Water You Afraid of: The Quest for the Roily Grail

For SAS article, By Tom Hahl and Alan Wagoner


Thirty minutes into the four-plus hour drive to West Virginia, reality set in.  A plan that began as a spark ignited during a father-son Y-Guides trip in August was finally becoming reality.  We were heading straight toward the belly of the beast and we knew there would be no turning back…

 (Sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme)

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale

A tale of a fateful trip

That started with a mild float

Down a pint-size spit

The crew was a mighty paddlin' force

The vessel safe and sure

Class Fives were just around the bend

We hoped we would endure, we hoped we would endure…

 Planting the Seed


It really all began so innocently with a weekend trip up to Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with our sons.  We were attending our first Trail Blazers Fall outing and five father/son pairs from our tribe decided to partake in the optional Friday river rafting trip down the French Broad River with Blue Heron White Water.  Three of us would paddle down the river in a raft, while the other two opted for the inflatable kayak, aka “double duck”, experience.


The trip, while only consisting of Class I to Class III rapids (more on what that means later), was thoroughly enjoyed by all. 


Riding the French Broad



More fun on the French Broad

As we settled in our seats for the bus ride back to Camp Rockmont and our upcoming weekend of adventure, the discussion centered on how amazing it felt to experience the power of Mother Nature in the form of a free-flowing river.  For some, it was through the eyes of first-timer, while others shared stories of prior paddling trips and the feelings they evoked.  In a short time, the discussion centered on the rivers of West Virginia and for those of us who gravitate toward things that trigger the release of adrenaline, the seed was planted.


Research on West Virginia white water adventures began the very next day.  It became apparent rather quickly, there were basically two options; the New River and the Gauley River.  There are a number of outfitters that can take you on down either or both, but first we need to choose our river.


Just Add Miracle-Gro


The New River is a natural flow river that is commercially rafted from early spring straight through late fall, and is kind of like Jekyll and Hyde.  The Upper New River is mostly flat water with a few Class II and Class III rapids; perfect for those who want a long, slow float with a few rapids thrown in here and there.  Conversely, the Lower New River can pose a real challenge (especially when the flow is up), with a total of around 20 Class III – Class IV+ rapids.  The Lower New River definitely looked intriguing until we read about the Gauley.


The Gauley is primarily a controlled-release river that begins at the Summersville Lake dam.  While the river is sometimes navigable, at other times of the year, the river is known for its “Gauley Season”.


Gauley Season consists of a total of six weekends (only 22 total days) in September and October when the Army Corp of Engineers release a consistent and significant amount of water (generally 2300cfs to 2800cfs) into the Gauley River gorge.


The Gauley River is generally broken down into three sections: the Lower Gauley, Middle Gauley and Upper Gauley, but most white water companies split the Middle up into their Lower and Upper Gauley trips.  The ratings vary somewhat, but a general summary of the river during Gauley Season is as follows:


·         The Upper Gauley consists of an approximate 9.8 mile (16km) section with over 25 named rapids, including five Class V rapids

·         The Lower Gauley consists of an approximate 11 mile (18km) section with around 20 named rapids, including one Class V and five Class IV rapids


The better understand what this means, here is a breakdown of the classes based on the International White Water Rating System:


·         Class I: Moving water with a few riffles and small waves.  Few or no obstructions.

·         Class II: Easy rapids with smaller waves, clear channels that are obvious without scouting.  Some maneuvering might be required.

·         Class III: Rapids with high, irregular waves.  Narrow passages that often require precise maneuvering.

·         Class IV: Long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require complex maneuvering in turbulent water.  The course might be hard to determine and scouting is often necessary.

·         Class V: Extremely difficult, long, and very violent rapids with highly congested routes, which should be scouted from shore.  Rescue conditions are difficult, and there is a significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap.  The upper limit of what is possible in a commercial raft.

·         Class VI: The difficulties of Class V carried to the extreme.  Nearly impossible and very dangerous.  For teams of experts only.  Involves risk of life.  Class VI rapids are not commercially raftable.


The Upper Gauley River during Gauley Season is consistently rated in the Top 3 in the U.S. and Top 10 in the World when it comes to white water adventure.  Many feel that the river is unmatched with regard to the amount and difficulty of the rapids that are packed into such a short distance.  The result is lots and lots of white water with little time for rest and recovery.  Because the water being released comes from deep within the lake, the water temperature is usually around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius).  One final factor that we had to consider was the danger.  People die on the Gauley every year, with three fatalities during the 2009 Gauley Season.


After careful consideration, we reached a decision; we’d be running the Gauley.  That seed was now showing vigorous growth.


Weeding and Pruning


Our research led us to choose Class VI-Mountain River as the company we’d use for our trip.  They offered a large selection of options regarding accommodations, meals, and gear, and had a solid reputation for top notch equipment and guides.  It took a while to weed through all the options, but after careful consideration, we decided on a weekend trip with two days of rafting, both on the Gauley.  We would do the Lower Gauley on day one, then take on the Upper Gauley the second day.  Our package included two nights of camping, all meals on Saturday and Sunday, the Lower and Upper Gauley river trips, and the obligatory wet suit rental.  Bundling all this together in one package resulted in substantial saving.  Now we just had to answer two last two questions:  Who and When?


