SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — Riding a jacked-up whitewater release of 2,800 cubic feet per second down a 25-mile stretch of boulder-strewn river might not be for everyone.
During those miles, the elevation drops 668 feet, creating a nearly unbroken series of almost 100 rapids, including nine that are rated as experts-only Class V (“extremely long, obstructed or very violent rapids which expose paddlers to added risk,” according to the International Scale of River Difficulty).
But it keeps Gauley River whitewater rafting guides from around the world coming back to Nicholas County year after year to pump up some adrenaline, reconnect with friends and share the Gauley River experience with guests who make up the West Virginia whitewater industry’s more adventurous demographic.
On Thursday morning, scores of guides from several outfitters gathered at the base of Summersville Dam to immerse themselves in re-familiarization runs down the Gauley in preparation for today’s opening of the Gauley River whitewater season.
The warm-up session was made possible by a special 2,800 cfs release from the dam, which will make similar-sized releases for six hours each Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from now until Oct. 10, followed by the final releases of the season, on Oct. 15-16.
In the 1980s, Congress made whitewater-friendly releases from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Summersville Dam during the fall draw-down of Summersville Lake an official goal for the Corps’ flood-control project.
It marked the first time that recreation was recognized as an official federal objective. Since then, the Corps has added whitewater recreation as a project goal in Virginia, for its John W. Flannagan Lake on the Russell Fork River, which is offering eight days of whitewater releases this October.
“This is one of the crown jewels of paddling,” said Scott Watts of St. Augustine, Florida, a Gauley season guide for ACE Adventure Resort at Minden, as he prepared to take part in Thursday’s re-familiarization event. “Guiding here is something you work toward your whole career.”
Qualifying for Gauley River guide duty includes having served as a guide on other commercially run rivers, taking training trips on the Gauley to become familiar with the river and how to approach its rapids, and acting as a guide to a raft full of previously qualified guides who critique rookie performances and offer advice before a senior guide makes the final decision.
For veteran Gauley River guides, Septembers and Octobers here become “a family reunion of people you’ve worked with here and across the country,” said Watts, an Illinois native who began his paddling career working for a canoe outfitter in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and moved on to whitewater raft guiding on Tennessee’s Ocoee River before guiding on the New and Gauley rivers during the late 1980s and early ’90s.
From here, Watts moved on to shuttling sailboats between Chesapeake Bay and locations in the Caribbean, earning a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license and operating his own Florida-based charter boat and boat transit company. For the past couple of years, he has returned to part-time duty as a whitewater rafting guide on the Nolichucky River, in North Carolina, and the Gauley.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all year,” he said. “There’s something about this place in the fall — the cooler temperatures, the leaves changing colors, the smell of the water and the autumn air, and the adrenaline. From the moment you put in the river, it’s exciting.”
Nearby, fellow ACE guide Ken Yarber, who began his professional guiding career on the New two years ago, at age 61, was preparing to take a familiarization run on the Gauley as part of the process leading up to becoming a guide on that fabled stream.
“I’m 40 years older than most of my classmates, but you’re encouraged to work on other rivers when you work at ACE, and I’d be happy to be a guide on the Gauley,” he said. “I think I’ll eventually get there, because I don’t give up. And the adrenaline has already got me pumped.”
At a nearby raft being prepared for Thursday’s run, a much younger Wes Eads, an ACE guide on the New and Lower Gauley rivers, was serving as guide for a raft-full of previously qualified Upper Gauley guides, including senior guide Alisa Hudgel.
“I think he’ll do fine — as long as he doesn’t terrorize me,” Hudgel said with a laugh. “I’m looking forward to riding instead of guiding, for a change.”
Although the start of the fall Gauley season is nothing new to her, she said the event still has its magic.
“It’s like New Year’s Eve,” she said. “It’s the best.”
Guides taking part in Thursday’s preseason run planned to take note of debris remaining in the river from the June 23 floods.
“After the Meadow comes into the Gauley, there’s quite a bit of wood still in the river,” Hudgel said.
National Park Service crews removed a large collection of logs and other debris from Lost Paddle rapid, she said.
While the Gauley season offers guides their last chance to put together some cash before the arrival of the winter doldrums, “it’s not just about the money,” said Adventures on the Gorge executive Dave Arnold.
“It’s a rendezvous kind of thing, like the mountain men getting together in the early 1800s,” he said. “We’ve got people coming in from Colorado to Uzbekistan — from all over the world — who want to be here for the adventure of guiding on world-class whitewater and to get together with their friends.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at [email protected], 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.