What Makes West Virginia's Gauley Rafting's Madcap Mecca?

August 19, 2003

Each fall more than 80,000 parents, children, Harley bikers, and church groups journey to a 28-mile-long (45-kilometer-long) section of West Virginia's Gauley River. They're young and old, gay and straight, first-timers and river rats. They come from places as close as Fayetteville, West Virginia, and as far as Frankfurt, Germany, many making the trip year after year. It has become a right of passage. But even though the river's Class V-plus rapids are wild enough to host the World Rafting Championships (they were held there in 2001), other rivers are wetter. And while West Virginia's hills may be "purty," they're little more than goose bumps compared with the towering peaks surrounding the Snake, Salmon, and Colorado Rivers out west. So what is it that makes the Gauley's 22-day season the most lucrative and frenetic in rafting?

As writer Mark Sundeen discovered while guiding the river in 1996, the answer is as varied as the people in the boats. Sure, the world-class rapids draw plenty of paddlers hell-bent on carnage, and the river's proximity to the eastern seaboard population crush doesn't hurt the numbers. But as Sundeen points out in Adventure's September 2003 feature "If It's September, This Must Be Gauley-Palooza!", the Gauley's X-factor is its rare subculture—hippie-filled camps hidden in the woods, free-flowing moonshine and, most importantly, the idea that good times take precedence over everything else.

Blaine Honea guided alongside Sundeen with Rivermen Whitewater, a Lansing, West Virginia-based resort. The Parkersburg, West Virginia, native first rode the Gauley in 1996 and, despite leaving Rivermen in October 2002 for a full-time job in the corporate world, he hasn't missed a season since. Here, Honea relays an insider's view of the river's unique cast of characters and how best to experience the famed Gauley Season.

How did you get into rafting?

The first real white-water experience I had was out in Yellowstone. My buddies Jeremy Deem, Dave Lazaro, and I all drove out there and worked for a summer, washing pots and pans and dishes and getting two days off a week. One day, we hiked up a mountain and saw a river and said, "We've got to go down that river!" I had this old tiny raft—I'd had it since I was 7 years old—so the three of us drove to this river. It turned out to be the Gallatin. We blew up the raft with our mouths and drew straws. Jeremy and I got the short ones so we jumped in the boat. Dave drove the car and we put in and decided that we were going to go until we saw Dave again. It was a real small boat for the two of us guys to get in. We could fit our butts down inside but we had to hang our legs over the edge—so we weren't really in the boat, just kinda oozing over it. We were laughing the whole time. At one point we saw Dave. He had found a bridge that crossed the river, and he ran out and just laughed his [butt] off at us. Then we passed some kayakers who had the full gear—helmets and everything. They didn't say anything; they just looked at us real funny. Later we passed a commercial white-water trip with paying customers in life jackets and the big boats and guides. And we thought that was pretty funny 'cause we knew that they were paying and we weren't. As we were drifting past them, the last guide said, "Y'all might be careful, 'bout two bends down the river there's a big waterfall. You should probably take out before you get there." And we said, "Well thanks for the advice. We're taking out when we find Dave."

Why the Gauley? What makes its season so special?

I've been over a lot of rivers in the West, and I'm back out here. [The New River] has got one of the deepest personalities of any river I've been on. The Lower Gauley is for the whole family. It's beautiful and long. There are a lot of rapids—some good Class IVs and a couple Class Vs—and it's clean and exciting. And then the Upper Gauley is the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. There are five big Class V rapids on it, and there are kayakers all over the place making videos and people get out of the boats and they cheer for carnage. It's serious in some places, but there are plenty of places where people just want to see carnage. So you go and you take it seriously. You go big, and deal with what happens.

What kind of clients do you get?

Everybody's different so there's just different characters or groups you remember. The Columbus Gay Men's Chorus comes every year. They're hilarious and fired up to have a good time. They wear bandanas and tell jokes constantly. As a guide that first year, you train and train and swim and flip and, before you actually get to take customers down, you "top out"—take a ride down and manage the whole boat and the safety talk while a real guide rides along to make sure that you don't kill anybody. So I was doing that trip with the Columbus Gay Men's Chorus, they were my first real crew. When we stopped for lunch, the trip leader told everybody how things work to make sure they don't get hurt. And that day he told them, "If you need to answer nature's call, the men can go downstream and the women can go upstream. You can remember that by 'pants down, skirts up.'" They all started laughing and they said, "Honey, it depends on what day of the week you say that to most of these guys!"

Seems like a lot to handle on your first run.

Well, on that run I also had my first two "swimmers," so I was nervous about those guys. And one of the guys in the boat was in a couple with one of the swimmers. He stood up and started running from end to end of the boat and screaming and grabbing everybody, saying, "Save him, save him!" They had lively personalities.

Any other memorable clients?

Continued on Next Page >>


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