We determined that only two of the remaining Gauley Season weekends were possible given prior commitments.  Armed with that information, we began asking others to join us in our quest.  We petitioned tribe members, co-workers, and friends both near and far.  Most had either scheduling or intestinal fortitude conflicts.  When the dust settled, the only taker was someone who’s knows what it is like to staring death in the face.  With BJ, a criminal defense attorney, on board we committed to a date and booked our trip.  The roots were now firmly in place and there wasn’t anything that could keep this plan from bearing fruit.


Time to Harvest


Due to courtroom obligations (who would have thought that juries could be unpredictable), BJ had to drive up to West Virginia on his own, so we were the first to arrive at the headquarters of Class VI-Mountain River, perched on the lip of the New River Gorge.  We procured our check-in info, found our campsite, set up camp, and went on a quest for dinner.  We ended up finding what might be the best pizza either of us has ever eaten at Pies and Pints in nearby Fayetteville, West Virginia.  The Cuban Pork Pie (with marinated pulled pork, caramelized onions, pineapple, jalapenos, feta, cilantro, and crčme fraiche) paired with a pint from one of the local microbreweries was simply outstanding!


Once back at camp, we started a roaring fire and awaited BJ’s arrival.  He didn’t roll in until around 11:00 pm, but his setup task became very simple due one slight problem; he forgot to pack tent poles.  Luckily he drives a rather spacious former police interceptor, because it he had to sleep in it for the duration of our stay.  After some quaffing of adult beverages and lively conversation, we headed off to bed knowing that in just a few hours, the adventure would truly begin.


Day 1 - Lower Gauley




After a hearty breakfast at Smokey’s On the Gorge, we donned our wetsuits, and tried on our personal flotation devices and helmets.  In preparation for our quest, Alan procured a white water helmet so he had a place to mount his waterproof, GoPro HD camera.  Thanks to his forethought and editing skills, you too can experience our trip down the Lower Gauley river in HD (maximize the view for the best results).


Video of Lower Gauley Trip


Unfortunately the camera wasn’t running at the very start when Alan fell off backwards while climbing into the raft.  He was soaking wet before we even put our paddles in the water!


Some of the highlights from our first day included:


·         Alan knocking Tom out of the raft and into the river (11:10)

·         Experiencing the raw power of the river

·         Enjoying the spectacular views and changing colors of autumn

·         Jumping into the river to experience the Swimmers' Rapids (20:35)


On the trip back to camp, we did our best to help in clearing out the cooler full of beer and other consumables they supplied.  The Lower Gauley was definitely a significant step up from our August endeavor, but we knew that tomorrow we’d be taking it to a completely different level.


Day 2 - Upper Gauley



As we drove across the top of the Summerville Dam, the Gauley River gorge had an eerie, almost ominous appearance.  When that huge torrent of released water is exposed to the significantly colder air, fingers of fog claw their way out from within the river.  This visual, coupled with the roar from the first rapid just barely downstream but hidden from view, would make even the bravest of souls pause.  Our Upper Gauley adventure was underway.


Apparently the cold sucked the life out of Alan’s camera battery overnight, but we do have a video courtesy of the kayaking videographer who accompanied us on our Upper Gauley trip. We’re always the second raft entering the rapids.


Video of Upper Gauley Trip


We were the first on the river that day and our group only consisted of two rafts.  This meant not having to wait to enter any rapid or wait in rescue position for a bunch of other boats to clear a rapid before continuing downstream.  The flipside of this was this no additional recovery time while waiting on others, and if both rafts got into trouble at the same rapid – well; we really hoped that didn’t happen.


Our raft consisted of powerful paddlers.  Our ability to quickly respond to the guide’s commands allowed us to avoid all the big hazards and their corresponding risk.  Rafting is definitely a participation sport, and on rivers like the Upper Gauley everyone in the raft must work together as a team or you can end up in trouble.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before this became painfully apparent.


The first Class V rapid of the day we encountered was named Insignificant.  Shortly after entering the top of the rapid, the other raft got stuck in a hole.  As the raft was pulled back upstream into the oncoming flow, two people were sucked out and flushed underneath the raft.  When this happens, especially with all the hazards still to come, the goal is survival.  We ended up pulling one of the swimmers out of the river and both were noticeably shaken.  The river had given notice:  Rafters Beware!



 We managed to keep our raft out of trouble and nobody left the raft unexpectedly on any of the remaining Class Vs.   All the words, pictures and videos in the world cannot convey what it is like:


·         Listening to the roar of the river get louder and louder as the rapids approach.

·         Watching the raft in front of you disappear from the horizon.

·         Feeling your chest pound as you enter the top of a Class V and begin the descent.

·         Losing your orientation within the churning maelstrom.

·         Experiencing the release when you realize you’ve made it through another one.



The Upper Gauley is definitely not a Disney ride.  There are some significant risks, but in many ways, it is the perfect example of nature’s roller coaster.  It makes you truly appreciate the natural forces that exist within our world.  It also made us realize that you don't conquer the Gauley, you survive it.


By the way, we already have it on the calendar for next year!