By Sarah Plummer
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Experienced whitewater rafters preparing for the Sept. 11 Gauley season push-off may experience a different ride than years past. Industry experts say there are significant changes in rock formation to the Class V rapid called Heaven Help You on the Lower Gauley.
ACE Adventure Resort Chief of Staff David Bassage said the rapid, also called Heaven’s Gate, is known for two car-size rocks about 10 feet apart just before a dangerous pour-over.
The right “gate” is now gone, and it looks like it’s broken off.
“Those of us who have seen the river in high and low water know what to expect, and there are very rarely any changes in rapid formation,” he explained. “The last significant change of this size was in 1985 when the Cheat River had a 500-year flood that completely rearranged the northern rivers.”
There were minor changes during 2001 flooding events, but the missing boulder is a big change.
“There is no reason to indicate this change will pose a bigger risk or hazard. It’s just a very different ride for those who are experienced,” he added.
Over the six weeks that comprise some of the best whitewater rafting in America, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District, will release a total of 43.5 billion gallons of water from Summersville Lake, confirmed Bryce Carmichael, senior water management specialist.
This draws the lake down from its summer recreation depth of 1,652 feet above sea level to 1,574 feet, he said.
The dam is scheduled for release Sept. 11-14, Sept.18-21, Sept. 25-28, Oct. 2-5, Oct. 9-12, and Oct. 17-18.
The dam will release about 2,800 cubic feet of water per second, said Carmichael.
Outfitters are already preparing for some of their busiest times, and summer rains have allowed for some unplanned training days down the river, something Carmichael said is rare on the Gauley.
The biggest training day will be Sept. 10 when the dam opens to give only rafting staff the chance to take a trip down without passengers.
Bobby Bower, executive director of the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters, said Thursday is a chance for seasoned guides to get refreshed and to give new hires an opportunity to hit the rapids for dedicated training.
Guides have been hired from across the United States and from other countries like Costa Rica and New Zealand, said Bower. Not only does Gauley season attract hundreds of visitors; there is an influx of guides who stay the entire six weeks.
“There are many guides who travel to work whitewater seasons and are able to work year-round that way,” he said. “When many whitewater rivers are drying up in the fall, national focus turns to the Gauley River every year where our season is just kicking in.”
“We are looking forward to a great season. Come out and get on the water with us,” added Bower.
Behind-the-scenes work to prepare also includes clearing launch spots of debris and keeping access roads neat, said outfitters.
Carmichael also noted the Army Corps of Engineers also spends many hours preparing before the release. They work with upstream recreation areas and campgrounds to make sure they are ready to scale back their docks and boating arenas as the lake lowers.
The Division of Natural Resources also ensures the river release is not detrimental to the environment by endangering species or impacting fisheries.
And lastly, the Corps coordinates with law enforcement, the National Park Service and outfitters to develop safety plans in case search and rescue efforts are needed.
A comprehensive timed schedule of the water releases at Summersville Dam can be viewed on the Army Corps of Engineers website at http://www.lrh-wc.usace.army.mil/wm/?wwsched.
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