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Running the Gauley River

By Christian Lowe - October 8th, 2001

Driving into town the other night I stared into the rearview mirror wondering where the heck that bedraggled punk staring at me had come from. The matted hair, sunburned face, sore arms, and two-day stubble can only mean one thing: that paddle freak had made yet another trip to the Gauley River.

Every fall, for six weekends, the Army Corps of Engineers releases 2,800 cfs of cold water in southern West Virginia. Arranged with the help of the American Whitewater Affiliation, the release opens two of the Nation's best whitewater playgrounds - the Upper and Lower Gauley River.

On the River
Paddlers love the Gauley for its difficulty and abundance of play. For the expert paddlers, the classic class V upper section serves up a feast of big water heart-thumpers. For the more relaxed paddler, the lower Gauley features class III-IV semi-big water rapids with a handful of awesome play waves and holes.

Neither section is without its dangers. The Gauley is notorious for its undercut rocks - a symptom of the native sandstone that millions of years of water erosion has carved into sluices and sieves lurking just under the water's surface.

It's the Upper, though, that really gives the Gauley its reputation. With its compliment of steep, big-water drops, the Gauley has proven to be the definitive class V run of the East.

The first big drop, Pillow Rock, is a spectator's dream. The trail leading down from the gorge rim serves up a compliment of onlookers eager to see the latest raft flip or kayak crash.

The rapid itself consists of the entire flow of the river piling into an "L" shaped, house-sized rock on river left - forming the famous "pillow." Finding the right line can be tricky and Pillow serves up its fair share of swimmers.

Lost Paddle offers three very technical drops. Further down is Iron Ring which can be rather nasty when the water begins to drop (I did the second drop upside-down at 650 cfs a few weeks before). The rapid drops approximately 12 feet over a barely exposed crack on the left that tends to stuff boats without letting them go. It is crucial that you're on line to be safe.

The last classic class V rapid on the run is Sweet's Falls. Sweet's is a 10-foot drop. The highlight of that run is the VW-sized boulder a few yards down stream from the drop. The rock, appropriately called Postage Due, begs for a left to right splat move.

Below Sweet's, the Gauley calms down a little, offering up a series of small play holes and squirt spots for day weary boaters. Bopping through the final run-out rapids toward the take-out at Panther Creek, it was hard not to marvel at how much fun the Gauley is and how lucky we are to be able to ply its turbulent rapids.

The Gauley Festival
Every fall American Whitewater holds its annual Gauley River Festival at the Nicholas County Veteran's Municipal Park outside Summersville, West Virginia. This one-day paddler's hootenanny brings together kayakers, venders, and reps from around the world for gear swaps, good-music, games, and an all-round good time.

This year's show was nothing short of awesome. From the moment I got there, after a play-filled run on the upper Gauley, the best I could do was lope around the parade grounds in a sort of stunned stupor. I couldn't even move ten feet without being accosted by one kayak bud or another - most hailing from out west and down south. The festival serves as a meeting point for boaters to shoot the breeze, tell tall tales, and swap advice.

All the big name sponsors were there - Perception, Riot, Dagger, Wave Sport - and some of the guerilla gear companies as well. The reps were hocking the latest pfds, kayaks, paddles, shredders - you name it, it was there; and cheap! Like the crazed professor in Dr. Strangelove, I fought the impulse to pull out my wallet and take advantage of some of the hot deals.

The sponsors and vendors went all-out with games, prizes, auctions, and rides. The Perception RV had a contest where players had to get all their kayak gear on, jump into a boat, and affix their spray-skirts in a head-to-head race. The winner got a T-shirt...I got nothing.

The Gauley Fest is a great chance to catch-up with boaters you haven't seen in a while. It acts as a nexus for boaters from around the world to see each other, inspect the newest boats and gear, sell-off older stuff, and tell tales of big drops and multiple cartwheels. From rad-guys to realtors, everyone's the same dirt-bag kayaker at the Gauley Fest.


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