Whitewater, blue death
September 1999

Well, I'm back from Wes Virginny, having run the #2 rated whitewater in the US ( #7 in the world ). I'm impressed.

Yeeeee HAAAAAA !!!!

There is a dam just south of Summersville and when the water gets too high in the reservoir (and also each Sept-Oct) the dam releases massive quantities of water into the normally dry Gauley river bed. This creates a wicked whitewater course renown throughout the world. This past weekend was GauleyFest, the largest whitewater enthusiast festival in the world. There were almost as many rivercraft as snakes. :\

We were supposed to have run the Upper Gauley river on Saturday, but we got bumped for some technicality (not paying, I think :) But the folks at New and Gauley River Adventures were most generous. They gave us a free trip on the Lower Gauley and free dinner, in addition to getting us slots on the Upper Gauley trip for Sunday at 7am.

So my warm-up was on the Lower Gauley, a 12 mile run with 45 rapids, about a quarter of them class IV and V. I was psyched and wanted to sit up front for the full experience. I was nervous about falling out and having to float/swim a section of rapids. Our guide, a spunky, very beautiful young woman named Juliet led us on an impromptu 1.5 mile hike down to our embarkation point. We learned then that a kayaker had just died about 100 yards downstream of our position. He had gotten pinned by the current under a rock with an under-cut. The authorities were to slow the flow of the river to recover his body. His all-new equipment had already been retrieved.

Wherefore art thou, Juliet?

A bit sobering, but still not real enough to give us serious pause. We were expecting a bit of peril, no? Even this, the Gauley Jr., was quite capable of taking your life. And people kept saying that the Lower was nothing compared to the Upper. We'd find out tomorrow.

The ride on the Lower was fun. The company was good. The water was a freezing 54. Scott, Rick and I swum a class II rapid relatively early on, but Scott passed on a second class II swim later in the day.

The class V rapids were quite exhilarating. The raft would undulate and then be swept up and around and down by waves up to 8 feet high (relative to us). I'd get slammed, buried by a huge wave, struggling to maintain the wedge my feet made between the one stirrup and the first bench seat. You had to sit on the side of the raft in order to paddle. So there was a constant tension between sitting up the side to get the necessary paddling done, and the fear of being swept away. I got into a zone of pleasure walking that line. Bottom line: the only swimming on Saturday was voluntary.

Sunday, however, was a bit different. For one, it got cold overnight and I woke with a chill. The sun was not yet above the mountains and the water was colder the further "up" you went on the Gauley. So I rented a wetsuit and paddling jacket. This was a very smart move. When we got going, practically below the 3 massive pipes (each 12 ft in diameter) spewing at full speed, the air was thick with mist. There was no easy introduction. We started out at class V and everyone got soaked barely a minute into the trip. I was barely wet and not cold at all. In general, the rapids were bigger and more active on the Upper.

At one of the class V's (one of the R's I believe -- there were a bunch whose name started with R, so they all blended after a while), we saw an amazing sight. One of the Snyder brothers came by in his wooden duck boat. Standing up. Apparently he and his brother build their own boats, custom extra-long double-ended paddles, and even their own wooden life-vest and acorn helmet. They'll do anything standing up, and they "never" fall. They are renown for doing first runs on wicked whitewater standing up, without falling. Twilight zone material, if you ask me.

Our guide was a genial and very professional young man named Jason who gave us good color commentary and useful information. The crew was the 4 of us: me, Al, Scott and Rick plus 2 young guys from Indiana, Dana and Jack (replete with confederate tattoos). Dana and Jack had done the Upper the previous day, with Jason. They were gung-ho. Jason would give us options on conservative approaches to the various class V rapids. Only Rick and Al wanted to go conservative. For Al, we understood he didn't want to get dunked. He was smitten with Juliet and risk-averse. Rick, though was another story. Rick had done the Upper 2 years ago. He knew what it was and was nervous. I thought there was something more to it, and there was. For the past few weeks, Rick had had nightmares of getting caught under a rock, pinned there by current. Each time he'd awoken in terror. That'll get your conservative side going, alright.

The Upper Gauley is a 16 mile run with 85 rapids, almost half class IV, V and V+. Included are Lost Paddle, which is a mile-long class V rapid (!), Pillow Rock, where, with good timing, you can beach your raft on a large rock, and Sweets falls, a 10-15 foot drop into an amazingly active and large hole. From the last you have the option of trying to Run the Box. The Box is a narrow opening on the left that is just big enough for our 10 man raft (staffed with 7) to fit through. We all wanted to try the Box. All except Rick. And Al. But we opted for the tyranny of the majority and went for it. If we missed it, we'd be in the "Poop chute", both literally and figuratively. We missed it.

We came close, but couldn't turn the bow into the opening. Jason had us try to realign the raft to get through the Poop chute, and back into the river. We had almost backed the raft into position when the angle became untenable. the port side began taking on water pushed furiously into it by the current. "High side!" Jason yelled, but we were already on it. Piling on each other to starboard in a desperate bid to keep the raft from flipping over in a small chute of large rocks and class V current. The video tape of this is quite humorous. It looked like we had it, but we didn't relax. And just then the current seemed to get worse and we were trying to climb even higher on the now vertical raft's starboard side. As Al reported later, the last thing he remembers hearing was Rick shouting "There's not much raft left!". The raft flipped and we were dunked.

