It’s September, and that most Blue Ridgy of Blue Ridge paddlesports diversions is upon us: Gauley Season! This is when boaters from Alabama to Ontario make their annual pilgrimage to the bustling metropolis of Summersville, WV, to float en masse down the largest American riverbed this side of the Mississippi. Which doesn’t always go over well with the spouse – after all, you could spend that $200 worth of gas money on a computer upgrade or a new lawnmower. Significant others who don’t share a passion for flinging themselves over waterfalls tend not to see the payoff in meeting up with 500 of your best friends so you can party ‘til you’re puking in the eddies the next day.
As much fun as the Gauley is, however, there are plenty of other great rivers in the area, depending on rainfall. The Lower Gauley offers playboating every bit as good as the Upper in a less intimidating (read: less steep) setting. The New River Gorge just down the road in Fayetteville is also a fantastic bigwater playground. If the New is at 9 feet or higher, the Dries will have a dam release. The Dries of the New is where most of the best freestylers on the east coast hone their skills, along with the Ottawa in Canada, but this is about the Blue Ridge, right? Be sure that if you do the Dries, you have the water reading skills to skirt some stomping big holes – easily missed with a good guide but definitely to be avoided either way. For those with a tolerance for high consequences, the Lower Meadow is a river that will shock and awe your buddies, at least in reputation, whereas running Laurel Creek will impress even the local creekboaters, who tend to be extremely good extreme kayakers. A flood in 2001 destroyed Laurel Creek as it then existed, but it has been run since then by at least two people. And this isn’t the half! For variety, beauty, and concentration of whitewater rivers, West Virginia offers some of the best boating on the continent.
However, the Upper Gauley is a classic, if atypical, eastern run, packed with big-volume playboating that no kayaker should miss. For those with the skills to paddle this river comfortably, all the rapids except Sweet’s Falls are read-and-run, and Sweet’s is nearly a no-brainer if someone points out the right spot to go over the drop. Oh, and here’s a tip: just go for the splat at Pillow Rock – getting pummeled is more fun than a clean run here, and if you do make the splat, you’ll have a great photo for the family room wall. As for that non-paddling SO, make it worth his while to come with you. In addition to the boating, there are mountain biking, hiking and climbing all in the same area, not to mention some very nice swimming holes, that he can enjoy while you’re on the river. Maybe by this time next year, he’ll be ready to cram his body into a tiny plastic tub and throw himself over Sweet’s Falls with abandon. Or at least push rubber while watching you do it.
<em>Jill Moore lives in WNC but loves paddling in West Virginia, when she can get there – donations for gas money gratefully accepted.</em>