How The Lower Gauley River Rapids Got Their Names

Here’s a story by Joyce Cooper all about the very first trips down West Virginia’s Lower Gauley River, and how a lot of the whitewater rapids that are now world famous got their names. Enjoy!

In the early 70’s, the Gauley River in West Virginia had only been run by a very few “expert” paddlers. There were rumors of another dam on the Gauley at Swiss that would back up water to the base of Summersville Dam. We decided we had to see this river before it was damned forever.

ACE whitewater rafting on the New And Gauley Rivers

The Corps of Engineers would start releasing water from Summersville about the first of September, so several members of the West Virginia Wildwater Association decided to run the river the first weekend in September when the Summersville release was about 1,600 cfs. Someone suggested that we scout it before we made our first run and it sounded like a good idea.

The weekend before the first release, about twenty Wildwater members hiked down the railroad tracks from Peter’s Creek to Swiss and looked at what we thought would be the major rapids. Survey ribbon was displayed above the rapids to mark probable difficulty; red was for what we expected to be the most difficult, orange for intermediate, and yellow for easiest (relatively speaking). As you can imagine, we had plenty of ribbon to hang.

Only one rapid on this section had been named by previous paddlers. Just the mention of “Pure Screaming Hell” made the stomach queasy and the adrenaline run (it still does.)

One rapid was named on this scouting trip. After hanging a red ribbon above a nasty looking rock garden, Nancy Meadows made the comment “If you turn over in that mess, HEAVEN HELP YOU!”.

The following week some of the group put in at the mouth of Peter’s Creek — the river looked a lot different with water in it. Even at 1,600 cfs the river was bigger than any of us had paddled before. New paddlers now seem to be born knowing more than it took us years and a lot of paddling to figure out. The sport was new and there was no pool of experienced paddlers to learn from and no “Dangerous Adventures” episodes on TV to lend perspective.

The group did pretty well for the first several rapids. At the end of one quiet pool of water a red ribbon was spotted hanging on a tree. Someone asked what was coming up. “Heaven Help You” was the answer.

The group had a good trip and decided to do it again the next week. The second trip was a larger group because others heard how great it was and the “test pilots” had come back.

Nancy Meadows, Sam Martin and I joined the adventure. After putting in at Peter’s Creek again we came upon our first red ribbon. The new comers were nervous and we were assured that if we stayed on the far left and eddied out before the big drop, there would be no problems.

Like ducks in a row we maneuvered the rock garden and eddied into the pool at the top of the big drop; all except Nancy, Sam and I. When the rest caught up with us, Sam and Nancy were swimming and I, still in my white C-1, was in awe at the biggest whitewater I had ever seen. There was a rock-shaped dent in the bottom of my boat and Sam had mashed his hand. So the first big rapid on the Lower Gauley is known as MASH.

Someone was on the Gauley every weekend that fall and each run was a higher flow than the previous week. On one trip, with the river running about 2,500 cfs, Blaine Boggs flipped his C-1 and we gathered him and his boat at the cliff on river right. Above our heads we heard a rattle; there was one of the largest rattlesnakes any of us had seen.

When the stories were rehashed in the following days, this rapid was referred to as RATTLESNAKE. It continues to live up to its name. There have been several stories of rattlesnakes there.

Other names were obvious ones and became popular with usage: DIAGONAL LEDGES, RIVER-WIDE HYDRAULIC (or THE HOLE), and CLIFFSIDE. And what usage! Never, when we were on those early trips could we have dreamed the explosion of interest!

Some of the local pioneers on the Gauley were Tim Rothwell, Bill Riley, Doug and Joyce Cooper, Roy and Nancy Meadows, Sam Martin, Richard Langsdale-Smith, Blaine Boggs, Phil Smith … others. Many members may not be aware of the role that the West Virginia Wildwater Association had in making the Gauley the popular destination that it is.

In the early 70s, the Corp of Engineers was getting serious about building the Swiss dam. Our club decided that if more people were aware of the potential, then letters would be written and we might be able to make a difference. So we cooked up the Gauley River Race.

The race quickly gained in popularity and for several years top racers from all over the East came for the fun. It was amazing to see license plates on cars and vans at Swiss from surrounding states and from as far as Georgia and Wisconsin. Eventually, the participants in the race declined; but the river became more and more used. It was just a lot more fun to “run” the river than to race down it.

We believe that without the West Virginia Wildwater Association creating an interest in this big water river of the East, there very well might have been another large, flat, still lake that would have fluctuated and left mud flats all around. Next time you’re up there, give a little thanks to all those early paddlers who damned the dam.

Other Stories:

  • Pure Screaming Hell – once known as “Two Pint Shoals”: related by Charlie Friddell (50′s era): During this era, some fisherman would brave the mighty Lower Gauley in Jon boats. They would put in at Peter’s Creek and float through the rapids at low flows, fishing and drinking. Towards the end of the day, after some excellent fishing and drinking, they would arrive at the last big “shoal” of the day – P.S.H. With the final sip of their second pint and a quick prayer, the fisherman would sit in the middle of the boat on the floor (with their fish), and hold on as their boats banged, scraped and tumbled their way down this torturous rapid. I wonder which was bigger – the fish or the stories of near death experiences.
  • Kevin’s Folly: related by Doug Proctor (late ‘70s – early ‘80s): One stormy day on the Lower Gauley, you could barely see with the rising mist and hard rain, no more than 30-40 feet. Everyone was eddied out at the bottom of the rapid waiting for the last boat, Kevin “Catfish” Whalen’s to finish up. We waited and waited. We couldn’t see him, but we could hear him yelling commands. Finally the rain let up, the mist thinned out, and out in the middle of the rapid we saw Kevin and his crew stuck on a rock, the boat was completely out of the water with Kevin yelling commands and the guests paddling hard … they didn’t know they had been parked on that rock for awhile.

Other Names:

Here are a few old time names that locals used at one time, unfortunately their exact location is lost:

  • Hurricane Eddy & Rock
  • Camp Eddy
  • Long Rock Hole
  • Alum Rock
  • Fitzwater Siding
  • Hanging Rock
  • Canoe Landing
  • Sand Bar Eddy
  • Eel Hole
  • Malcom Mill Seat
  • Person Hole
  • Blue Hole (every good river’s got to have a Blue Hole somewhere)

Know any others? Why not post them in the comments?

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