Fluid Worlds: Kayaking The Gauley River

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Seeing 2,800 cubic feet per second of water roar through culverts below West Virginia's Summersville Dam into the Upper Gauley River will set your knees knocking. But if you can control your limbs long enough to climb into your kayak, you'll be rewarded with some of the nation's best nonstop whitewater. Long a badge of courage among elite Eastern paddlers, the Class III-V Gauley now draws boaters in droves. The reason: warm, pulsing whitewater, coursing through a sandstone riverbed at a rate of 27 feet per mile (compared to eight feet per mile on the Grand Canyon). Still not convinced? The Upper Gauley has so much whitewater packed into a nine-mile stretch that last September it hosted the World Rafting Championships, marking the first time the event has been held on U.S. waters.

Located near Snowshoe Resort, the Gauley has two main sections, the Upper and Lower, bridged by seven miles of easier Class III. A great warm-up for the Upper, the 11-mile Lower section dishes up such Class IV classics as Heaven's Gate, Riverwide Stopper and aptly named Pure Screaming Hell. After two final miles of flatwater to settle the nerves, take out at Swiss, upstream of where the Gauley joins the New River.

Fasten your helmet strap because you've graduated to the Upper, a nine-mile run rated Class IV at 1,000 cfs and Class V at 2,200 cfs and above. The action starts right away with Insignificant, which is anything but, followed by Pillow Rock, a house-sized boulder that causes the entire river to buckle back on itself (the way through is at far right). Though you won't have much time to admire it, the river passes a historical marker at mile five where the Meadow River joins in. It was here in 1861 that Union troops forced the Confederates to retreat. Your own battle is far from over, however, as you still have Class V Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweet's Falls to negotiate. If you're confident in your playboating, try to ride the entire wall below the falls left-to-right in a vertical tailstand. Just make sure to hit your roll before the takeout at Panther Creek—and save enough energy for the steep, mile-long hike out of the gorge. —Eugene Buchanan

DETAILS You'll be dodging rubber as well as rapids, as 21 outfitters run trips on the Gauley, often all at the same time. Some favorite guides include Class VI (800-879-7483, www.riversresort.com), Extreme Expeditions (800-463-9873, www.go-extreme.com) and North American River Runners (800-950-2585, www.narr.com).