Saturday, October 14, 2006

Whitewater: Gauley Season - Pretrip

Every fall for the past several years I have been organizing a trip to go whitewater rafting on the Gauley River in West Virginia. During the 6 weekends following Labor Day, known to paddlers as “Gauley Season”, the Army Corps of Engineers oversees a controlled release of water from the Summersville Reservoir that is designed to lower the water level in the reservoir by 75 feet. All of that water needs to go somewhere, and where it goes is into the Gauley - at a rate of 2,800-5,000 cfs (cubic feet per second). The result is a world-class whitewater river that is ranked 2nd in the U.S. (behind the Arkansas in Colorado) and 7th in the world. The Gauley boasts scores of Class III-IV rapids, but the highlights are the five Class V rapids found on the Upper section. Class V is as high as you can go, at least in a commercial raft.

I fell into the role of trip organizer by default. In 2000, I was invited to be the token 30-something on a Gauley trip with my dad and several of his friends. That was enough to get me hooked, and after Gauley season came and went without me in 2001, I figured that if I wanted to go rafting, I needed to take the initiative. So, I sent out an email to everyone I could think of who might be up for the trip. The responses that I received generally fell in one of two categories: enthusiastic affirmation, or incredulous rejection. There were a few lukewarm responses as well, but after following up on these I realized that most of them were just folks who were too polite to tell me straight up that they had absolutely no interest.

Once I had the group lined up, we did a 2-day Gauley trip in the fall of 2002, and before we had even left the river, we were talking about the next year’s trip. So, I sent out a similar (although more targeted) email in 2003, and we returned for Gauley season that fall. In 2004 we switched to the New River Gorge, but that was a bit of a letdown after the Gauley, so we headed back for Gauley season in 2005.

Which brings me to 2006. Despite having run the Gauley four times, I had a bit of apprehension nagging at me as plans for the trip began to take shape. My thoughts kept going back to an unnerving swim that I had taken during the 2003 trip. I had been pitched out of the raft, and managed to breathe in more water than air as I went under.

When I bobbed up, I saw that the guide was motioning vigorously for me to swim back to the raft. That was a hint that I was heading for trouble. I took a couple of strokes, hampered by the paddle that I was still holding onto, and then I got smacked in the face by a wave, with my mouth wide open – not good. I went down again and got caught in the faster current running underneath the surface.

I tumbled along for what seemed like an eternity, and when I finally did come gasping back up to the surface, was considerably downstream from the raft. I managed to swim to a neighboring raft, they hauled me in, and after a bit of coughing and shaking, that was the end of the ordeal. Despite the happy ending, a bit of the panic that I had flirted with as I was caught in that underwater current stayed with me. That, I suppose, was the reason for my disquiet as our October 7 trip date drew near. That was also the reason that I knew I had to go. (To be continued….)

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