A roar of the water assailed us as we left our car and walked through the parking lot. Up ahead, the massive earth and rock dam rose nearly 400 feet up from the river bed, holding back the clear waters of the 2700 acre Summersville Lake.
Water poured into the river through an enormous pipe located perhaps 20 feet above the surface of the river. Driven by the tremendous pressure of the 300 foot deep lake, the water thundered through the pipe and slammed into the river, creating a huge standing wave of churning, chaotic whitewater. The wave rose and fell. Fed by the gushing torrent, it undulated as high as 30 feet before folding in on itself and crashing into the river.
Guided by the locals, we walked past the powerhouse and up against the base of the dam. A metal stairway took us to a flooded rock at the base of the dam where we joined several other people already gazing at the awesome magnificence of the raging water screaming out of the engorged pipes just feet away. On the rock and along the shore the water surged haphazardly up and down, random 3 foot waves fueled by the power of the cascade as it forced its way into the river to begin the tumultuous journey downstream.
We strike up a conversation with a fellow onlooker. A short, squat woman of an indeterminate age somewhere between 30 and 60 with stringy bleached blonde hair and missing a few teeth, she looks like every caricature of the stereotypical West Virginian woman I have seen. She tells us that she has come with her husband to fish for the monster rainbow trout that patrol the normally placid waters of the pool beneath the dam. She has delayed her fishing to come and stand like us, marveling at the spectacle before her. She is extremely conversant with a heavy West Virginian accent and we both enjoy talking with her. She snaps pictures of us beside the water, declines to have her photo taken, then says goodbye and ambles off to join her husband. We turn and head back to the car.
A few days prior, I had sent an e-mail to Wayne asking if he had any plans for the Gauleyfest. We have traveled down together for the past 3 or 4 years to paddle the release and attend the festival. He wrote back and said that he had no definite plans and was I aware that they were releasing 5500 cfs, nearly double the normal release level, on Thursday. It sounded good to me but I told him that I would have to get an extra vacation day. After a myriad of e-mails in which we discussed everything from getting our wives’ blessings to how many boats would fit on the truck, we finally agreed to meet at my house after work on Wednesday to begin the 7 1/2 hour journey.
As I loaded the truck I debated about which boat I would bring. I have always paddled my 4Fun on the Upper Gauley but was a little uncertain that it would be the optimum choice in big water. I finally decided to bring my creek boat, a Superhero, as I wanted to get a better feel for it and figured the extra volume and stability couldn’t hurt. Wayne arrived at 6pm and we loaded his canoes onto the truck. He had brought his old Detonator and his Blackfly Ion, intending to paddle the Detonator for the double release run on Thursday. He loaded the rest of his stuff into the truck as I said goodbye to Carole and we were off.
As we drove, Wayne expressed his apprehension about paddling an open boat in big water. An open boat often provides the additional challenge of paddling a semi-swamped, non-responsive, barge-like craft through a difficult rapid and Wayne said that he had not been as nervous about boating a river in a long time. That got my attention as Wayne is an accomplished boater, much more so than I. I hadn’t been that concerned with the river before but now started to rethink my position, not a good thing but it gave me something to do while driving.
We got as far as Friendsville before my 5am wakeup got the better of me and we decided to pull off. Earlier, Wayne had called his friend Art and inquired whether we might spend the night at his cabin if we decided not to continue all the way down to Summersville that evening. Art told us that while he would not be at the cabin, it had a large front porch and we were welcome to spend the night there. So we did.
We stop the next morning at Sheets for gas and I feast on a nutritious breakfast of an egg, bacon and cheese croissant and a blueberry muffin washed down with chocolate milk. Wayne finishes off the remnants of a hero that he had bought the previous night and follows that up with a bag of rye & garlic bagel chips topped off with Gatorade. Ahh….life on the road.
We arrive at the put in some time after 10am. There are a bunch of people already there, some of whom had camped overnight in the free sites provided by the Corps of Engineers. We spend some time talking with other boaters about what to expect downstream. The general consensus was that all of the normal lines are still in play, but that there are certain places where we have to be extra careful. One person warns us away from the center line at Sweets Falls, another tells of a harrowing experience below Buds Boner and there were vague reports of something at Iron Curtain, a normally benign rapid by Upper Gauley standards. Everybody agrees that the water is huge, fast and very pushy. We unload our boats and gear. Wayne continues to canvass the growing throng of boaters while I run shuttle.
