Whitewater Adventures in West Virginia

A Rookie Guide’s First Look at the Gauley River

By Justin Sornsin

Justin Sornsin is a senior Environmental Studies and Political Science double-major at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. An avid outdoor traveler and certified wilderness guide in many land and aquatic disciplines, he focuses on environmental quality and the human condition of new outdoor adventures in his writing.


In the wise words of my mother… "You’re all (insert your own explicative) nuts!" She was talking, of course, about what I was about to embark upon. A journey of sorts. One that would involve me risking life and limb once again in the name of the adrenaline rush that I forever seek. I’m what some would call an "Aquaholic"—addicted to the liquid. I get off on big water, big waves, dangerous situations, and my own ability to walk away with nothing short of a few cuts and scratches, a near drowning experience or two, and some stories. This time it was different, though. I was about to travel to West Virginia to run one of the scariest, most challenging, big whitewater playhouses in the United States—in the world for that matter—the Gauley River.

Amidst the summer months as I worked as a whitewater rafting guide myself on a distinct, but easy-flow class I-III rapid river, I learned that WV had an immensity of "real" whitewater to try your skills on. Being the young, cocky paddler that I am, I wanted nothing more than to get in on some of the action. I tackled the Big Sandy in June, guiding a 12-foot self-bailer down its "Wonder Falls"—an eighteen foot straight drop over a ledge. I took the "poop shoot," of course, a 2 foot precursor slide into a rooster tail to clear the nose high, but coming down still wasn’t pretty. A class IV on my own. I was getting somewhere. In July, I was taken down the Upper Youghiogheny (MD) in a shredder, the Cadillac of cruising rides on the rubber circuit (See picture). An inflatable catamaran-style carving machine invented in the area and mimicked all over. Sleek, fast, great surfers—the ultimate thrillseekeer craft for "Melvin" open boaters (those of us without the cahones to Eskimo roll in a kayak). We ran 4 class V rapids clean on the "Miracle Mile" after succumbing to the class V "Charlie’s Choice." After a deep swim, my shredding partner resurfaced. The fire in his water-logged eyes and the tone of his crackling, father-figure voice let me know instantly that "Justin, this was not the f---ing rapid we wanted to flip at!" From then on out, it was relative smooth sailing. I had done my first truly technical river, swam a class V rapid—and survived, and shredded clean lines at most of the big stuff. I felt damn good about the trip personally. What’s next?

And then I heard whispers about the Gauley—distant stories circulated warning of raft and kayak mayhem. It is the crème de la crème of the paddling community on the East Coast. Twenty-seven miles of continuous class III-V+ whitewater. The real Gauley experience can only be had during one of the 6 weekend releases in September and October. Thus, I vowed to take a long weekend from Knox, travel to WV and see this monstrosity for myself. All summer, I heard horror stories about some of its rapids, its propensity for handing boaters their plane ticket home the hard way, and its reputation as a world-class rafting paradise.

It seemed like an easy plan…get plane ticket, fly to Baltimore International Airport, drive to WV and run the Gauley. If only it could’ve been that simple! For starters, my car broke down two hours from the airport. Perhaps it was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to go.

I remember sitting in Detroit at the airport during a layover, watching the herds of people whisk by. Everyone hurried, scurrying around like worker bees, drones if you will. Sheep obeying the rules of the modern world. Cell phones buzzing, babies crawling and crying, meetings being planned and cancelled…the hustle and bustle was killing me. I needed my salvation, my church. I needed whitewater! Finally, after hours of airports and their $4 cappuccinos and $7 dollar draft beers, I was back in WV with a fresh mind and a wide-eyed traveler’s glaze to my eyes.

