Outside magazine referred to it as "the hillbilly autobahn." The Gauley is a pounding, swirling, tumbling, fast and furious river.

Located in the heart of mountainous West Virginia, the Gauley flows through some of the most remote and gorgeous scenery in the eastern United States. It is channeled through a steep canyon that is an average of 500 feet deep. Recommended only for commercial rafting trips and expert kayakers, the river crashes over and around boulders the size of houses. Riding the Gauley is as pure an adrenalin rush as one could possibly hope for - or want. Just listen to the names of some of the rapid: "Heaven Help You," "Upper and Lower Mash" and "Pure Screaming Hell" with "Hell Hole" in the middle of this Class V beauty.

Having grown up only two miles from the Gauley, I have watched this river my whole life. I've seen it raging at flood stage. I've seen it nearly dry in summer drought.

Until recently, I have appreciated this river's majesty from the safety of shore. I have always possessed a healthy respect for fast-moving water, and saw no reason to place myself in it. So it took me quite awhile to make the final decision that I would raft the Gauley. Actually it took about a year and a half, and part of the process was rafting a somewhat less intimidating venue, the New River.

The New River experience was thrilling. I would like to say I was immediately prepared to do the Gauley. Such was not the case. I decided I would go watch other rafters and kayakers.

The Gauley has two separate sections, the Upper and Lower. The put-in for the Upper is at the base of Summersville Dam. I watched one raft, holding seven people, take about 15 minutes of hard paddling to simply break the eddy line created by the water thrashing out of the dam. Once the line was broken, it was as if the raft were shot from a cannon.

Still not ready for the Gauley, I wondered what kind of training the guides have. What sort of guidelines do they follow? What qualifies a person to take six or eight people in a rubber raft through such monstrous waters?

It turns out the training is extensive, rigorous and continuing. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources has established guidelines with which commercial rafting companies must comply in order to obtain and maintain a license. "Whitewater Guide-Trainee Information Sheets" have to be maintained and submitted annually to DNR. Each guide has to be CPR and first-aid certified by the American Red Cross. Their cards must be kept current. Guides must have a minimum of 10 trips on each river to be certified. Regulations state that guides "must have knowledge of the area to be traversed." Each commercial rafting trip has to have a "trip leader." The qualifications for trip leaders are more stringent, roughly double that of the guides.

There is also a certain amount of "risk management" training that guides must have. They are trained to discern whether guests are impaired through alcohol or drugs. Such guests pose a danger to other guests. Does a guest have a look of petrified fear on his or her face? These risks must be identified and dealt with before getting on the river. The guides have the authority and responsibility to remove any guest whom they deem to be problem or risk to other guests.

After checking the training standards of DNR, many of my fears were allayed - though not vanquished. The idea of actually going whitewater rafting had required some serious adjustments in my attitude. It is a dangerous sport, bouncing through that pounding, out-of-control, primal element - water. Even after rafting the New, I still found the Gauley fearsome.

This past summer I had been venturing more and more into whitewater. I did some whitewater canoeing in Vermont. I was working up my courage, knowing that Gauley season would start the Friday after Labor Day. Then my 16-year-old daughter started on me. "Dad, I want to go whitewater rafting. I want to go on the Gauley."

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