One paddler on our trip, Christina McIntyre (see hand on raft in lower left corner) falls out of a raft at the rapid Pillow Rock on the Gauley River. Thanks to quick action and strong swimming on Christina’s part, she quickly rejoined her raft. Fellow raft-mate Jonathon Hall manages to stay in with the very tip of his foot.
By National Geographic Digital Media’s Amy Bucci; Photograph by Trevor Coffman
Each fall loads of adventurers and whitewater enthusiasts load their kayaks on top of their cars, put their paddles in the back seat and head out to the Gauley River in West Virginia to take on what are considered by many to be the best whitewater rapids on the East Coast.
“Gauley Season begins the first weekend after Labor Day, and continues for six weekends. Dropping more than 668 feet through 28 miles of rugged terrain, the Gauley River’s complex stretch of whitewater features more than 100 rapids with a steep gradient, technical runs, an incredible volume of water and huge waves. Its vigorous rapids, scenic quality and inaccessibility combine to make Gauley River one of the premier whitewater runs in the world. The Gauley River contains several class V+ rapids, making it one of the most adventurous white water boating rivers in the east.” – National Park Service
The reason for extra excitement around the Gauley each fall is the scheduled releases from the Summersville Dam just for white water recreational community. These dam releases increase the wrath of the river up to 2800 cfs.
The reason I am here at the Gauley is simple. My co-worker Rebecca called me about a month ago asking if I did “water sports.” As it was Monday morning, and I was in the middle of about 12 other things I quickly said “sure” thinking to myself that I do swim. By the end of the phone call, somehow I was going to raft Class V rapids on the Gauley while Rebecca was attending our other coworker Angie’s wedding. As Angie faced the altar, I faced the rapids of this mammoth river in West Virginia.
Paddlers really depend on the raft guide to yell commands like “easy forward” or “left back” that get the entire crew safely through the Class V rapids on the Gauley. Here river guide Dennis Wade (sunglasses, left rear of raft) seems to be yelling for more power to get this crew through some tough water.
After I hung up the phone, I looked around at my coworkers a little confused. “I think I have just signed up to raft a river called the Gauley.” The teasing and heckling began immediately, with lots of advice on how to hold my breath and the placing of post-it notes on various items in my workspace that coworkers wished to claim if I failed to return. I was more than a little nervous that my grandmother’s hard-earned bingo prize of the mini-kitten couch would be going to a non-relative if I didn’t somehow survive.
National Geographic photo editor Sadie Quarrier and I headed out on Saturday to meet our host, Piotr Chmielinski, a former National Geographic explorer and current part owner with Hugh Granger of HP Environmental, a company that provides technical expertise on environmental and industrial hazards. Piotr, originally of Poland, was the first person to navigate the entire length of the Amazon in 1986 (National Geographic Magazine, April 1987, “Kayaking the Amazon”), and in 1981 (National Geographic Magazine, January 1993, “Roaring Through Colca Canyon”).
Max, Piotr’s son, navigates a rapid at Pillow Rock. He has inherited his father’s taste for adventure and kayaked bravely down the Gauley alongside our rafts.
Piotr explained to me why he has been taking this large group of people, including two from National Geographic, down the Upper Gauley for 15 years. “Introduction to this new activity, and seeing them smile from learning something new is my biggest joy. I don’t have time for exploration anymore, but this activity is an extension from what I did before. I like to see how happy it makes people. I like to bring my love of exploration and rafting to everyone I work with and my family.”
Style points are awarded to paddlers who keep their wits about them enough to tip rocks close to the raft as they go by. Paddlers often wonder what to wear when paddling in Class V rapids. I recommend renting the wet suit AND the jacket as the water is really chilly and you are definitely going to get wet.
Our fellow paddlers included lots of the clients Piotr and Hugh work for along with most of the staff from HP Environmental. As we arrive at the river, we are greeted by river guides from the recreational rafting company, Class VI Mountain River, to take us down the Gauley.
What kind of organization and planning goes into taking 40 people whitewater rafting, most whom have not gone whitewater rafting before? It seems to be just as agonizing as planning wedding seating arrangements for a large family. Piotr hand selects each raft guide, the paddlers for each raft and then consults with designated HP team raft captains (Hugh Granger, Ray Petrisek, Brent Sharrer, and Jonathon Hall) on where paddlers will sit in their raft. Piotr explained to me that he chooses strong paddlers for the front of the boats along with those that he knows have Gauley experience and then fills in the rest.
I am placed near the back of our boat near our river guide, Greg Gill and extremely key strong men Dirk Watters and Garnett Williams are at the head of our raft. Greg is not only our raft guide, but also the expedition leader for all five rafts. He explains that the river guides are normally “strong-willed confident people” and I am extremely grateful for this fact, since I am not feeling exactly confident at this moment.
As we sit in our raft on land, going through a safety check and introduction to the lingo of the river, learning phrases such as “easy forward,” “high side,” “boof,” and more, I wonder if it is wise to take on the Gauley’s Class V rapids. Our river guide, Greg, really stresses how important it is to respect the Gauley as the river “…doesn’t care how much money you make, or what color you are. It treats us all equally.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The camaraderie and familiarity on the river between guides and kayakers shows through the shouts back and forth on the river to each other, and the stories they tell as we go through each rapid.
I am surprised by how quickly our first Class V rapid, “Insignificant,” approaches and although I am not sure I am ready for this, I am glad to have Greg in the raft. We are drenched by splashes from huge waves, yelled at by Greg for more power, and with frenzied paddling, we make it!
Our first excitement occurs at “Pillow Rock,” rapid when we temporarily lose paddler Christina McIntyre at Inertia Hole. Greg quickly blows a very loud whistle for all on the river to know someone has gone into the water. Guides and paddlers alike quickly act, moving toward her. Her quick thinking and swimming skills got her quickly back into our raft first and then reunited with her paddling team.
By the time we hit “Lost Paddle,” “Iron Ring,” and “Sweet’s Falls,” I am much more comfortable in the raft, and am reacting to Greg’s instructions quickly. “Easy forward,” is my favorite command as it usually means we have either just made our way through some choppy water, or that we are on our way into a bumpy ride. Either way I know we are in for some fun.
The rest of our trip down the river is filled with bumps and splashes galore and it goes by in a blur. I am grateful to our guides for helping us through it safely!
Composite Photograph by Trevor Coffman