Rafting the Gauley River in West Virginia | Guides on Vacation
by Ben Costello, February 2017
Rafting the Gauley River in West Virginia is possibly the most iconic river trip east of the Mississippi River. The river boasts big, forgiving Class V rapids set in an old, lush river gorge. This quintessential river is also the site of American Whitewater’s largest annual fundraiser called Gauley Fest. American Whitewater is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to funding river stewardship projects around the country. The festival draws rafters, kayakers and other river rats from all over the country to come together for several days of paddling whitewater and celebrating all that is river culture.
Travel and Camp
Gauley Fest has become an annual event for our whitewater addicted crew at Mountain Whitewater. The number of guides, friends and family participating has grown each of the last four years. A group of around 30 Mountain Whitewater folks traveled 1,494 miles from Fort Collins, CO to Summersville, WV to participate in the festivities in September of 2016. Our group made the 24 hour drive going straight through the night. The only major stop during the trip east was in Kansas City for some classic BBQ. The drive east is exhausting. It is taxing even with multiple drivers and rotating 3 to 5 hour shifts. The overnight driving effort is worth it because the drive is over in 24 hours. I was in the second car to arrive at camp early in the morning the day before the festival.
The Battle Run Campground is a nice facility with lots of amenities and it’s only a couple of minutes drive from the Gauley River put-in. The campground was the perfect spot for our large group. Our campsite was set in a nice wooded area at the top of a hill on the shore of Summerville Lake. The lake (actually a reservoir) is the source of the water that flows through the Gauley River. The different cars and trucks filled with the members of our group continued to arrive at the camp through out the morning. We were mostly set-up at camp by noon and we spent the rest of the day swimming and paddle boarding in the lake.
How the River Works
The Gauley River rafting season runs from early September to mid October each year. Water is released only four days per week, Friday to Monday. 7am to 1pm on weekdays, 6am to 3pm on weekends. The river festival always occurs on the third week in September. Paddler’s who are there during the festival are lucky to receive an extra hour of release each day that week. All of the river launches through the season and Gauley Fest are planned with this schedule in mind.
The plan for our crew was to be there to raft each day of releases during the week. We would get-up early each day, organize our equipment, run the shuttle and eat breakfast prior to launch. After the shuttle crew returned to camp, we would head down to the put-in. The Gauley River will see thousands of paddlers every day during the six week long rafting season. The week of Gauley Fest is even busier. As such, our crew would have to wait in a long line of vehicles to get to the launch site each morning. The waiting was not too bad though, as the scene in line unfolded to be a party of river guides gathering to celebrate the river. At the put-in we would load the coolers and safety equipment into the rafts, make sure we had enough paddles and launch our trip rafting the Gauley River.
Rafting the Gauley River
The Upper Gauley River is a 25 mile stretch of river that is divided into the upper and lower sections. Our crew spent all of our time on the Class IV-V upper section. The 10 mile Upper Gauley consists of steep gradient, large boulders and undercut rocks, technical rapids and high volume water. The Class V rapids on the run include Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Iron Ring, Lost Paddle and Sweet’s Falls. The pool-drop river has plenty of Class III and IV rapids in between the Class V’s as well. The microclimate inside the river gorge boasts fantastic scenery. Thick, green deciduous trees and shrubs dominate the landscape. It looks almost tropical in nature, especially when it rains. A stark contrast to what we see in Colorado.
Our crew would spend half of each day rafting the Gauley River. Everyone would rotate paddling and guiding on different rafts each day. Some would kayak, some would go tandem in a paddle cat while others would ride in paddle rafts. The tradition while rafting the Gauley is to stop after Pillow Rock and Sweet’s Falls to watch others run the rapids. Both spots have large rocks in the river that paddler congregate on to watch the action. It was truly amazing to see how many different river folks were there to paddle and enjoy this unique river. Most of the runs from our group were successful, but we had our share of flips and swims. The water in the river is much warmer than the water in Colorado, so being in the river was refreshing. We were certainly not the only crew spending time in the water. Over and over again, we witnessed other flips, dumptrucks and swims. It is important to remember that the vast majority of the people on the river are experienced guides and paddlers. The amount of experienced river runners allows for a much safer situation. Most swimmers did not spend much time in the water, unless they wanted to. It is quite the scene and tons of fun.
The River itself is what attracts most people to this event, but the festival is also an integral part of the experience. It is a place for all the river rats to gather after an extraordinary day on the river. The festival runs for three nights, each night being a little bigger and better than the previous. Whitewater manufacturers and stores set up vendor tents to sell and display their products. Local food trucks feed the crowd. Bands and DJs entertain. There are opportunities to purchase cheap gear, enter raffles and donate to American Whitewater. It is a great venue for sharing river stories and meeting like minded folks.
Overall, our trip east to raft the Gauley River was a huge success. It provided an unforgettable river experience and time spent with great friends. I can’t wait to go back next year!