September 12, 2016 - This weekend has been the start of the Gauley River rafting. The Summersville dam lowers its water level this time each year in preparation for winter rains and snow. In doing so it creates one of the World's Top 10 whitewater rivers. The renowned event attracts hundreds of rafters to ride the wild rapids.
We're at the Gauley Tailwaters by 7.30 am having camped at Walmart the night before. Dozens of blue and yellow rafts from "Ace Adventures" and "Adventures on the Gorge" are waiting for their customers in wetsuits, helmets and expressions somewhere in the range of terrified and hyper- excitement! I am hyperventilating just looking at them through my camera lens! The morning is really cool and fresh with a red morning sky - definitely autumn!
Preparing for the "Off" at the dam wall launch point.
Known as "the beast of the east", the controlled release of water from the dam whisks the rafters down the river over the "Big 5 Rapids" - some of which are rated as "unique" in the world of white water rafting. The first five are called ”Insignificant", "Pillow Rock", "Lost Paddle", "Iron Ring" and then a fourteen foot waterfall drop, "Sweet's Falls". On the lower section you have "Heaven Help You Rapids" and "Pure Screaming Hell Rapids"! There was a fleeting moment when I thought this would be a good way for us to put to bed our rafting demons after New Zealand several years ago. That was until I saw the photographs! We decide we will try and photograph other people's excitement and thrills and spills from the river bank.
We take photos of the rafts putting in and listen to the variety of comments and instructions from the various river guides. One guide says his seat at the back is the ejector seat - no kidding, I watched one guide later on down the river really being ejected from that spot!!! And he was the first one out of the raft. Three others followed leaving the raft in the hands of the front three. Those gentle looking rapids become class 5 rapids by midday!
Altogether now...."The Salute" to Pillow Rock!
I take a look at the dam wall too with its enormous outflow pipe. A nearby photo shows huge jets of water being jettisoned from here. Not so this morning. It seems that the controlled release which started at 4am today (day three) is from some sluice gates to the left of this tube. The level of the river will rise some 3 feet during the course of today's release and chatting to various people it seems we need to get to "Pillow Rock" to get some good photos. The rest of the river is either inaccessible or on private land.
On his way out!
Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park has the access. This is the site of a Civil War battle and there has been a re-enactment over the weekend. Yet another event packed into the calendar for this area. The park is immaculate with lovely big, shady trees and loads of picnic tables. The grass is cut like a domestic lawn! Pity there is no camping here. From the lookout platform we can see the river way down below and hear the shrieks as the rafters come through "Pillow Rock". "Pillow Rock" drops 30 feet in only 75 yards, the largest elevation drop in the shortest distance on the river. In layman’s terms, that’s an intense rapid. We can see them staging before the rapids and see them reassembling, dragging fallen passengers back into the rafts and regrouping! We can’t see the rock or the rapids though. B-U-T, there is a trail. I am not up for this as I fear the steep descent and the resulting stress on my knees. The Ranger had said it was straight downhill, slick, covered in rocks and fallen trees but it was the trail people took to the river. The Blonde put on her hiking boots, grabbed a walking pole, water, camera and was off! 20 minutes later she was on the side of the rapids and staking her claim. Within minutes the first rafters were there and The Blonde spent the next hour as a happy snapper!
Altogether out! And more followed!
She watched people being flung into the water - even one of the guides. Some of the rafts went down the rapids as if it was calm water. Others went down backwards, smacked into "Pillow Rock", folded up, and then took in lots of water. It seemed that even with a great river guide on board, the river often had the final say. The current, the turbulence, the rapids indeed all had an unpredictable influence on the rafting. The Blonde felt it put some perspective on our nightmarish trip on the Whataroah River in New Zealand some years previous.
I had been busy researching our days ahead whilst The Blonde was watching people being popped out of rafts like corks out of a bottle and was ready to be moving on but we felt the park had a very special feel to it. The picnic area offered us the perfect shade, the perfect light and the perfect temperature. We decided to stay where we were for a few hours, write, research and enjoy the peaceful day. This was to be our office for the day...indeed perfect.