It’s quite a strange state to be in actually. The vernacular itself is a little daunting…a cooler is a "kew-lar", oil is "ol" and clothes are "warshed." It is the land of NASCAR and Neil Young. Where some of the family trees don’t fork all that much if you catch my drift! It’s where the cheerleading camps are a little "beefy," the political influence of Uncle (Senator Robert C.) Byrd reaches into the deepest Appalachian mountain folk, and where "transplants" (like me) could get mobbed for driving a foreign car (because they’re damn sure John Denver drove a Chevy). It’s where the 2nd Amendment is no joke and "Possum Stompin’" is a heritage pastime (a cruel sport involving mass quantities of cheap Schlitz malt liquor, warm, in a can, or home stilled ‘Shine and an unlucky victim). It’s also where my fellow summer employees personally killed, de-boned, and ate a fresh, young Canadian Goose after the majority of our money was already spent on "critical supplies" (beer and what-not) and our food caches were dwindling. Ahhh…the fresh taste of goose stew on a dreary, late-May afternoon during a downpour—what a cuisine for the members of Ewok Village. But, enough with the cultural epistemology of West Virginia.

The Gauley River National Recreation Area encompasses 11,495 acres run by the National Park Service (but commercially rafted and kayaked by private companies…some 30+ run commercial trips during Gauley season). The 27 mile section of the Gauley River and a 5.5 mile section of the Meadow River lie within its management boundaries (which flows into the Upper Gauley above "Lost Paddle"—the Meadow is a sick run—class V-VI range during certain levels!). The Upper Gauley (UG) emanates from the Summersville and continues downstream, becoming the Middle Gauley (short section of class II-IIIs) before turning into the Lower Gauley with its class III-IV+ format. The Gauley can be run in inflatable kayaks during the spring and summer months (with natural flows in the 1000 to 1300 cfs range), but once the winter draw-down is initiated during September and October, the immensity and danger of the Gauley shows through. Running the Gauley is a high-risk, high-reward game of hydrologic calculus. Once on it, you’re constantly adjusting to the confusing kaleidoscope of hydrologic holes, ledges, waterfalls, rocks, currents, structures, undercuts, fellow boaters, etc. that surround you. You’re taking calculated risks every second unsupervised.

Before heading too far south, we started off the trip by running the Cheat Canyon, a 13 mile section of continuous class III-IV whitewater action near Albright, WV. I was just a member of a rafting crew on a 12-foot self-bailing Hyside, but still had to tackle rapids like "Big Nasty," "Tear Drop" and Coliseum. Carving its way through an immense river canyon, were numerous waterfalls, some over 100 feet cascading down into the riverbed. Although the water levels weren’t quite up to spring level standards, Hurricane Isabel left us a river swollen with a fresh supply of cold runoff. Under the watchful eyes of WV-native guide Ben Harrison, we ran smooth, efficient lines—choosing when to get really wet and when to keep our cigarettes lit. One of the other boats had a crash course in learning the fine art of swimming rapids. Championing a "mini-me," a short, 9-foot self-bailer with added foot and hand holds, the ladies took a pretty nasty swim at "Tear Drop," a quick and confusing class IV with two diagonal ledges forming hydraulics in unison with a short margin for error. The ladies had held tight lines until then, when suddenly, the mini, unable to punch through a big hole, rode low on the face of a hydraulic wave and couldn’t out paddle their upward thrust. Splash! We threw bags to the two rookies and let their guide, a ballsy brunette with a passion for justice and a soft-tongued motherly quality on the water, handle the boat. Again at "Swimmers Rapid," the group took the plunge, this time smiling from ear-to-ear as they drifted past the laughing faces of onlookers. The Cheat is an extremely beautiful piece of whitewater if you can catch it at optimum flows. As 13-year WV paddling guide Bill Ward claims, "When the Cheat’s running good, it rivals any other big water on the East Coast."

