I’m standing near my boat nervously waiting for the return of the shuttle drivers. I’ve already watered the local flora a few times and my mouth feels kind of dry. I’m pretty keyed up.
The Gauley is the river of my dreams. I had rafted it about 10 years before and thought then how much fun it looked like the guys in the kayaks were having. Later, when I started kayaking, the Gauley was an unattainable goal. I never felt that I would have the skills to paddle. Here I am and I’m not confident that I do have those skills.
I spent a mostly sleepless night, waking up every couple of hours worried that I was being foolish in attempting the river. That happens to me a lot whenever I run a new river. From my first trip on Fifebrook until now, its a pattern I can’t seem to break.
I met up with Wayne at the Gauleyfest earlier this morning. Wayne isn’t going to paddle. He had broken his finger on the Raquette a week or two earlier and was just down to help out at the festival. The plan was for me to paddle with Wayne’s friend Mark. Mark finally emerges from his tent and it doesn’t look as if he will be going anywhere soon. Too much Gaulyfest. Felling a little relieved, I tell Wayne that it would be OK if I don’t paddle. I had paddled the Lower Gauley yesterday with Ken and could save the Upper for another trip. Wayne tells me its not a problem, his friend Art has already left for the put in and maybe we can catch him if we hurry.
The parking lot at the put in is a mass of shuttle vehicles all carrying kayaks, canoes or rafts. There are Park Service Rangers directing traffic. There are also tons of buses bringing in hoards of commercial rafters. Boaters are everywhere. The Ranger directs us into a parking slot and we pull in.
Wayne knows the 2 guys who are getting changed across from us in the parking lot. I think he knows everyone else there too. He introduces me to Mike and Stu and asks if they wouldn’t mind me joining them on the river. They say sure but that they are paddling with Art so we should check with him.
Art is sitting on a 2 person raft in front of the bathrooms. Wayne and I walk over to meet him. Wayne introduces me and then asks Art if he wouldn’t mind me joining their group. Art looks a little skeptical and tells us that he is planning on a quick run with little or no scouting. With much more bravado than I feel, I tell Art that is OK with me. Art still looks a little unhappy to me. Apparently he has paddled with one of Wayne’s friends before and the trip did not go very well. Wayne assures him that I will be fine. I don’t know how he is so sure, I’ve never paddled with him before. Art says OK but still looks unhappy, maybe he just looks like that.
I wait off to the side for the rest of the group. Everyone else is talking about rivers they have paddled. I keep my mouth shut. I don’t want anyone to know that I have only paddled one other class V river. I don’t feel like I belong in the group. They’ve all done big rivers and I’m just starting out. I feel like the new kid in school
At last the shuttle drivers get back and we are ready to put on. Our group consist of Art and his wife (or girlfriend,I didn’t really catch the relationship) paddling a raft, 2 guys paddling a shredder, Mike, Stu, Christiano, his girlfriend (or wife) me and a couple of other guys. Most people are paddling creekers. I’m in my 4 fun. Again I wonder if I’m not making a mistake.
We enter the 1st rapid, Initiation or something like that. Mike tells me that there is a hole at the top that I want to stay out of followed by a couple of small ledges. There is also a pinning rock on river right below the hole so make sure I stay left. I follow Mike’s line through the rapid and flip at the bottom ledge. I roll right up and hope no one noticed, just starting out and already I’m upside down. Art won’t be happy, but he’s in front so maybe he missed it.
We paddle across a long pool towards a horizon line. Mike tells me that the next drop is insignificant. I kind of think that this is a big one but I’m not really sure if it’s class IV or V. I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. Mike explains that there are 2 monster holes and we have to skirt the first to river right and the next to river left. He tells me that the holes are close together, that there is only about a 5′ wide tongue between them and that you cannot see them until you are right on top of them. You kind of have to know where they are. The holes are followed by a large wavetrain and we want to stay away from river right as there are a lot of undercuts over there. He also tells me that he screws this drop up about half of the times he runs it. I decide it would be more prudent to follow Stu.
