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  • Writer's pictureMike Conway

Gauley River Rafting (and Impromptu Swimming)

One of the rafting guides on the Gauley River put it best: few people fall out of the rafts, most are "forcibly ejected." For the first time in about a quarter century, I spent two days on some of the wildest whitewater in the world, West Virginia's Upper Gauley River during the "draw-down" season.

I don't do a lot of whitewater rafting, so as I drove to West Virginia the other weekend, I started to question the wisdom of revisiting what some consider one of the top five whitewater rafting experiences in the world. For five weekends in the fall, they open up the Summersville Dam, pushing so much water in the river that the Upper Gauley adventure becomes a top destination for whitewater enthusiasts as well as people like me who don't know any better.

When the dam is open, called the draw-down, or Gauley Season, the extra water creates five Class V rapids, as well as several other Class III and IV rapids. As we were told, Class V is the highest level they are allowed to navigate as a commercial business. The river drops 335 feet in 13 miles. Let's just say, there is little down time to enjoy the scenery. Any calm water is spent talking about how we will get through the next rough patch. We chose to do this stretch of the river twice, both Saturday and Sunday.

When you fall out of the raft, they call it swimming. I think it's more accurate to call it trying to survive. Our guide warned us that if we fell in, we needed to hold our breath because we didn't know how far downriver we'd be pushed before we surfaced again. The Gauley can be particularly dangerous because many of the rocks are undercut. That means the current will pull you under the submerged rock, but you might not be able to get out. If you are close to the boat, they will try to pull you in, unless the remaining rafters are still trying to get through the rapids. Other rafters also come to the rescue, pulling you into their boats until they can sort out who came from what raft.

Fortunately, (for photo evidence), one of the times many of us were "forcibly ejected," a photographer from the rafting company was there to capture the mayhem. This is one of the Class V rapids, called Pillow Rock. In most of the Class V rapids, the guide has to hit a specific line to get through safely and that path usually involves getting very close to big rocks and turning at the right moment. In this case, our boat started to tip and those on the bottom front side were the first to fall out and then those of us on the high side slid across the raft and into the water. The slideshow below shows the carnage in all its detail.

Once you fall out of the boat, you are instructed to swim as fast as you can to the safest side. As I remember a guide telling us 25 years ago, "you need to swim to the left as if your life depended on it, because YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT" In reality, if you're in the rapids, you can't really do much swimming because the current is so strong. To make it even more surreal, at the most dangerous rapids, people crowd the river banks and the rocks to cheer for carnage. They will even yell wrong commands hoping they can get your raft to capsize. Slideshow below shows us "swimming" through Pillow Rock rapids.

Somehow, two of the rafters and our guide Kayla (with the cat ears on her helmet), stayed in the boat at Pillow Rock. They, along with other rafts, fished the rest of us out of the water and we were on our way to the next Class V rapids. This next picture might be my favorite. Even though six out of nine people fell out of the raft, Kayla was able to keep the raft upright and make it through the rapids, giving a big smile to the camera. She told us that she can't always control who stays in and who falls out, but her goal is to keep the raft from flipping over. Turns out that guides have to buy a round for the other guides at the bar if their boat capsizes. Kayla didn't have to buy any drinks that day.

If you're interested in trying the Upper Gauley River trip, the draw-down happens in September and October on the weekends, during fall color season. There are several outfitters you can use. We went with Adventures on the Gorge, located right near the New River Gorge Bridge and Fayetteville, WV. They have a large complex with cabins, camping, rooms, restaurants, bars, and several options in rafting and other adventures. If you'd like to request a rafting guide, we had a great experience with Kayla Simons.

All rafting photos from Whitewater Photography in Fayetteville, WV.

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