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Photos courtesy of Ace Adventure Resort Photos courtesy of Ace Adventure Resort

Whitewater Rafting Boosts Tourism All Around

By TAYLOR KUYKENDALL · tkuykendall@statejournal.com

Whitewater in West Virginia is quickly becoming the state's trademark every bit as ubiquitous as the state's association with the coal industry. 

When many think of West Virginia, in fact, whitewater rafting and kayaking have made the state the essential playground of the East Coast. The New River provides a mix of paddling opportunities, while the Gauley River holds the distinction of offering some of the most challenging whitewater in the nation when the season's right. 

The companies that guide guests down the state's two most popular rivers have come and gone and even merged. Now the bulk of the companies have come to offer full-on adventure services that run the gamut of adventure activities from whitewater rafting to climbing and zip lines. 

"Sometimes you have to experience a thing to ‘get it,'" Ace Adventure Resort touts on its website. "White water rafting in West Virginia is one of those things. There's something about moving water — the glassy surface breaking into foam, the way it can sound like laughter or thunder — that draws us to it over and over again."

The thrill of whitewater in West Virginia is something that each company prides itself on making accessible to everyone. 

"Whitewater rafting in West Virginia is renowned for big water, trip options from easy to extreme, incredible scenery and tons of fun," Adventures on the Gorge promises guests on its website. 

If unsure of where to start, the guide companies are more than willing to help those interested in determining which trip is best for them or their parties. 

"These two dynamic rivers allow our guests to choose between slower, family-paced whitewater and world-class rapids," North American River Runners states. "We can tailor a trip for anyone from extreme adventurers to intrepid grandparents. Although not everyone is appropriate for the various degrees of difficulty that varying sections of the New River and Gauley River offer, everyone can enjoy rafting within their abilities."

The development and maturation of the whitewater industry, said Judy Radford, executive director of the New River Gorge Development Authority, was a catalyst for expanding the rest of the region's economy. 

"I think that the rafting industry provides a base," Radford said. "They've been here for a long time now and the tourism industry revolves around rafting. They were a base we could build upon."

For example, she said, a project that involved converting a former wind turbine tower into a lighthouse will be more successful because of the draw of the whitewater industry. She added that part of the reason Boy Scouts will flood the region during national jamborees and an upcoming world jamboree is due to the proximity of rafting opportunities. 

She said the whitewater industry had reached a peak growth, but it grew beyond that by expanding the activities offered.

"They've merged and gone beyond that to offer all these activities you can come and do right on their property," Radford said. "They're smart businessmen, and they've done what they've needed to do to become a vibrant industry.

Radford said that thanks to rafting growth in the region, tourism has gained a foothold as one of the "main industries in the state." 

"We're not dependent any more, though it is nice and adds to the pie, methane and coal," Radford said. "They're part of the mix, but they're not the driving force anymore."