After a few hours of driving, we set up camp and dusted off a few cases of down-home brew. We didn’t talk all that much. We knew that the Gauley would test everything we could bring to the table. Before the granddaddy itself, the Upper Gauley could be tackled, we spent Saturday by paddling the Lower Gauley, with its technically challenging drop-pool format at rapids like "Koontz Flume," and "Upper and Lower Mash." I decided to try my first real-guiding experience on big water, taking a friend of my boss down in a shredder. This was my first real responsibility on big water. I was in control. The calls were mine, the decisions were too. It was me, a trustworthy paddler and the whitewater, that’s it. We made clean rides through all of the dangers stuff at the top, surfed the shredder in a decent ledge hydraulic twice on the way down and were preparing to run "Pure Screaming Hell"—the last named rapid of significance on the river. If I only would have known just how ironic that name would be for my partner. The rapid develops over a decent distance and requires boats to avoid or punch a series of moderate hydraulic holes before dropping substantially off of a large breaking wave into this munchy, come-and-get-me hydraulic at the bottom called "Hell Hole."

The key was to avoid all the b.s. holes at the top, skirt "Hell Hole" to the left and totally avoid a schoolhouse-sized undercut rock on river right. Stay left and don’t go near that undercut! The words to this day echo loudly when I think back. See, an undercut rock is pretty damn self-explanatory. Water travels beneath its exposed surface, through a series of braided congested openings underwater and out the other side. Problem was, some of the openings exhaust water through manhole cover-size openings, others end in sieves congested with rocks, logs and other hazards, and still others have no foreseeable end. The dream-like experience of this navigational faux-pas went down something like this: rather than avoiding the top holes and staying left as instructed, Wedge and I went nose-deep into one of the top holes, proceeded to flip the shredder, and each took a pretty deep swim before resurfacing immediately before, no pun intended, all hell broke loose. Coming out of the water, being a guide, I naturally looked for my boat, caught site of it being spit out of the hydraulic 10 feet upriver. I swam back, paddle in hand, hopped in and looked up in time to see the undercut rock 20 feet downstream and closing fast. I gave two hard strokes, proceeded to broadside my shredder to "Hell Hole," and thought "Damn, this might hurt." I took a gnarly swim, surfaced gave a big holler for surviving and floated on downstream while my friends waited for the hole to finish toying with my shredder. I had swam twice on the same rapid in big water. Did that make me a bad-ass or just a bad guide?

Wedge on the other hand, was not so fortunate. Panicking and swimming for his life, he came about 2 feet from the entrance to the undercut, literally kicking away from it as his body was sling-shotted into "Hell Hole" where the force of whitewater sucked his sandals clean off of his feet! No kidding…I know this because once I surfaced, one of his shoes was floating behind me! It was then that the thought crossed my mind: God I hope he’s not dead because my boss is going to kill me. After this near-death experience he was wiped out. Luckily for us, there were only a few miles of boogie water to go until the take-out. Despite the concrete fact that Wedge came a few feet from hearing nothing but the rushing power of water flushing through every orifice of his body, feeling the calm, numbing sensation of his vital organs malfunctioning and embracing the near-euphoric experience of the last seconds prior to drowning, I took it as a learning experience and another installment of the consequences for aqueous adrenaline junkies. On Sunday, I would decide to test my skills once again in a shredder, this time with veteran big water Guide Blake Condo calling the shots. This time it had to be different—we were about to take on of the most unforgiving, lethal paddling destinations—the Upper Gauley.

What must first be understood about the UG is that it is not a river for the faint of heart. Once you commit to running it, there’s really no backing out. It’s an ignorant, non-discriminatory example of big voluminous whitewater to the maximum degree. Its noise is deafening, its lines distinct, but difficult and obstructed. So many of its elements can take a boat and its paddlers, play with their physical limitations and leave them crawling for the shore. The Upper Gauley begins at the release site from Summersville Dam and immediately throws you into full survival mode at "Initiation"—a class III rapid, but not one that I was used to seeing. Not more than a few minutes into paddling, we approached "Initiation" and saw a crowd of onlookers stopped just downstream. An extreme kayaker in a Wave Sport Transformer was nose-down in a crack along the ledge wave, bow wedged between rocks and getting deeper with the continual assault of the water (he probably broke both of his legs or most of his bones in his lower body), face grimacing in pain as guides from numerous companies gerry-rigged rescue lines in an attempt to extract him from this precarious position. The force of the water deflecting downstream from the underside of his kayak was excruciatingly painful to watch. As we paddled around him, I noticed the look of confusion and terror was plastered on his face. He was in imminent danger and he knew it! God only knows what was going through his mind! This was one of those "if I make it out alive, I’m going to re-think my position as an extreme kayaker" situations. My stance went something like this, however: if this guy can get caught up in such dangerous places, what the hell was I doing out there?" Without second-guessing my own position, we moved on, awaiting the uncertainty that lied ahead.

