Pulling a high side. The crew tries out the technique on the not-so-soft Pillow.
From Fuzzy Box of Kittens to Pure Screaming Hell, the rapids on the Gauley live up to – and beyond – their unique monikers.
Sitting on a school bus rolling down a winding mountain road, I listen intently as our guide gives out valuable advice.
“When you’re out there, you’re going to see these weird kayakers, some with cameras recording your trip,” he nods with a grin at someone sitting in the front of the bus. “If they get in the way, remember, you’re bigger then they are – just run ’em over.”
Known as the Beast of the East, the Gauley River, near Summersville, W.Va., is consistently rated by many sources among the top 10 whitewater rafting trips in the world. A dam-controlled river, it boasts more than 100 rapids and drops 650 feet in 28-miles.
Every fall, for 22 days in September and October, thrill seekers from around the world flock here, chatting about getting “tossed in The Box” or “pulling a high side on the Pillow.” Many of these adventure-seeking nomads roam the country from season to season, looking for their next big high, be it on water, land or in the air.
Then there are the rookies – we’re talking the same crowd that would probably be just as excited about a 40-second roller coaster ride at Busch Gardens as a trip down a class VI rapid.
I’m such a rookie, having never done more paddling than some childhood time in a canoe at summer camp. I’ve come to West Virginia with some friends, to brave the Beast.
Friday starts with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call at The White Horse Bed and Breakfast in Fayetteville, where we’re staying for the weekend.
After a quick bite to eat, we take the short car ride to the Songer Whitewater base camp and are soon signing our waivers and getting our equipment. Before we know it, we’re loaded onto the bus and transported to the put-in point for the Upper Gauley, right at the base of the Summersville Dam. (Our guide tells us the dam was almost named after the small hamlet it flooded; however, some concerns arose about possible reactions to calling it the “Gad Dam,” so the nearby town name of Summersville was used instead.)
At the base of the dam, our raft guide, Ben, gives us directions on how to sit on the raft, where to place our feet for maximum stability and how to row using our entire bodies. After checking helmets and life vests, we carry our nine-person raft down to the water and begin our journey.
The first rapid on the upper section is called Initiation, a short class IV. After navigating this relatively simple rapid, we come to Insignificant, which is anything but. A class V rapid, it’s the first of the Gauley’s big drops, but we make it through without trouble.
Feeling confident, we next face the shorter Iron Curtain, another class IV, and quickly have three rapids under our belts. But up next is one of the most notorious rapids on the entire river.
A class V rapid, Pillow Rock is considered the most difficult rapid on the river to run correctly, i.e. upright. The 80-yard long section of H20 features a house-sized boulder at the end of the run, known as The Pillow.
It’s anything but soft and fluffy.
Those who make it to the base of the run are faced with a decision – paddle around the Pillow, or run straight at it and try to perform a “high side” and slap the rock with their paddles.
Not wanting to wimp out on our fourth rapid, our crew chooses the latter option. We don’t quite manage a high side – instead we kind of bounce straight back off the rock and get sucked around it, passing between The Pillow and Volkswagon Rock and down a shoot to exit the drop – but the thrill of rushing head-on at an enormous rock and coming out rightside up still provokes wild howls of excitement from everyone onboard.
Farther down the river we run into rapids such as class V+ Lost Paddle, the longest and second most dangerous run on the river, and the Iron Ring, a class VI. Sweet’s Falls, a class III, is up next.
The home of the Box Canyon, Sweet’s Falls is one of the most exciting sections of the river. The Box Canyon, often simply called “The Box,” is a narrow section of the rapid enclosed with rocks on three sides, creating a small canyon with one entrance and two exit shoots, all of which are barely wide enough for a raft to pass through.
Nearly every raft we see enter The Box comes out upside down or with many of its passengers missing. Nevertheless we charge in and come out without losing a single person.
After Sweet’s Falls we continue down the river until we reach Fuzzy Box of Kittens. Though it sounds like a calm ride, Fuzzy Box offers some huge water and the last bit of real excitement during our day on the Upper Gauley. Somehow – perhaps because we are distracted by the cameraman we’re trying to wave at on the shore, or, more likely, because we take such a gently-named rapid for granted – our raft ends up standing at a 90-degree angle to the water, ejecting half our crew, including myself, from the raft for a short swim. But hey, it makes for one heck of a photo.
Whitewater Lingo 101
A high side is the act of jumping to the “high side” (towards the rock or object) of the raft during a collision to try to keep it from flipping. However, the most common result of this move on The Pillow (pictured above) is that the raft still flips anyway, hence the challenge.
Here’s some more river-rafting slang:
- Put-in: The section of a river where a trip begins.
- Take-out: No, we’re not talking about Chinese food; this is where the trip ends.
- Hole: Where water flowing over a rock or other obstacle flows down, then back onto itself, creating a “hole” in the water.
- Surfing: Intentionally positioning a raft over a hole, where it will typically become stuck until the rowers pull it out – or it flips.
- Wrapped: When a boat is held against a rock or object by the force of the current.
- Swimmer: A person who has fallen out of a boat. (No joke, right?)
Scheduling a Trip
Many rafting companies offer trips on the Gauley River, but Songer Whitewater is one of the largest. Songer also offers trips on the New River and various other recreational opportunities, as well as a campground. Book your trip early as the Gauley season fills up fast. Songerwhitewater.com, 1-800-356-7238.