“WAKE UP.. it’s GAULEY season!” We’re brutally awoken by two reverberating shotgun blasts. The early-morning sun is dim through the tendrils of low fog that creep around the tent, condensing on the inside of the rain fly and drenching our sleeping bags and faces. We groggily try to remember where we are and why we might be getting shot at. Then we remember… It’s the first day of Gauley fest: A weekend when people from across the globe gather in West Virginia for a four-day river extravaganza. Each morning we cram a matrix of people and gear into the back of the car and drive to Biscuit World, a kayaker’s cornucopia, on the way to the river. We drive across the dam while scarfing down biscuits, admiring the placid lake on our right contrasting with the sheer embankment to the left, dropping 400 feet straight to the source of the frothing Gauley rapids.
The dam releases in the fall on certain days from 6 am until noonish; today, thousands of people will ride this bubble of water before the surge is cut off and they’re left stranded like whales at low tide. We crunch along into the gravel parking lot of put in, wading through a sea of humans, gear, and crafts to find a parking spot. There’s a tumult of activity as we all spill out of the car, pumping up rafts and shotgunning beers… and chasing enormous spiders out of our kayaks. A mass of people waits to get on the water, but once on the water the chaos doesn’t stop: we proceed down the rapids in a single file line of boats that stretches for the next 10 miles. There are young and old alike, ranging from first timers to those with decades of experience, on a variety of floating crafts from open canoes to inner tubes. There’s an R2 pair decked out in hotdog attire (buns included) and another pair without helmets or life jackets, still dressed in their full wedding attire from the ceremony the night before. We’re following our new friend Todd down the lines through the rapids today, as none of us have run this river before and we really want to avoid pinning our boats or getting sucked beneath the many undercut rocks. We get to Pillow Rock, one of the big rapids, and following like ducklings behind “the Toddfather,” narrowly miss the top two holes, riding an impossibly narrow strip of green water right next to the rocks. Then we plunge down a seething waterslide, gaping at the size of “Inertia,” a sizable hole we evade before riding the pillow of water that slams into the rock, high higher higher… almost enough to touch hands with the boaters that have crowded on top to watch the carnage. After that we’re flying down, plunging almost vertically into the “Toilet Bowl” and planing out smoothly, pumping our fists in the air in exhilaration at having ridden successfully, right on the edge of control.
Then we’re surfing the warm waves, finding fun sneak lines and boofs, and generally tearing down the next few miles of river until we see a horizon line ahead. The smooth green water forms a soft edge, but beyond you can hear the invisible roar of the drop that the river pours over into. Anticipation swirls our stomachs as we slide over in quick succession to the cheers and the heckling of about 300 people crammed onto a tiny rock in the center of the river. This rock goes by “Postage Due”, because the stylish move after Sweet’s is to stamp your boat directly on it. The partygoers atop the rock scramble to pull you up the six foot vertical wall of rock so that you can join them. Sometimes they’re successful, but most of the time you end up upside down in the river again while they throw snacks of retribution at you. The rain pours out the gray skies now, but it seems to stoke the crowd to greater elation. We all ran this river together, strangers sharing this drizzly day on the water, and we loved it. The sense of community and support in the river world is immense, you know that any of of these hundreds of strangers would drop their beers in a second to help you if you were in trouble on the river. The Gauley Fest is a reminder that kayaking is not a competition, but a celebration of this incredible sport and community. As soon as we hop into the car we’re already planning the trip next year… and mooning any car driving by with kayaks on the roof.