Water. Torrents of water. Screaming cataracts that over the eons have sliced through some of the most intriguing Appalachian geology. And which, in the process, have created one heck of a watery playground.
I first encountered West Virginia's Gauley River back in 1976 when, as a sophomore at West Virginia University, I answered an ad for a job that seemed perfect for a college student who preferred playing, not studying, on weekends. "Wanted: White-water raft guide. No experience necessary."
Little did I know that the Gauley, a dozen years before it gained a spot in the National Park System as a national recreation area, was one kick-ass river best not sampled by raw novices. And I certainly fit that description, having never dipped a foot in neither a white-water river nor a raft. But I was young, adventurous and, being but 20, decidedly immortal. Being paid to float rivers didn't hurt, either, and somehow I managed to survive.
While the Gauley was just beginning to earn its reputation as a white-water moneymaker about the same time that I was learning how to pry, J-stroke, and back paddle, -- and, most importantly, order paying customers to do the same -- among river rats its status was already mythical.
In 1959 Sayre and Jane Rodman, two Pennsylvanians more accustomed to tackling mountains than rivers at the time, set out to raft the Gauley's bucking rapids. They were turned back by high water. Two years later they returned, this time succeeding in running the Gauley down to Swiss.
In 1965, in a move that would prove down the road to play a major role in sustaining the Gauley's reputation and livelihood as a white-water haven, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Summersville Dam. (But, being the Army Corps, the dam proceeded to flood a stretch of whitewater that Rodman described as "absolutely glorious.")
Nevertheless, the Gauley's legendary position in river-running continued to grow in 1968 when John Sweet became the first person to successfully kayak "The Devil's Backbone" rapid. It was later renamed "Sweet's Falls" in his honor. Two years later folks began to pay to be guided down the Gauley as Paul Breuer, one of the bedrocks of West Virginia's white-water industry, and his Mountain River Tours company succeeded in demonstrating that the Gauley was indeed a viable river for the commercial whitewater rafting industry.
In 1985 Congress, eying the Summersville Dam and the growing interest in paddling the Gauley, added "recreation" to the list of purposes defined for Summersville Dam, a move that maximized the number of potential days for boating on the Gauley. No longer would running the river be determined by rainfall and runoff. From this point on running the Gauley would be ensured as the Army Corps coordinates, over the course of six Fall weekends, dam releases to benefit river runners anxious to navigate the Gauley's nearly 30 miles of rapids.
So enticing is the prospect of negotiating the Gauley and testing one's skills on rapids named Pillow Rock, Iron Ring, Lost Paddle and Shipwreck that more than 60,000 people a year head to West Virginia to put in just below the Summersville Dam. Once they push off from shore the river runners face a stretch of river that drops 668 feet from put in to take out, and which courses through more than 100 rapids.
(So technical and demanding is the upper stretch of river -- it features rapids rated between Class IIIs all the way up to V+ drops -- that the National Park Service won't let anyone younger than 16 on the river.)
While running the river is the NRA's main attraction, that's not the only thing to pay attention to during a visit. On its way downhill the Gauley cuts through rock 300 million years old, a perfect setting for the established or fledgling geologist. And the micro climates produce a gorgeous range of hardwood forests (red and white oaks intermixed with beech and hemlocks) that are brilliant in the fall, as well as a handful of rare and threatened plant species. And there are more than a few fish in the river to lure anglers.
That said, river running is this NRA's claim to fame, its forte, its hallmark. And if you consider yourself a river rat, you need to paddle the Gauley.