After several wrong turns I finally find Backus Branch road. You would think that I would remember that name especially after I play a word association game with the Greek God Bacchus, but I don’t and spend some time traveling along the scenic dirt roads of backwoods West Virginia. At one point, the road dips down and travels through a stream, no bridge and there are signs that someone has previously camped right in the middle of the road. No traffic problem here. I turn around, find Backus Branch and finally arrive at the Masons Branch takeout where I catch an immediate ride back to the put in.
Most of the other boaters have already departed downriver. Wayne has carried his boat down the ramp to the put in. I gear up, grab my boat and walk down to join him.
The water is really moving. During a normal release there are several large rocks just out of the water to the right of the put in and the river surface is generally smooth with only an occasional riffle to mark the passing current. Today there are no rocks visible and the angry water seethes with boils and eddys where the racing current slams into an underwater obstruction and is forced to the surface.
A feeling of trepidation strikes us both and we debate whether we should head down the river alone. Despite speaking to so many paddlers, we are uncertain as to what we will encounter as we proceed down the river. Hoping for a little more support, we put in alongside a small group of kayakers and a raft to be immediately swept away.
The river is huge, wide, powerful and fast. I have never seen the Gauley like this. Enormous pillows rise in front of every rock, forming impenetrable eddy lines as the water sweeps past. I am impressed by how wide the river seems and once again marvel at the power of the current that is bearing us towards our rondeavous with the monster rapids lurking below.
At normal flows, the first few rapids following the put in are class II/III warmups for what is to follow. Not so much today. We are greeted by multiple 6′ wave trains we drop into the rapids and I spend my time paddling hard up the front slope, flying off the crest and landing with a splat in the trough to start the cycle again. I’m having a blast and starting to relax. We lose touch with our small group as Wayne has to stop to empty his boat. The kayaks and raft disappear quickly around the bend and we are alone.
Soon we arrive at the top of the first of the 5 big rapids of the Upper Gauley, “Insignificant”. I was told that the name originated from an early survey report on the Gauley that stated there were no significant rapids above pillow rock. They must have missed one.
The standard line is to enter the river to the left of a line of single rocks stepping out from the right shore, paddle right around a massive hole on your left, back to the left around an even bigger hole on your right and then ride the wave train down the left center.
I am not even sure that we are at Insignificant as the line of rocks coming over from the right are covered by the water and have ceased to exist. As I get a little closer I notice the horizon line dropping off quickly, giving way to the steep gradient. Wayne was right, we have arrived.
I cautiously approach the entry, desperately scouting for any landmark that can give me a clue as to where I am. I have no idea how large the holes at the top will be and don’t relish the idea of an up close and personal encounter with either one of them. Wayne had said something about trying a right side line but it looks pretty sketchy over there so I stay to the center. I have no idea where Wayne is, my focus is in front of me.
The acceleration hits as I enter the rapid, still uncertain if I am on the correct line. There are holes all over the place but nothing looks familiar. Finally I pass what I assume is the left side hole, I can’t tell for sure but I know that eventually I will have to move to my left, so I convince myself that it is the hole I was looking for and paddle through the waves to my left.
Down I go, up, over and through the enormous 10′ waves that come at me one after the other. There is no time to scout as I am constantly battling the push of the water so I am praying that a monster hole hasn’t developed in a new location. There simply isn’t enough time to see what is ahead of us in this swirling madhouse.
Its fun though. I no time at all the waves lessen and I turn to look for Wayne. To my surprise he has eschewed the right line and elected to follow me. Looking back upstream, I can see that we had actually followed the smoothest line through the rapid. Wayne emerges from the last of the waves relatively dry despite having forgotten to turn on his pumps at the top. I’m feeling a little full of myself now. We have passed our first test and I feel that I am up to the challenge.
Iron Curtain looms ahead. I really don’t know where to go. I normally run down center left but we heard reports of something really funky going down on the left side. The right side doesn’t look so good either so I elect to run my normal left center line.
I pick up speed as I enter the drop, crashing through 6′-10′ waves. I love big waves and am having a blast. I really don’t see anything here that has me worried. I crest the next wave and there it is. I actually say “holy crap” out loud although there is no one to hear it. A gigantic wave rises in front of me, its top crashing back on itself. I have never seen a wave so big on a river and I’m headed right into the teeth of the monster.