Stu enter the drop a little bit to right center and I follow close behind. So close that I have to backpaddle every now and then to keep from hitting him. When Stu paddles right, I paddle right. When Stu paddles left, I paddle left. We enter the wave train and I am still upright. I’d like to say that I’m styling it but the truth is I’m barely holding on. The waves are huge, at least 6′ high and crashing back on top of me. I lean forward hard into them and hope for the best. Art is at the bottom waiting in his raft and gives me a thumbs up as I emerge from the last of the waves, maybe even a little smile but it might have been the water in my eyes. Stu asks if I noticed the holes at the top. I shake my head yes but its a lie. The only thing I noticed was the back of Stu’s boat. If he had gone into a hole I was going in with him.
To my amazement, 2 members of our group are swimming including Mike. I can’t believe that I made it through and these guys didn’t. They are so much better than I am. We collect the boats and gear and head on down the river.
Stu tells me that the next drop is Iron Curtain. Its really just a big class III+ wave train that we will run down center left. As we get to the bottom of the drop there is a raft guide on top of a big rock in the center of the river and he is waving everyone to river right. Over on the right bank there are a bunch of rafts and a couple of guides talking to the Park Service Rangers and a couple of town cops. We are not sure what is going on and ask if they need help. They wave us on and we head downstream.
Later we hear that a commercial rafter has died after swimming at Iron Curtain and being pinned beneath a rock. We are told by other kayakers that they will be shutting the water off early in an attempt to locate the body. It must have happened just before we got there. Even the easier rapids on this river have fatal consequences.
Next up is Pillow Rock. I have been nervous about Pillow Rock all day. I went swimming there once after it flipped our 8 man raft. I can’t imagine how I will ever get through it in a kayak. My mouth is pretty dry and my stomach feels funny as we near the drop.
Stu and I stop in an eddy above the drop and watch as some of the others begin their run. There are spectators all over the shore hoping to see some carnage. Wayne is standing on Pillow Rock with his video camera. My first and possibly last run will be immortalized for future club members to enjoy.
Stu tells me that there are a few lines to run. To the left towards the room of doom, down the middle into some really squirrely waves known as the toilet bowl and toward river right where its a little smoother.Stu points out a partially submerged rock and tells me to pass it within a foot to my right, count to 3 slowly and then paddle hard to my right. Don’t paddle right too soon or I will end up in a shallow trashy hole, don’t wait too long or I will end up in the toilet bowl. Stu bids me good luck and disappears over the horizon,
I peel out of the eddy and locate the rock. I pass by it but am kind of confused and forget to start counting, I’m not sure if I am on 2 or 3. Pretty sad, I can’t even count to three. I am really disoriented. The water is crashing all around me and the noise is incredible. i am in the middle of a maelstrom of violent churning whitewater. I see the shallow hole to my right and start paddling immediately to river right. My boat drops into a huge hole and I see a massive wave looming up in front of me. I lean forward and paddle hard into it. The wave crashes into my face and chest and I can’t see where I’m going next. My boat is getting tossed about violently and there is not much I can do about it. As I clear my eyes I see the next wave just ahead and Stu is paddling left to avoid it. I realize that it is not a wave but a pourover known as Volkswagon Rock. I paddle hard left and just clear it to my right.
Stu is waiting in the eddy below and tells me I did pretty well. He rarely sees a playboat go into the toilet bowl and emerge upright. I am not aware that I was even in the toilet bowl. I had no idea where I was in that mass of confusion. I also think that my 4 fun is more river runner than playboat but decide to keep all that to myself so I just smile and say thanks. I’m kind of relieved to have Pillow behind me and am starting to feel a little more confident.
We pass through a couple of other rapids and arrive at Lost Paddle. Stu tells me to avoid the big hole at the top and meet him in a large eddy below the 2nd big rock on the right. Art tries to punch his raft through the hole. It grabs the raft, stands it up vertically and dumps them over backwards. Immediately others are there helping Art with equipment and getting he and his wife back into the raft. I pull into an eddy and stay out of the way. I can’t believe that these paddlers are good enough to rescue people in a class V rapid. Its way beyond my skill level.
