If the river is running at “0″ feet – there is no water, right? Is that even possible? Not true when you are talking about the New River. We even run it at negative water levels. How is this possible?In the pioneering days of whitewater rafting, late ’50s and early ’60s, there were traveling teams of crazy people all over the country using Army surplus rafts to run rivers that had never been run (first descents). It must have been an exciting time in rafting history; they had no idea the whitewater they were getting into.
Many of these pioneers kept “river logs,” journals filled with notes, diagrams and references. These small groups of adventurers would get together and share information comparing notes.
It was common practice back then to make a mark (hammer and chisel or paint) on a rock or bridge pillar after a successful run for future reference. On their return trip they would look for this mark to see if the river was running higher or lower than their last run. If the run had the potential to become a regular run, they would use a ruler to make hash marks every foot above and below the original mark. This is how “feet” became a popular way to gauge river levels.
The Dragan brothers, the pioneers of rafting on the New River, can take full credit for the New River “foot” gauge and how it compares to rafting. Chris Dragan was the person who actually made the first mark on the rock below the Fayette Station Bridge.
I have heard the story told different ways. Either the “0” foot mark was the very first mark made, it was “normal” summer level or they decided it was too dangerous to run below that mark in the early days. Chris told me personally that it was the first mark made, but I’ll let everyone else believe what they want.
At 0 feet on the Fayette Station Gauge, the New River is running at approximately 2,600 cubic feet per second (this is another debatable point – some say it’s 2,400 CFS, though it’s hard to correlate CFS to feet from two different locations due to tributaries, etc.). At this water level the New River is a great run. It is technical and fun; there are some great play spots out there. Kayakers flock to the river at these water levels. While 2,600 CFS on some rivers is considered high water, it all depends on the size of the river.
We try to talk about the New in CFS now (you can read my blog “What’s The New River’s Top Recorded Water Level?” for a better understanding of CFS), but for some of us “old school” guides it is difficult to switch over. If you tell me the river is running at 3 feet, I know exactly what to expect. If you tell me it’s running at 5,900 CFS, I have to do the math to realize it’s 3 feet.
So if you hear one of the old guides tell you that the river is running at -2 feet, don’t freak out. It is still a great run – it’s just an old reference point. Besides, it’s kind of cool to be able to say you rafted a river with no water in it!