I lean forward and paddle frantically up the face of the thing, but its steep and I’m losing momentum as I near the top. Suddenly it folds over and comes crashing down on top of me. I’m not really sure how it happens but I emerge safely on the other side, negotiate a few of the smaller siblings then turn around to watch for Wayne.
Wayne, having run a little to the right of my line, is slightly off center on the big wave. I turn just in time to see his bow clawing into the sky, almost vertical as he crests the wave. I think for a moment that he will flip end over end backwards but it looks really cool. The Detonator flies over the top of the beast, coming almost completely out of the water before slapping down hard in the trough below. We are both really pumped up .
We pull out at the normal spot on river left to scout Pillow Rock. Normally it is a short walk from here to the rock itself and you can sit on the rock to watch the carnage as other boaters run the class V rapid. That option does not exist today. The higher water has created a stream of fast moving current between the takeout and the rock, we cannot get there without risk of getting swept away.
I keep a close lookout for snakes as I pick my way toward the end of the island to get an eyeful of Pillow. One of the boaters had mentioned that the higher water drove snakes out of their dens and that many people had been bitten. It doesn’t seem like a fun prospect so I take my time and watch where I put my feet.
Pillow Rock is enormous. The corner of the rock, normally 2 to 3 feet out of the water, is completely covered and the guard rocks at the top of the rapid simply do not exist. There is a huge eddy line cutting across a small niche known as the “room of doom”. Nobody wants a piece of that today. The line through the rapid however looks pretty straightforward. Enter center left, ride the tongue (not much of a tongue really, just a spot where the whitewater isn’t totally insane) then paddle right through the massive wave train and past the pour over created by the submerged Volkswagen Rock. I’ve seen enough and head back to my boat.
I’m really wishing I hadn’t gotten out of my boat. Prior to stopping I was relaxed and confident. Now I’m starting to get a little feeling of impending doom. I’m questioning my breakfast choice and worried about my ability to roll this boat. The thought of walking the rapid briefly enters my mind as I wonder if I’m good enough to run this stuff. In short my confidence is shot. But I tell myself that is the way I always feel when looking at a gnarly drop for the 1st time so I climb into my boat and paddle out.
It goes pretty much according to plan, for a while. I enter center left and come down onto the tongue, so far so good. Its time to start paddling to my right. I dig in hard, too hard, turning slightly sideways to the current. The next wave catches me off center and finishes the job as I am now completely sideways and even a little backwards as I start up the face of the largest wave. There is no time to turn around so I spin a little and try to run the wave completely backwards. It doesn’t go well and I am upside down.
I’m getting buffeted pretty good so I set up and wait for a little calmer spot to roll. I feel my helmet scrape across Volkswagen, get swirled around a little more, then finally find a spot to roll. I come right up. Much to my chagrin there is a group of kayakers camped out below the drop on the rocks to the right. They got to see the whole sad show and signal to ask if I’m alright. I tap my helmet and nod.
Wayne had been taking pictures as we scouted and it is quite a while before he follows. I have climbed out of my boat, rope in hand, and settled down to watch his run. My thought is that I can toss him the rope should he encounter any problem. At last I see the bow of the Detonator peeking out around the bend on river left.
Wayne runs the drop cleanly, catching a perfect line and running right down the tongue. But he has taken on a little water and the canoe is sluggish the respond as he tries to paddle to his right. He washes over Volkswagen and flips in the violent eddy below.
I scramble to my feet and get my rope ready. Wayne had told me that he was concerned about rolling the Detonator. I have been told that rolling a canoe is a much more uncertain thing than rolling a kayak. He tries and fails 3 times before electing to bail.
I see him look toward me as he begins to be swept past, but I slip as I shift my feet to throw and fall into the water. The current starts to catch me and threatens to pull me away from shore but I get a hand hold on the rock and manage to claw my way back up. Wayne is on his own.
Back on shore, I look down and across the river to see that Wayne has caught an enormous eddy on river left and has his boat against the shore. I motion to see if he is alright and he motions for me to come over. It takes me a little bit to shove my rope back into the bag and then I paddle over cursing under my breath. I am not pleased with myself in the least. My friend needed help and I didn’t get it done.
