Gauley Fest: I Think We Did it Right

Trip Reports
Ty Skoe

For those of us who live in places without year round paddling, September generally marks the end of the paddling season. Here in Colorado, the water slowly starts to dry up and kayakers are left with a tough decision. “Do I head south and chase whitewater or stay here, prep for ski season and chase the other kind of whitewater; powder snow?”

This fall, myself and fellow CKS Online Staff Member Tucker Smelley, were faced with this question. We chose to pack up my Tacoma with boats and gear, and head southeast for 2 weeks in mid September.

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Riding low and slow in the Taco truck, somewhere in Missouri. Photo by Tucker Smelley

The truck was set up to live out of and couches to sleep on had been arranged. We set off on the 26 hour drive early in the morning and spent almost the entire day rolling through Kansas. Not an ideal situation. Kansas is terrible. We drove through the night and arrived in Summersville, WV the next afternoon. After meeting up with a fellow Ark Valley boater, we headed straight to Kanawha Falls and celebrated the long drive by boofing the 15 footer as many times as our little hearts desired. It was an amazing welcoming party to the Southeast.

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Kanawha Falls is a prime example of a park and huck. Easy to lap, warm water and lots of options for different lines. Photo by Noah Greenstein

2015 was a dry fall for West Virginia. I had had hopes of paddling some of the surrounding runs, like the Meadow and Mann’s Creek, but the lack of water made that difficult. We had no idea that the Gauley only released on weekends before we had left and had no other plans. Luckily, the New River was in, but low. After spending a nice warm (first skin-to-the-wind lap in years) afternoon squirting, splatting and boofing, we returned to camp to make plans for the next day: The Upper Yough.

A little more than 2 hours of driving from Summersville will take you to Friendsville, Maryland. The week before Gauley Fest, the Yough releases every day, so if you come early as we did, plan to head this way. As you arrive into town, you are immediately greeted by a huge field full of boaters. This is your take out. Find a ride up and join the masses for a fun run down the Upper Yough, a classic East Coast run with fun boofs, lots of play, and huge crowds. This run reminded me of Bailey, without the gradient, two times the crowd, and friendlier rocks. After spending a day with hundreds of your closest friends, make sure to swing by the Riverside Hotel Kitchen. It’s right next to the river and for only $12, you can get all you can eat, soup, salad and bread. The ingredients are straight from the garden out back and you can bring your own beer!

Friday had finally arrived. The release had begun. Head to the put in, just below the Summersville Dam, work your way through the crowd, find a spot to gear up and put on. None of us had run the section before putting on, but felt comfortable in following the lines of the 50 or so paddlers in front of us. Someone had to know the lines, right?

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Showing the crowd how it’s done. Photo by Tucker Smelley

After avoiding the sieve at Initiation, paddlers work down some boogie to get to the first of the Big 5: Insignificant. Named by the kayakers who first descended the river in the 60’s at much lower flows, Insignificant requires some hole punching and riding out wave trains. Avoid the house sized rock on the right as it is undercut. Just below the rapid is a great surf wave. A few more smaller, named rapids, lead you to a large left hand bend in the river. This is Pillow Rock. Here you will witness one of the biggest river parties that exist. Both sides of the river are lined with people, ready to watch the inevitable carnage. Splat the rock for the best reaction from the crowd! Just below on river left is a great squirt to splat move that is can’t miss for those into down river play. A few awesome boogie rapids and play spots later, you come to Lost Paddle, which is just below the confluence with the Meadow on the right. The beach at the confluence is apparently a local’s party spot, as we saw a huge dude crushing beers and doing push ups in nothing but a Speedo. My eyes are forever scarred.

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CKS Online Staff Tucker Smelley in the meat of Pillow Rock

Alright, back to the whitewater.

Lost Paddle is the biggest and most consequential drop on the run. It is long, big, pushy and shallow, which is a great combination for carnage. Enter right, launch over the 2 large waves, then eddy right in preparation for the 3rd part of the drop. This is a steep, shallow section with some huge waves. It goes right down the middle, but if you go upside down, you’re gonna have a bad time. Punch the last little hole on the left or drop into the middle for a rowdy surf sesh.

The next drop of note is Iron Ring. This rapid can be noted by the large rock shelf on the left side of the river, likely covered in first timers scouting the drop. I have no words on how to have a good line on this one. Just go and hope it goes well. I was upside down at some point every time I ran it but once. Essentially, enter just right of center, punch the wave and ride out the turbulence. A few good surf waves are located a little ways below this one.

Sweets Falls is next. It’s easy to tell when it’s coming up as it will feel like you are paddling into the Colosseum. Spectators line the cliffs, waiting eagerly to cheer on the carnage. There are a variety of lines on Sweets, ranging from a short slide down the middle, a meltdown line between Dildo Rock and the Boof rock, the Boof line itself, or the hit Dildo and see what happens carnage line. Pick whichever one sounds the most interesting and try and splat Postage Due, a house sized rock located river center just below the Falls. If successful, the crowd of rafters standing on top will grab your bow, pull you up and reward your efforts with a cold beer. When you’re ready to go, be prepared to be thrown off by the same people who pulled you up. The left side of Postage Due is a tight slot and watching flipped and out of control rafts get stuck or flushed in is hilarious. Hang here for a while, drink some of the East Coast’s finest alcoholic sports beverages (obviously talking about Yuengling here), watch some carnage and celebrate your successful descent of the Upper Gauley.

Gauley Fest is the biggest whitewater festival in the US, which also means it brings out some of the hardest party-ers  in the whitewater world. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the festival, as you should go and experience it yourself, but I can definitely say that Gauley Fest was well worth the 26 hour drive. Oh yeah, and did I mention that all of the festival proceeds benefit American Whitewater?! Four laps on the Upper, 2 nights of partying with my favorite people, live music, vendors, raffles, giveaways, Tudor’s Biscuit World, and the opportunity to experience a new river, a new place, and new friends, are things I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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A glimpse into the wild atmosphere known as Pillow Rock.

Well, maybe except for one of those sweet, custom Green Boats that Dagger raffles off every year.

See you next year!

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