On our way to our next destination at Babcock State Park we called into West Virginia's only working lighthouse at Gauley River Recreation Area. It's not on Summerville Lake nor does it have anything to do with maritime navigation. It's an aircraft beacon!! Standing 104 feet tall and built from a damaged wind turbine. The Gauley River National Recreation Area is one of the most popular recreation sites in West Virginia with nearly 15 million visitors every year. Summersville Lake has sixty miles of shoreline and was created in the early 60s by damming up the Gauley River. The dam wall is 390 feet high and stretches nearly a half mile making it the second largest dam of its kind in the eastern United States. Summersville Dam provides flood control for the Gauley and Kanawha river basin and supports a huge recreational industry. To include several great campgrounds...but we had already set our sites on another venue.
The Blonde.....Glade Grist Mill, Babcock State Park - and a long 2 mile hike! This beautiful reconstructed grist mill is just 2 miles drive down the road from our camp. I decided to walk and I will meet David at the mill in a couple of hours.The walk is gorgeous through the forest with shafts of sunlight filtering through. It's peaceful and silent. My eyes pick out the vibrant colours of fungus on the ground and at the base of the tree trunks. I get distracted and somehow disoriented and after 90 minutes I'm almost back where I started! But David isn't! He's at Glade Grist Mill with perfect light to photograph. Meh! No worries, I message, "... it's a beautiful walk, I'll keep going, you get the photos"! By 11.30am, David asks if I'm still coming! "Yes, yes, not far away". My originally planned two miles and and hour walk.....has turned into 5 miles and almost three hours, but it was special and most enjoyable.
The Blonde & Glade Grist Mill.
I get my photos. Not quite the same as the one I'd seen for sale taken in the midst of fall with rich orange and yellow colours of the forest. By now it's too late to go far. So we're quite happy to return to last night's camp and hang for the afternoon. Like I said yesterday, there seems to be no compelling reason to leave this area. The weather is perfect and we have had so much variety of sights and experiences. So another day here won't hurt!
Alas the grist mill was not operational due to a shortage of water!
Reluctantly the next morning we agree it’s time to leave New River Gorge. We’ve had a fabulous time here, totally unplanned, and it has been great to see so much in such a small area with little travelling in between. I make a gallop up the road in the early morning before we depart in the hope of seeing the nearby Cape Washington-Carver Camp, which I had read about - a former summer camp for African-American youth and the first 4-H camp for African Americans in the country during the 1940’s and segregation. Initially called the "West Virginia Negro 4-H Camp", its name was soon changed to "Camp Washington-Carver" in honor of two prominent black Americans: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. The Great Chestnut Lodge there is allegedly the largest log structure of its kind in the world. Another American Brag or not? I won’t know because it was further along the road than I had time for. But it was a good workout anyway and as we will be on the road for the rest of the day as we head to Columbia Falls in Kentucky I needed the exercise!
Leaving our last State Park in the New River Gorge, we stopped at Hawks Nest which gave us a view of the Gauley River before it joins the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge. After the picturesque reflections in the river it turned more industrial with coal mines and many manufacturing complexes along the river. Known as the Kanawha River Rust Belt the many chemical plants are in ruins now. These plants dating back to the early 1900’s manufactured polyurethane, chemicals, sheet metal, automobile glass. The river is full of barges shipping coal and the narrow US Route 60 has coal trucks belting along. Not a road for the fainthearted. I closed my eyes plenty of times!
David enjoying the morning view along the final stretch of the Gauley River at Hawks Nest Lookout.
DuPont has a smart facility at Belle at the western end of this industrial area which produces a wide range of products and applications found in plastics manufacturing, home and personal care products, crop protection chemicals, automotive products and industrial manufacturing. AND it has the best safety record of all the DuPont plants! It wouldn’t have if I had worked there!