It was July 4th at the New River Gorge in West Virginia. It was dark, and I was on the roof of a truck clinging to the roof rack as we wound through the twisting back roads en route to the edge of the gorge. This had not been the plan. We had ended up loading the truck down with a couple of kegs and as many raft guides as we could fit after the trailer that was supposed to deliver us to the party developed a flat tire. We had unhitched it and abandoned the thing by the side of the road and made do with the truck, more or less.
We did end up making it to the edge of the cliff, with our beer, in the dark, to drink in the woods and watch distant fireworks. To the best of my knowledge, no one died or was left behind, so I consider it a success. There were a lot of parties that summer, but the river itself was the most memorable, as white water rafting in West Virginia is world class.
Raft guides are a curious breed, lured to the work by adventure, adrenaline, and a lifestyle far outside the norms of a boardroom. I assure you they are not lured by the money. The pittance most earn is sometimes supplemented with tips, but financially it’s a tough gig. Most live out of a tent or car or, if they are lucky, an RV or camper, and rely upon their guide companies bath house to keep the river stink at bay. I became a guide after I swam a little swimmer’s rapid, a name given to small largely innocuous rapids that guides allow their customers to swim and found the experience too terrifying to let go. The following summer I was part of a little training class where, along with my fellow trainees, I inflated boats, loaded them onto trailers, strapped down gear, and was unceremoniously dumped repeatedly into whitewater as a part of training. We had the sort of record water levels that are normally reserved for spring, so there were plenty of opportunities to terrify us into quitting, something I learned was part of the game. You could call it hazing, but you could also call it an important part of the education of a raft guide. If your raft flips, you need to have the confidence, strength, and clarity of mind to climb back onto the raft, flip it over, climb back in, and rescue your terrified customers before the next rapid. In other words, you can’t be scared.The New River is oddly named as it is quite old, with its long flowing water creating undercut rocks that are serious hazards at certain water levels. Also, the New flows north like the Nile, which means that water levels are influenced by rainfall to the south. The other river in the area that is commonly rafted is the Gauley, which flows from the dam at Summerville Lake to merge with the New to form the Kanawha River. The Gauley is famous for Gauley season which occurs every fall when there is a controlled release of water from Summersville Lake yielding consistently high water levels and excellent rafting for the duration. The season ends the third Saturday of every October with Bridge Day, a festival on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville during which people throw themselves off of the bridge, i.e. base jump, down to the river below. There are permits for this and they are not easy to get.
Customers set to raft either of the Rivers are outfitted with helmets, life jackets – referred to as PFD’s by any serious river rat – and paddles, and shuttled down to water’s edge via old school buses in a ride that can be as terrifying as the river itself. Rest assured that the roads that lead to the river were not built with buses in mind, let alone buses pulling trailers full of rafts. As an added bonus, during the ride the customers are given a safety talk designed to scare them into compliance. “Don’t stand up in the river. Your foot could become entrapped and you could die. Swim where your guide tells you. If you don’t, you could get pulled into an undercut rock and die. Listen to your guide’s instructions or the raft could hit a rock and flip… and you could die.” Working as a raft guide was the only time I could have gotten away with yelling at a bunch of church kids that “they had better motherfucking paddle or they were going to motherfucking die” and I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for it, because I would have been right. It’s not hyperbole. Lots of people have died on the river, though most of them on personal trips, not commercial ones. The features on the river are given names like “Meatgrinder” and not without good reason.Things are a little different now. There are fewer companies, many having merged several years back, making the river much less colorful. This is both literal and figurative as each rafting company has its own character. Some were known for being especially adventurous, some more for families, some catered to church groups, some were strict, and others played things fast and loose. Their boats were all different colors, too. You could tell who was on the river with you at a glance by the color of the little boats, floating down the river like Easter eggs. Rafting is most definitely still a thing, but other activities have gained traction in recent years, at least for some of the companies. Zip lining is popular, and other activities such as swimming at Summersville Lake, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing, and even laser tag are options. My dad recently attended a chiropractic convention at one of the rafting basecamps. The scope of operations has widened.
West Virginia is a lovely state that I feel has never taken the time to properly develop itself as a true adventure travel destination. Given the way that coal has ravaged the health and well-being both of the residents and the environment, I’d love to see them take some steps to diversify their economy that included development for adventure travel. Whether or not that ever happens, the state still has world class whitewater and unless the rivers stop flowing, that will continue.