Wayne is putting a breakdown paddle together as I reach him. He is not happy. An unseen river current had reached up and grabbed his paddle from his hand as he struggled to shore. Had I been in the water instead of on the shore I could have recovered it. I feel like crap and explain to Wayne that I had thought I could reach him with the rope but had fallen into the water. Wayne accepts that but it doesn’t make me feel any better. He finishes with the breakdown and we continue downstream.
Lost Paddle, the rapid, not Wayne’s actual paddle. This is the one that has been giving Wayne nightmares. Three distinct drops in quick succession followed by a fourth, it is a technical rapid full of undercuts and sieves and is the longest on the river. Being swamped early on in an open boat could have extreme consequences. We pull off river left on an island to take a look.
You can’t see the entire rapid from where we are, from anywhere for that matter. The best we can do is to take a look at the first drop with a partial glimpse of the second. We pick a line and agree to meet in a large river left eddy just below the 1st drop. I paddle out, enter the drop in the center and quickly squirting to my left through the big waves to avoid the even bigger waves down the middle, arrive safely in the eddy as planned to wait for Wayne.
He arrives unscathed right behind me and we plan our next route. Wayne wants no part of the normal line just to the right of an enormous wave known as the Hawaii 5-0. Its got to be big if it has its own name. He elects to run a creeky river left line. I am uncertain. I see him disappear down a shoot but the violently pop up again and continue. I have no idea what he hit but my mind is made up. I am not going that way.
I peel out to my right, actually to my left but towards river right, and paddle hard to get across the racing current to the right side of the 5-0 wave. I crest the wave as planned and cut hard left, away from the monster hole on my right and down into a trashy wave train. I take several big hits but manage to stay upright in the furious current. I pass Wayne in a micro eddy and ask if he is alright. There is no room for me in the eddy but he nods his head OK as I am swept past and have to paddle hard to my right to avoid a huge undercut rock in the center of the river.
We are halfway through and there are limited options to stop so I keep going. Paddling hard to my left to avoid yet another rock known as six pack, I enter the 3rd drop. Its kind of a ledgy thing and there is a boof option all the way on river left. But I’m not really sure what might be lurking below the boof so I turn and paddle back hard to the right to avoid an enormous left center hole that marks where the ledge should have been.
Its pretty bumpy over here and I’m getting pushed around a lot. Ahead, the river slams into a rock extending from river right. There is an absolutely gigantic pillow of water against the rock and I have to turn upstream and ferry across the face of it to reach the final drop known as tumble home. I drive through the hole at the bottom and turn to wait for Wayne.
As I wait, another group comes through and some of them join me as they wait for the remainder of their paddlers to complete the run. Wayne comes around six pack and paddles back to his right. But he is really far right. The boat is partially full of water and the current is pushing him hard right. He disappears behind the big rock on river right and I start to worry that he might be pinned.
At last I see him surfing across the pillow but he still has a problem.There is a nasty little slot known as the mail slot between Wayne and tumble home. I’ve been told to stay out of there due to high pin potential. Wayne has no choice, he’s going in. Wayne enters the slot and much to my relief has no pin problem. He drops down the shoot and…..disappears. The river has swallowed him and his boat.
He emerges from the hole, breaching the surface like some yellow whale. The woman next to my shouts and pumps her fist and turns to me. I smile and nod but she’s from Quebec and I have no idea what the heck she is saying. She is however pretty stoked.
Unfortunately the swamped boat has gotten the better of Wayne and he is once again in the water. Having learned my lesson at Pillow, I am much better prepared to deal with the situation. I am at his side immediately and tow him and his boat to shore. At least I try to. I am paddling furiously but we aren’t going anywhere. Wayne finally tells me to head downstream. That works much better and we are soon back on the river.
Iron Ring. I don’t know what it is about this one. Everybody has someplace that kind of has their number, for me this it it. I have never had a clean run through it. Its not difficult really, just a fast, steep drop down a narrow tongue followed by some big waves and a jumbled mass of holes. I just can’t seem to get it right. Wayne suggests we get out to scout. I’m all for that. We pull off on river left.
It doesn’t look too bad over there. The two small waves that I normally use to line up on the tongue are missing but it makes the approach cleaner. Of course the wave at the bottom of the drop is massive but it looks like there might be a small seam just to the right. The water below is really manky, a boiling mess of waves and holes with the current driving into a huge rock on river right, but it looks manageable. But then, it always does. I climb back into my boat feeling a little uneasy. Wayne stays behind to film.
