For approximately six weeks starting the Friday after Labor Day, the Army Corps of Engineers begins a series of 22 controlled releases from the Summersville Dam in West Virginia. Until then, the Gauley River is fairly docile and largely dependent on rain to provide any viable whitewater rafting opportunities. However, for a small window each fall (aka Gauley Season), the river becomes a mecca for thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies, and river rats looking to ride the monstrous rapids. We team up with Heather Johnson from River Expeditions to get us ready to take on these wild and wonderful rapids!
Gauley River rafting consists of two sections: the Upper and Lower Gauley. The Upper Gauley features dozens of world-class rapids that come alive each season. The most notable of these are the Big Five: Sweet’s Falls, Pillow Rock, Insignificant, Lost Paddle, and Iron Ring.
Jimmy Crane has been a guide on the Gauley River for 25 years – he’s even run the Gauley over 500 times! We are hoping he lives up to his nickname, No Swim Jim.
“He tries not to swim the guests,” said Heather Johnson, co-owner River Expedition,”so ‘No Swim Jim’ just kind of stuck and that’s what he’s known for. Occasionally there will be a mishap but it’s always best to be in the raft instead of in the water on the Gauley.”
Our outfitter, River Expeditions, requires that anyone rafting the Upper Gauley to be at least 16 years old, preferably with some whitewater rafting experience.
Everyone is equipped with wetsuits and paddling jackets to combat the cool water, as well as the mandatory live vest, helmet, and single shaft paddle. We arrive at the put-in for our adventure right below the dam where water is pouring out at a whopping 2800 cubic feet per second. After a quick briefing, we load up in our self bailing raft and begin our descent into the belly of the beast.
“Forward! All Forward!” orders Jimmy
There are times when Jimmy yells over the thunderous noise of the rapids to “lean in” or much less often to “get down.” There are also those moments when the adrenaline kicks in and he yells “right back” – meaning the left side paddles forward while the right paddles back – and some of us forget our left from our right and we fumble our way through the rapid. Thankfully, our 16-foot-long rafts are forgiving as they slide across those rocks right below the surface of the water, bending in all of the right places to absorb the contour of the river and sometimes not so gently bouncing off large boulders.
We make it through our first rapid called Insignificant. We soon find out it is anything but .. insignificant! We are thrilled to experience our first ‘paddle high five.’
Next up, ‘my significant other’ gives a salute to the great Gauley with a tip of the paddle to Pillow Rock as roll through another intense Class V rapid.
Then we successfully navigate both Lost Paddle and Iron Ring. All of these rapids prepare for the most epic ride on the river – Sweets Fall’s! Our guide gives us plenty of instruction before we take on this 14 foot waterfall!!!
“Sweet’s Falls is not the type of rapid we can just paddle up to,” said Jim, “we have to paddle all the way up to the brink of it, if we are to far left we are going to hit a nasty rock.”
“Here we go .. make ’em count!”, exclaims Jim.
The perfect reward for surviving Sweet’s? We disembark for a River Expeditions style lunch spread overlooking the falls.
We jump back in our boat to finish our adventure and get a thumbs up from ‘No Swim Jim’, “You guys did an awesome job. Nobody fell out of the boat and we didn’t flip the boat over. That’s a pretty darn good day on the Upper Gauley.”
We couldn’t agree more!
Our guide has paddled all over the world and says this is one of the best single day white water trips in the US. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first trips down the Gauley, riding the release from Summersville Dam. Gauley Season runs until October 20th, which kicks off Bridge Day.
Heather says, the most cost effective way to tackle the Upper Gauley is take your trip on Friday or Monday. At River Expeditions they offer – buy one trip at regular price, get the second trip for half price for single day trips.