I remember going over and tried to gather a breath in the process. I was under and knew my PFD would bring me to the surface. I put my arm "up" from my body and felt the raft above me. I remembered the safety briefing and tried to walk my hand one-over-another along the raft to get out from under it. I ran out of room. I was pinned against a rock, the current flowing over me, and, I thought, to my left. The raft was still above me, so now there was no surface available to me. The current was strong and I thought this was a bad place to be. I reasoned that if the current was flowing to my left, it must be somewhat open in that direction (this also jibed with what I remember of the arrangement of the rocks and where I fell, etc.) So, I levered myself around to the left and rotated on the rock, into the current, which took me. I was swept 10-20 yards past the Poop Chute exit and surfaced with a hacking cough.

Rick was near me and directed me to his lost paddle. Somehow my paddle was right next to me. I would have sworn I didn't hold onto it, but the coincidence is uncanny. I now had 2 paddles and was in the middle of the river, but past the class V rapids. I lost Rick for a moment and then couldn't find him again. I was being swept down river and couldn't do anything about it. I saw Al's yellow jacket and called to him. He was OK, but a bit to the left of me. Some people on the side nearest him warned him away b/c of rocks. Just as they did so, he started bumping into them, abrading his knees and legs. He started kicking to push off them and connected with each thrust. Even though I was further out in the middle, I still had to horizontally rappel down the river.

Scott, meanwhile, had also surfaced under the raft and was about to try to stick his head into the air pocket when he felt himself being sucked down along a rock. As he put it later, "I thought to myself, 'I hope I'm being sucked somewhere good' ". Optimism or oxygen-starvation? You decide. He decided he didn't want to be sucked down and clawed and scrambled onto a rock like a lizard. He was perched above the water at the Poop Chute exit. Dana and Jack joined him. Al's underwater experience was much like Scott's, but instead of being near and climbing a rock, Al was sucked into the main current and surfaced in the post-rapids.

The raft was on the left side. Jason had gotten dunked along with the rest of us and didn't even know who had freed the raft and sent it along. He found it and climbed onto it to try to right it. Al was closest and once the raft was righted, was the first in. I followed a few minutes (and a hard swim) later. Al pulled me in and I landed on top of him. Once off him, he paused and yelled "Fuck you, fuck Scott and fuck those other two guys!" I was choking with laughter, but we didn't know where Rick, Scott or the other two guys were. Jason directed us to paddle the raft out of the current, to the right side of the river. This we managed to do, while also recovering Scott, Dana and Jack, who had jumped in and floated down to us by that point. Rick was still missing.

We re-assembled the crew and took stock. Nothing valuable lost. My camera was on an elastic leash on my arm. I even took a picture while I was floating down. I think it had Al in it. Don't remember for sure. A few minutes later, another of the N&G boats arrived with Rick. He had been given a drag to shore by a nearby kayaker. He had also witnessed the next boat flip. That boat was guided by the senior guide, Wes, who hadn't flipped in 40 previous trips. Since the season is only 6 weeks long, and most trips on the weekends, that's several years. It was a rough day, even for the best.

With Rick recovered, we floated down a bit and joined the other boats for lunch. After lunch, we were paddling along and I asked about rough spots to come. "All the big stuff is behind us now." Jason said. "But there a 95% chance we'll go swimming between here and the end." I thought it was cool, but Rick and Al didn't. They were good natured enough, but had had enough swimming peril for one trip. Just a few minutes later, we went sideways into a hole and were wrenched to starboard. Rick and I were in front, me to port. I was thrown across the boat and into Rick who went right over. I grabbed his legs to try to pull him back in, but couldn't. He yelled to let him go and I did. So Rick swum a bit and we all had a good laugh.

Once he was recovered, we tried to surf a class IV hole. This consists of turning the raft upstream and positioning it in the slipstream of a submerged obstruction. Once you get close enough, the stream around the raft will hold it in place. Also, the water will build and submerge the front of the boat. Sometimes by several feet. It definitely felt like the boat could flip end-to-end, but the water lets off just in time. Very cool. After watching a couple of N&G boats spin around, people flying out from the cuisinart effect, we headed in.

We surfed it 3 times. Each time, going into a spin. No one swum, but the 3rd time was set to be a doozy. That is, it would have been, but for another boat (not N&G) that swept on top of us. We managed to all stay in, but they lost a couple people. A serious breach of river etiquette, we were told.

Soon after that we came to a small rapid named Fluffy Bunny for it's placid nature. Just one small hole. We entered it sideways and the raft lurched again, just like before. This time I was unable to stay in. I went right out and took Rick with me. Once again, I surfaced under the raft, but this time I got away from it quickly. Dana and I were floating about 10 yards from the raft holding the ends of a paddle. I then noticed that the entire raft had flipped. The others were hanging on to the sides while Jason was standing on the top trying to right it (and stop laughing). I was dying laughing. "That's it Jason! You're fired!" I yelled to raucous laughter. Scott shook the raft and made Jason fall. We were a merry, wet bunch. And we blamed Rick for being bad luck! We later learned the "real" name of that rapid was "Guide's Revenge."

The lone remaining challenge was "Riding the Bull". Into a class IV with everyone in the back, save one, who was sitting legs out off the bow holding onto a loop of belt-webbing. The up and down motions would be accentuated by the weight distribution. And the clincher was that if the rider was thrown, the boat would almost certainly flip without his counter-balance. There would be two chances. Now and later near the end. I was the only volunteer for the first try. It was actually harder to climb up there than it was to hold on. I didn't get thrown, but the ride was pretty cool. Scott rode the second time after no one volunteered and Jason was set to do it. Scott's ride seemed hairier to me and the others, but he thought mine was.

Except for the women with the death-ray cackles at the restaurant that night, we were home free.