I was asked that very question the other day and I realized I had no clue – but I knew whom to ask: Melanie Dragan, ACE’s very own Human Resource Director (she is also the Mayor of Thurmond ).Her husband actually started, Wildwater Expeditions , the first commercial rafting company on the New River in 1968. When asked, she just smiled and said she was!
I was really impressed. In 1968 , when she first guided on the New River, things were a lot different than they are today. The equipment was a little scary by today’s standard – they used army surplus rafts (barges, 18 to 24 feet long) – and unlike today’s modern rafts, you actually had to manually bail out the water!
It was also an era of discovery. These early pioneering raft guides had to learn, through trial and error, what was the best route through the rapids.
I bet Double Z and the Keeney Brothers gave them fits at low water. I wonder who pioneered the Blind Alley slot move in Hook 99?
Back then every raft had two guides, one in the front and one in the back. They would line up the raft above a rapid and call an “all down,” getting the guests to get down in the bottom of the raft and hold on while the two guides – the only ones paddling – steered the raft through the rapids. I wish someone would write a book about those early days and how the rapids got their names.
Melanie said she learned to canoe as a Girl Scout at the age of 12, but it wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she experienced her first raft trip. During her college days she and a bunch of her friends would spend their summers traveling around and finding rivers to run, many of which were first descents. In 1967 she officially trained to be a raft guide on the Youghiogheny River.
It should also be noted that Melanie holds the distinction of being the first female raft guide on the Upper and Lower Gauley ! She tells a funny story of how she had to postpone her wedding date in order to catch the first fall release – but I will let her tell you that one.
She just shrugs it off now, but 42 years ago Melanie was making history – going where no woman (and very few men) had gone before! Thanks, Melanie.