Stu points out a curling wave to river left of the next eddy. He tells me to catch the extreme right of the wave and then paddle to the left to avoid a huge pourover. He pulls out of the eddy, catches the wave and disappears. I peel out of the eddy, the water is racing downstream into the wave. I catch the right side as instructed, go over the top and drop down into the hugest wave train I have ever seen. Waves are crashing all over me and I try to lean into them and paddle hard but one catches me square in the chest and I am knocked back a little. Immediately, my stern is swept downward and I am stern squirting in the middle of these massive waves. I am sure that the next wave will catch the bottom of my boat and I will flip over backwards. To my extreme amazement and relief the opposite happens and I am flung forward to a flat, upright position. I’m not sure how that happened but I guess its OK to be lucky.
The rest of Lost Paddle is kind of a blur. Its a really long rapid with 3 or 4 distinct drops that all kind of merge together in my mind. Stu is ahead and I follow him down through the waves although not as closely as I had previously followed him through Insignificant. I breathe a little easier knowing that 3 of the big rapids are behind me and that there are only 2 more to go.
Art asks if the group is OK with running Iron Ring without scouting. Putting my faith in Stu I say alright but am relieved when someone else has enough courage to say that they want to scout. For the first time we pull off the river and get out of our boats.
The scouting is really easy as you can see the entire drop from a big rock on river left. Stu points out 2 small holes and tells me to keep them on my left side but close enough to touch. They will lead me to a narrow 3′ wide tongue of water past a shallow hole to my right. Once past the hole I need to get off the tongue and paddle to my right into the wave train to avoid a huge hole to the left. He does tell me that the hole on the left will work me a little but eventually let me go. He has had an up close and personnel experience with it. Once past the hole I will need to paddle left to avoid the big rock on river right. As we watch, the guys in the shredder get too far left and drop into the big hole. The 2 paddlers are thrown immediately into the water but quickly flush through. The shredder does a couple of somersaults and also emerges unscathed. Stu smiles and says the he told me you would flush through.
I line up on the small holes and just as Stu promised, I am on a narrow tongue of racing water. I can’t get over how fast this river moves. I see the shallow hole flash by on the right but am kind of hesitant to paddle to my right as instructed. Its scary over there, the waves are enormous and steep. I give it a half-hearted effort, hit the wave and am thrown violently to my left, upside down and into the hole. Its a mess under there. I am swirled around like a rag doll and can’t set up to roll so I just wait. Stu was right, I wash out, roll up and paddle hard away from the rock on river right. It isn’t pretty but I’m still in my boat.
Last up is Sweets Falls. There are people everywhere lining the banks. The locals bring down lawn chairs, food, beer (lots of beer) and make a day out of watching the idiots run the 14 foot drop. Any screw up is greatly appreciated by all in attendance.
We pull into an eddy above the drop and watch a couple of guys run it. Stu tells me its a 50/50 proposition for him. Sometimes right side up, sometimes upside down. I don’t really see what the big issue is. I remember it as a fairly straightforward drop when I rafted it. Stu points out a little seam at the top of the drop and tells me to line up somewhere near there. I peel out of the eddy and head toward the seam.
As I get to the lip of the drop I see that I am just a little right of the tongue. I had planned to get a nice boof stroke off the lip but instead paddle hard to my right to cut across the middle. I overshoot it, pencil in on the left and flip. I roll up to the cheers of the crowd. I’m a star having given them what they came for.
We paddle down to the takeout. I feel an enormous sense of relief that the trip is over and I don’t have to concentrate so hard any more. I really don’t want any more of the river today. Stu tells me I did great and will be leading people down the river myself in the future. I think that he’s crazy. I feel like I barely made it down, got worked by the river and just hung on through most of the rapids. But I stayed in my boat which is a small victory.
Wayne meets me at the takeout. I share a beer with Mike and Stu and express my thanks. They shake my hand a tell me that they’ll see me next year. Wayne and I climb into the car and start the long drive towards home.