The Wetter You Get, the Summer You'll Feel

The Hillbilly Autobahn

    Photo: Away.com

West Virginia's most wicked whitewater, speed limits be damned.
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.

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