Summersville Dam was created in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers to assist with flood control. What followed was arguably the creation of one of the single best day of whitewater rafting in North America.
For twenty-two days each fall, beginning the Friday after Labor Day, the Army Corps of Engineers begins a series of releases to bring the lake to wintertime levels. This brings the once naturally flowing river back to life and adrenaline junkies and river rats alike flock to the region to ride “The Beast of the East.”
“Right-side forward, left-side back,” our guide yells over the thundering sound of the Class V rapid that looms in front of us.
Before arriving at the outfitter, we had signed online waivers in advance of our arrival. Once there, we collected our mandatory gear: paddle, PFD (lifejacket), helmet, and some of our group elected to wear wetsuits and paddling jackets. The water being released from the bottom of the dam can be bone chilling (or refreshing) depending on the ambient temperature. We put on our face masks and boarded the bus where we were spaced out to allow for social distancing.
The bus dropped us off just below the dam and we met our guide for the day. This river is so amazing that guides come from all over the country to guide on it each fall, even if for only six weeks. Our guide went over basic paddling commands and we then carried the boat down to the water’s edge where we made final preparations. With that, we boarded and began our descent on this nonstop adrenaline rush.
Rafting on the Gauley River is approximately 25 miles and consists of two sections: the Upper and Lower. The Upper, roughly 12 miles long, is the famed section that attracts thousands of thrill seekers each year. When the flood gates are opened, the dam releases a thundering 2,800 cubic feet per second of water that creates this adventure wonderland that will rival any rollercoaster ride. And while the river also features numerous Class III-IV rapids, it’s the Big 5 (Sweet’s Falls, Iron Ring, Lost Paddle, Pillow Rock, and Insignificant) that really give the Gauley its reputation.
And while rafting is big in the Mountain State, the season was in jeopardy earlier this year as the pandemic spread across the world. Rafting on the New River, ironically named as it’s one of the oldest rivers in the world, typically begins in April. However, it wasn’t until May that the Governor of West Virginia issued guidelines allowing the outfitters in the state to reopen this pivotal and seasonal industry.
Heather Johnson, along with her husband, are second-generation owners of River Expeditions, a family-owned and operated adventure outfitter since 1972.
“We were extremely worried in March when the state shut down and left us wondering how our rafting season would play out,” said Johnson. “We normally start guiding trips in April on the New River. However, it wasn’t until May that our governor issued guidelines allowing for our industry to safely open amidst the pandemic.”
River Expeditions, along with other outfitters, is requiring participants to sign online waivers in advance of arriving to limit unnecessary contact. While buses are normally packed with enthusiastic rafters, these companies are utilizing multiple buses, making spacing paramount in getting to and from the river. Masks are also required while riding the bus.
“We normally have an amazing lunch setup at Sweet’s Falls,” added Johnson. “With the current situation, we have created prepackaged lunches that are distributed to guests as they come off the river for the break. We still offer an amazing view high above this rapid that guests have just navigated. From here, they can watch other rafts and kayakers run this 14-foot waterfall.”
Most rafts are 16 feet in length and can accommodate eight guests plus a guide. For more extreme enthusiasts, River Expeditions offers options that allow smaller boats, some with as few as two rafters (plus guide) to run this technical river.
Gauley Season is halfway over and there are still 3 more weeks left before the river will cease to run at its dam release potential.
The river runs each Friday-Monday for the next 3 weeks and the last weekend will only include Saturday and Sunday. It’s also highly likely that you’ll see me on the river. I’ll be wearing a helmet, you can’t miss me.