The sirens ring out. Signal lights flash on top of signs that read “water levels may rise without warning.” In a matter of minutes, the dam opens, and a river that has been dormant for the majority of the year springs to life again.
Even though many of the streams in the Southeast have been dewatered for hydroelectric power, American Whitewater (AW) and a number of other river preservation groups have worked to secure recreational releases on the best of these rivers. Paddlers, anglers, hikers, and swimmers can once again enjoy their beauty and carve into their currents. It isn’t surprising that some of the best whitewater festivals in the country occur with Appalachian rivers as their focal points.
No paddler’s calendar would be complete without Gauley Fest in Summersville, W.Va. Over 5,000 boaters flock to the Gauley River and Summersville High School fairgrounds. This event injects over $1 million into the local economy in one weekend. The days are filled with class V whitewater, and the nights sometimes enter the misadventure and debauchery categories.
One year, I traveled up to Gauley Fest with some non-boaters. One girl had never even seen moving water in her life, but in my youthful optimism, I promised to take her down the class V Upper Gauley in a two-person kayak. She must have weighed all of 110 pounds soaking wet, so how hard could it be, right?
This poor girl had no idea what she had gotten herself into. Before she knew it, she was being pummeled by massive waves and holes of rapids like Initiation, Pillow Rock, Iron Ring, and Sweets Falls. She was in the front of the boat with her paddle flailing helplessly, while I guided us from the back. Every time a wall of whitewater hit us, she would absorb the entire impact of our momentum and be plastered back on the boat. She seemed to enjoy the adventure, but I don’t think she’s been on whitewater again since.
Gauley Fest evenings are nothing short of legendary. Industry companies host kegs, boat giveaways, sumo wrestling, karaoke, and various other attractions to bring people to their respective booths, and things unravel quickly due to the fact that everyone is camping only feet away. One year, someone made the mistake of bringing boxing gloves. It started off in good fun, with friendly jousting and nobody getting too serious, but before long the big guys of the party had been alerted to the developing single-elimination boxing tournament, and things went south. Several knockouts occurred, and the shenanigans were eventually shut down. Another time, one of the paddling companies announced that it was going to be giving away a free kayak to the person who could catch a greased pig. I myself have fond (albeit hazy) memories of somehow getting into an unlocked Porsche 911 Turbo S late at night, and pretending that I was Mario Andretti in the parked supercar.
Beyond Gauley Fest, there are other events in the community that epitomize the outdoor community’s camaraderie. One is a biathlon race in Asheville called Jerry’s Baddle (Bike + Paddle). I participated in the first Baddle in 2006. After an adrenaline and endorphin-fueled day of intense racing in gorgeous weather, competitors gathered afterward to meet the guy whom we had been racing for all day: Jerry Beckwith. Jerry was an avid kayaker and biker who had been combatting ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He couldn’t speak, but his smile radiated the happiness and appreciation that he had towards everyone for showing up to support him. As Jerry’s wife read the words of his letter, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Jerry reflected on the beauties and subtleties of his home river, the Green. And the many memories that he had with great friends there. His letter concluded: “I feel like the luckiest man on Earth. Certainly not because my body is slowly being imprisoned by ALS, but because I am blessed to have a huge number of the truest, most loyal, and compassionate friends anyone could hope for.”
Jerry’s words were very powerful to me in that moment, but they also defined the exceptional group of people that I had managed to surround myself with both at the event that day and in my life. These communities are comprised of passionate, generous, fun-loving individuals who truly “suck the marrow out of life.” I smiled through the tears and realized that if I was in the same situation as him, I could say the same thing.
Jerry’s fight with ALS ended two weeks after that very first race in 2006, but the event lives on. Once a year in late April, paddlers and bikers converge on Saluda, N.C. and push their own limits to honor a lost friend. These festival-forged friendships are the reason that the Southern Appalachians are home to one of the best outdoor communities in the world.
If you are a paddler, make it a point to be there when those sirens go off, and the rivers come back to life. •
Best Paddling Festivals
April 13-15, 2013 Tallulah Falls, GA.
NOC Demo Days & Shootout
April 2013 Bryson City, NC
April 2013 Saluda, NC
May 5, 2012 Albright, W.Va.
Dominion RiverRock Festival
May 18-20, 2012 Richmond, VA.
TBA (usually around June 25) Great Falls, MD.
September 14-16, 2012 Summersville, W.VA.
NOC Guest Appreciation Festival
September 28-30, 2012
Bryson City, N.C.
For a full listing of festivals, click here!