I paddle out high in the eddy to make sure that I can get far enough out to hit the tongue on river right. There aren’t that many landmarks left so I head towards the horizon line marking the begining of the drop. As I crest the horizon and accelerate down the narrow tongue I see that I am a little further left than I had anticipated. The seam I had noticed is about 18″ to my right. I take a paddle stroke on my left to try and move right, but the water is fast and pushy so I don’t get very far but do turn slightly sideways. Hesitating, I try to decide if I want to break left or right. I’m afraid I will go completely sideways if I try to go right. My mind made up, I straighten up and try to drive through the huge wave in front of me.
Everything kind of whites out for a moment as the wave slams me in the chest and stops my boat. I shake my head and blink furiously to clear the water out of my eyes. To my surprise I have made it through the wave but appear to be backwards on the back side of the wave. Not really much time to ponder the circumstances as I fall off the back and promptly roll. Iron Ring has gotten me again.
I set up immediately but the water is pulling me every which way and I don’t have enough control to tuck and roll. My boat is bouncing furiously above me as I continue searching for fish in a confused sea of white . Not finding any, I hit a relatively calm spot and roll up, still backwards. Before I can react, I am swept sideways into a hole, get stopped by yet another wave, and flip again.
My head scrapes along a rock as I start to set up and suddenly my face is out of the water. I decide to catch a breath while I can and my boat decides to come upright by itself. Another hole has flipped me right side up and I am surfing the wave. As I peel out, I’m thinking to myself that at least that part must have looked pretty cool. Can’t say much about the rest of it. Panting heavily, I pull into a river left eddy and wait for Wayne.
To my chagrin, Wayne runs it perfectly, catching the seam on river right and even having time to throw up a brown claw as he tops the wave. In an open boat no less. I hate him just a little. He catches an eddy on river right, dumps his boat and we continue on.
Sweets Falls looms ahead. Wayne has been instructed to run it on the left but other people that I have spoken to have told me that the normal center line will go. Wayne pulls off to the left to scout, but feeling confident, I paddle to the right of the large rock marking the top of the rapid. The waves are really big over here and the eddy fence is huge and gnarly. I paddle hard and think for a moment I will be swept over the edge of the falls. Momentary panic fuels an even harder paddle and I arrive safely in the eddy.
Now that I am here, I don’t know what to do. The small curler that marks the center of the drop is nowhere to be seen. I can’t see the bottom of the falls, but I can see frothy water surging up over the horizon. There is something really big down there and I’m not sure I want a part of it. I motion to Wayne to see if he thinks the center is OK. He picks is way along the shore to a better vantage point and shakes his head.
Wayne motions to a little channel running towards river left, I point to it and he nods. Off I go. Its a really clean line, punching through a series of small holes and 5′ waves, I paddle left and then right down the left side of the falls. Its so easy I feel kind of whimpy for having chosen that route but looking at the center line from below I’m glad I did. The center tongue just drops into a boiling mess. Maybe it spits you out and maybe it doesn’t, somebody else can run probe.
Wayne follows the same line that he laid out for me. He too has a clean run but gets a little too much water in his boat as his pumps are no longer running. The boat is too sluggish to ferry across the current to river right and he has to run into a small slot known as “postage due”. I’ve seen pictures of rafts in there and its not pretty. I’m really concerned but he emerges cleanly through the other side and says that it is not a problem for boats. Better him than me.
We are done as there is really nothing left to the takeout. I guess its not really nothing as there are still a couple of drops to go. But the 5′ waves that seemed so big at the beginning of the run have lost a little something considering what we have paddled through.
At the takeout I run into Eric Jackson and his group as they load their boats. They have just completed their 2nd run of the day. We talk for a while about how much fun it was to paddle the river at this level. All of his guys are in complete agreement. Its pretty cool that although they paddle as their profession, they still come out on the river just to have a good time. I’d love a job like that.
Wayne and I load our boats onto the truck. We are done for the day.
Big Water Gauley
A roar of the water assailed us as we left our car and walked through the parking lot. Up ahead, the massive earth and rock dam rose nearly 400 feet up from the river bed, holding back the clear waters of the 2700 acre Summersville Lake.
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