The Hillbilly Autobahn

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Vacation Special, August 1997
 R A F T I N G   T H E   G A U L E Y  

The Hillbilly Autobahn

The best swimming in Mexico: Ocean?
By Stephanie Gregory

August 9
Venice Sharks Tooth and
Seafood Festival

Venice, Florida
Feast on the daily catch, then take in sharks' teeth and other fossils that have washed up at Venice, "the sharks' tooth capital of the world." 941-747-9795.
August 15-18
Sourdough Rendezvous Gold Rush Bathtub Race
Whitehorse, Yukon
Solo helmsmen steer eight-horsepower bathtubs 486 miles from Whitehorse to Dawson. 403-667-2148.
August 21-24
USRowing Masters
National Championships

Long Beach, California
1,000-meter race at the 1932 Olympics site, for ages 27 to 80 and beyond. 317-237-5651.
August 21-24
East Coast Surfing

Virginia Beach, Virginia
Competitors five and up surf the days away; amateur events include skimboarding. 800-861-7873.
August 23-24
Great American
Duck Race

Deming, New Mexico
Humans dress as ducks while the real things waddle down a track. 800-848-4955.
I'm supposed to be listening to my guide, Sib, who barks directions at us in fluent Appalachian. But I can barely hear him over the roar of the water, so I stare at the snarling froth thundering out of Summersville Dam and feel my leg stubble prickle against my rented wetsuit. The first raft to launch is a rowdy all-male squad from Buffalo. They grunt like apes as they try to muscle downriver, but their raft gets swirled around and sucked sideways while the guides on the shoreline whoop with uncivil glee.

Our group pushes off next, thwacking paddles and stroking furiously, only to have the Gauley's unforgiving current push us back to shore. We finally make it through the spin cycle, and Sib yeehaws while grabbing a smoke from his waterproof pack. Fortunately, I'm upwind.

It could drive anyone to tobacco, or worse, taking boatfuls of tourons into world-class West Virginia whitewater. The Gauley has more than a hundred Class IV and V rapids in a 28-mile stretch; even in late summer and beyond, when western rivers whimper down to a trickle, the Gauley rages. Back in 1988, Congress mandated that on 22 days between Labor Day and late October, Summersville Dam must release 2,800 cubic feet of water per second — 2,800 basketballs with each tick of the clock — just for rafters and kayakers. Not surprisingly, guides from around the world migrate here before they follow the sun to the Southern Hemisphere.

We approach Insignificant, the first Class V. Sib keeps his instructions light and funny, but since he's puffing like a furnace while trying to position the raft, I'm not sure I shouldn't be terrified. The white foaming jaws come into view just before they swallow us. Sib's yelling, "Paddle, paddle!" but all five of us have been thrown to one side, and we paddle only air. When I dig in for a real stroke the raft suddenly buckles, and I'm waterborne, sucked under like driftwood.

Before I can panic, though, the river's spit me out and I'm swimming jerkily toward the rocky shoreline, instead of toward the boat as instructed. But, serendipity: The boys from Buffalo are waiting in the eddy, and they yank me up by my life jacket. I lie sputtering in their boat until my own raft comes, then I grin a goofy thanks-for-saving-my-sorry-butt smile and hop back in. Cold, beat-up, and sure I've broken my foot, I couldn't be happier. I've been baptized by the mighty Gauley. Just 99 more rapids to go.

W A T E R I N G   P L A C E S
Cam Lewis, crew member aboard the Commodore Explorer, which in 1993 broke the 80-day barrier in the Jules Verne Trophy around-the-world sail.

"The north shore of Oahu is close to sailing nirvana. A few years ago I was racing two-man dinghies there, surfing down 10- to 15-foot cobalt-blue swells in a big breeze, hanging off the trapeze, catching rays in nothing but a pair of shorts, when a pod of 20 or 30 humpback whales began breaching all around us. It was simultaneously a moment of absolute terror — because they were coming within feet of turning our boat into matchsticks — and profound elation to be practically touching some of the largest mammals on earth."

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