The trip proceeded smoothly after that in a blur of boat and shore scouts of big class V’s like "Insignificant," "Lost Paddle," "Iron Ring" and "Sweets Falls." The other major rapid on the river, a class V known around the world as "Pillow Rock" had another situation developing. It begins as a series of nasty, powerful hydraulics (one specifically known as "Inertia" for its ability to stop even the largest 16 and 18-foot cruisers dead in their tracts) that force nearly 75% of the river’s flow (2800 cfs from the dam release) onto two rocks at right angles to one another. The sheer force of the approach to the pillow (the gleaming white foam pile that forms at the meeting of rock and water) has caused more than its fair share of carnage in its day—and it did not disappoint.

Before attempting this, I had the privilege to watch one of the most daring and balls-to-the-wall redemptions I have ever seen in any sport. With all that force plummeting toward "Pillow," a natural suction effect is formed between the crease in the two rocks affectionately dubbed "The Room of Doom." It’s called that for a reason. Once inside this 10 foot chasm, the water’s current is swirling with such force that any unlucky paddler who finds himself there better have a survivalist instinct and friends up above. "Pillow" is one of the best play spots for world-class kayakers and amateur elites alike. Team USA Freestyle Team Member Jimmy Blakely and a bundle of his Billy bad-ass kayaking counterparts (Clay Wright and Ted DeVoe among them) were throwing together trick combinations all day. They would catch the small eddy near the entrance of "The Room" and peel out into the current, ripping technical variations off the rock face. On this day, however, the room would have its way with Blakely. Coming in too steep into the eddy current, Blakely capsized and was pulled into the raging vortex upside down. After rolling unsuccessfully a few times, he knew where he was, took a swim and waited. Of course, none of these professionals had any safety equipment, but a throw bad was quickly uncovered and offered as assistance. Blakely insisted that they heave up his dry box first, his kayak next, and himself last out of this no man’s land. With a friend videotaping the last safety rope swung Blakely clear of the encroaching twists of the current inside the room and he swam the rest of his way through the rapid. If only that was where the story ended! Rather than being shaken up, Blakely climbed the rock, gave a quick interview, shook out his water-logged ears and hopped right back into his play boat—twice hitting the exact same mistaken eddy current perfectly. First, he pulled a "mystery move" before taking on "Pillow" for a third time by backsplatting the rock face, cart wheeling down the pillow and pirouetting twice as he passed "Volkswagen Rock." After all this drama, Blakely had only this to say, "This is boring…let’s go surfing." Short, to the point, and full of the "no big deal" panache credible in the professional kayaking world.

The Upper Gauley is something anyone with the flare for big water, nerves of steel, and a certain death wish should experience. It’s not just the amazing whitewater or the sights and sounds of the ‘Beast of the East.’ It’s the holistic experience of paddling this gem in the heart of Appalachia country. It’s the rhetorical one-upmanship and campfire stories. It’s the paddling community. You can see middle-aged weekend warrior soccer moms kayak next to new school paddling geniuses. Professional guides bring down over 250,000 paying customers during the 6 week season (Friday-Monday releases). It’s not necessarily about running the river…it’s about running the river and living to tell about it.

As Kevin Hughes, ACA-certified kayak instructor and 30-year paddling veteran puts it, "The Gauley is a Class III River with Class V consequences." It’s unlike anything else you could ever imagine. He bluntly added, "The lines are there, but if you mess up they just might name a rapid after you." Said, of course, with a serious overtone, but in a playful, living-on-the-edge-of-your seat adrenaline junky, insanely mad river clown-like smirk. And to think, I had paddled it and survived. Wouldn’t mother be proud?