Why the Gauley? Because a few days before I set out to taste this beast, I have read that it has the most challenging, ferocious and exhilarating whitewater in North America (It is rated the 7th most difficult in the world—and of all the rivers I’ve been on, this is the only one where prior rafting experience is required.). The river is controlled by a dam, which releases water for 12 weeks in early fall. People from all over the continent flock there for that 12-week window. So popular is it that you must make reservations several months in advance of your trip to avoid it being sold out.
A group of six of us (all friends from Gainesville) overcome the terror and decide to whitewater raft the river. Gauley, after all, is considered the most difficult run in North America. We are nervous at first, but have such a fabulous time that we plan to return every fall. On the first day, our guide tells us that no one is allowed to fall out of the raft unless everyone does, at which point he promptly and unceremoniously is flung out of the raft at a rapid a few minutes later (first time it ever happened to him).
On the second day we decide to take on the much more dreaded upper Gauley with a shy, quiet, low-key person who would laugh diabolically every time he explains that a deadly rapid is approaching. He turns out to be very skilled, but the raft nevertheless flips and dumps us all near the end. Frightening at first, but after a few seconds it became quite fun. The raft company that took us on the trip was Wildwater.
The beginning of the upper Gauley run is exceptionally hair-raising. You put in just below the dam, and must paddle, furiously, straight into a 30-foot high wall of fiercely gushing water (2,300 cubic feet of water per second) from a pipe in the dam, in order to make it downstream and not get caught in the powerful eddy (as I watch this wall of water before we put in our raft, I have second thoughts about what we have gotten ourselves into). Due to the coldness of the air and water, it was important to wear wetsuits on the raft. The upper Gauley is has so many challenging rapids that it gives almost non-stop excitement. At the end of your run, you feel exuberant as you realize you have survived a long battle locked in mortal combat with a boiling, angry torrent of raging, exploding water. Nearly every rapid is a screaming descent into a treacherous, terrifying, bone-crushing liquid fury. Blind, suicidal fear strikes each time the raft guide announces the Rapid of Doom approaching.
But we somehow survive.
The river is very technical. Over 50 major rapids (100 in all), and a drop of 650 feet along it’s 28-mile course. It is the best two-day whitewater trip in North America. Class V-V+ rapids include Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweets Falls. The lower Gauley has dozens of Class III-V rapids such as Koontz’s Flume, Mash, Heaven Help You, and Pure Screaming Hell. The run is 28 miles for the two-day trip from Summersville Dam to Swiss. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowers the Summersville lake each fall to prepare for winter and spring runoff. It is billed as one of the world’s ten greatest rivers, and with the Colorado, one of the two greatest in the U.S.
The Gauley has received “National River” status from the federal government.
Here are the photos I shot during a September 1995 rafting trip at the Gauley.