Remote exploration in the Gauley
World-Famous Whitewater & Rugged Beauty
Rugged. Remote. Secluded. There are plenty of ways to describe the serene, seemingly untouched nature of the Gauley River National Recreation Area. But the best is simply “wild.”
A few jagged stones that litter the banks and swell the whitewater hint at a history of industry, but the wilderness has so completely reclaimed the land, it’s left few other traces of that former life.
“There are not many places you can go anymore that you won’t see another human,” said Bill Strasser, Supervisory Park Ranger and interpreter. “It’s awesome to experience nature at its rugged finest. It has a magic all its own.”
Beyond its primitive landscapes, the Gauley is a wild gem for another reason: for 20-some brilliant days each year, the river itself, “The Beast of The East,” is renowned as one of the Top 10 whitewater rivers in the world.
And the beast is one of few ways to access the beauty.
Because of the steepness and thick plantlife of the Gauley’s gorge, much of its wilderness can only be explored by intense adventurers. There are only a few places you can easily reach the riverbed.
“Everything’s getting built up everywhere else,” said Kathy Zerkel, Whitewater Rescue Ranger for the National Parks Service. “It’s hard to get away. But even though it’s close to almost all the East Coast cities, the Gauley is very remote. Once you’ve put in on the river, you’re not hiking out any time soon. You’re not elbow to elbow to fish, and there won’t be any campsites encroaching on your campsite. I went on the river the other day and didn’t see anyone else all day.”
The most popular gathering spot is right at the mouth of the river, just below the Summersville Dam. Locals and outdoors folk gather there to fish, swim and watch the whitewater paddlers set off deeper through the tangled wilderness that is the Gauley.
Only the most experienced guides lead crews of visitors through these technical trenches, seeking out the thrills of its big waves and swift, unyielding pace. You have to bring high spirits. You have to paddle hard. You have to listen well. But if you can conquer the Gauley, you’re a true adventurer.
The water is guaranteed to be high and fast for the fleeting few days of the Gauley River rafting season. The flow rushes from a controlled release of Summersville Lake, sending a cool, rafting-ready flood downstream.
“In the morning, there’s a fog that hangs over the water that makes it very mystic-looking.”
The epic run is the Upper section, although the Middle and Lower stretches are every bit as heart-racing and fun. Their excitement is only overshadowed by the core of the Gauley’s mystique: the “Big 5.” These 5 bold, unique Class V rapids— that’s the highest rating that you can commercially run— aren’t the only Class V’s you’ll encounter on the river. But they’re the 5 you won’t forget. They’re some of the most unique in the whitewater world.
It starts with Insignificant (whose name you should ignore.) Next is Pillow Rock, “The Best 10 Seconds in Whitewater.” Lost Paddle is a quarter-mile wave train. Iron Ring looks deceptively docile.
The final of the 5 is Sweet’s Falls, a 14-foot waterfall. If you hit it right, you’ll soar elegantly over for the drop of your life. Expect an audience. It’s not unusual for hundreds of people to hike down or stop for lunch on the cliffs above the falls, watching the show and cheering.
Another memorable rapid perfectly merges the Gauley’s whitewater thrills with the stunning scenery of the journey: Canyon Doors. Here, 2 towering cliffsides create a jaw-dropping view, that standouts even among this stretch of impeccable beauty.
“You’re always a little awe-struck when you come around the corner there,” Zerkel said. “The hemlocks are thick atop the cliff face, so it’s red at the top in fall. The walls are dark from the coal, with blues from different layers of rock. In the morning, there’s a fog that hangs over the water that makes it very mystic-looking.”
It wasn’t always so pristine. In the 1900s, logging, commercial mining, paper milling and commercial industry clogged the park. The Gauley was called the “River of Ink.” But Mother Nature has reclaimed her prize.
The few lingering touches of humanity carry the weight of history: the tide-shifting Carnifex Ferry battleground along the banks, the wartime cannon supposedly misplaced in Lost Paddle rapid, the lonely grave of a young man trying to get home. Just a small few lingering mementos of man’s mark on the Gauley.
But the lake that feeds the river recreation is another story entirely. It’s a vibrant communal playground, with boaters, climbers, swimmers and explorers of all sorts. An artistically crafted lighthouse pokes out over the terrain, and creates a unique overview from the shoreline.
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