I heard the names of the infamous rapids of the Gauley River long before I ever dipped a paddle into the churning currents below the Summersville Dam. Before I had ever been to West Virginia, before I knew any Gauley River guides, before I had ever heard of the companies that operated on the waters, the notorious rapids had woven their way more than 2,000 miles and into the California raft guiding community where I lived and worked—and I wanted to see them for myself.The closer I got to my first Gauley season, the louder the rapid’s stories became, until gathered at the base of the dam, on our first day of training in the early morning mist, talk of “The Big Five” was all the that could be heard.
I was about to plunge into the canyon and begin to learn how to navigate the series of rapids that had become household names across the international whitewater community. But, in many cases, the legends of how those notorious names came to be has been lost through the mighty game of telephone to which all river tales are so prone. So, as a young Gauley River guide, constantly subjected to my guests’ queries about how the rapids got their names, I wanted to find out the true stories—or as close as any raft guide renditions could come.
Through a series of interviews with Gauley River pioneers, I eventually tracked down Jim Stuart, a whitewater kayaker who lead a 1969 descent that he refers to as the “rapid naming trip.” The first hard-shell boater expedition down the Gauley had been led by John Sweet, an elite C1 slalom racer, and Stuart was among the five paddlers who joined him. A 20-year-old ecology student at the time, Stuart recognized the need to document and preserve the Gauley River and returned the following year with the mission to name the major rapids and collect data to create a guide book. Almost 50 years later, from his home in Texas, he shared what he remembers of those first two trips.
“In the late 1960s, the Gauley River was unknown and thus at risk of exploitation,” Stuart said.
“My strategy was simply to publicize it. I wasn’t concerned about the perpetuity for the names of individual rapids, just the protection of the entire Gauley River ecosystem. When people run a river, they become its advocate.”
In 1968, Stuart was with Sweet and a group of other boaters on the New River when they spontaneously decided to run the Gauley. They put on at the base of the dam which was releasing 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) and paddled the full 24 miles of unknown whitewater. The group was comprised of elite paddlers and only stopped to scout three rapids, according to Stuart. Throughout the run, he and Sweet competed to take the lead on the major drops and claim the first descents, he recalled. Stuart returned the following year with the goal of naming the rapids and drawing others to paddle and protect the river. “I took along a wax pencil and a plastic sheet to write on,” Stuart said. “But in the end, I just wrote the names right onto the deck of the boat.”
When the group of whitewater pioneers put in for their first trip down the Gauley, the Summersville Dam, which did not have scheduled releases at the time, was releasing 1,200 cfs of water. At these levels, the long and technical rapid was relatively easy to run compared to what was to come, making it fall to the back of the paddlers’ minds after the run had been completed. On the following trip the water was 2,200 cfs, and Stuart recalls that when the crew he lead was in the pool above the rapid a paddler asked him what they were approaching.
Only worried about Pillow Rock, Stuart replied, “I don’t know, something insignificant.” When the rapid wreaked havoc on the boaters, one of them hollered to Stuart, “Insignificant, huh?”
He wrote the name of what is now considered the first class V rapid on the Upper Gauley on the deck of his boat.
Naming the second class V on the Gauley was effortless, though many people now misinterpret which rock in the rapid the name is referring to.
“The name was mainly due to the pillowing off the Room-of-Doom house rock,” Stuart said. “The downriver pillow rock was just a bonus.”
During the trip dedicated to naming the Gauley’s rapids, crew member Barb Brown’s paddle was launched from her grip in the class V rapid just below the confluence with the Meadow River, Stuart recalled. Brown swam in the chaotic rapid and her paddle was lost. The team searched for an hour, knowing that not being able to find the paddle would mean an end to the trip. They eventually decided to hike out at the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield trail; most of the group returned the next day to complete the stretch. Years later, Brown’s paddle was found with her name engraved on it. It was returned to her, but by then, the name Lost Paddle had been imprinted in the legend of the Gauley.
A large iron ring embedded in the rock above the third class V made picking this name easy, as it was already a logical way to refer to the rapid, Stuart said.
The ring had been left behind by logging operators, who are also credited for creating the rapid as it is today. Needing to maneuver logs downstream and out of the canyon, the rapid was blasted by dynamite and the ring was installed in the rock. The ring marked the rapid for decades until it was sawed off at the base and disappeared.
Named by Stuart on the 1969 trip, Sweet’s Falls was a tribute to John Sweet’s first descent of the falls. During the descent at 1,200 cfs, the rapid was a steep, vertical drop, and after a deliberate scout the rest of the crew decided to run a sneak line around the drop, according to Stuart. Sweet had no trouble in the drop but dubbed it a class VI. It was years before the falls were regularly run.
A River Worth Saving
“For me, [naming the rapids] was a conservation opportunity, as the Gauley River had the potential to convince large numbers of people that wilderness in general was worth preserving,” Stuart said. “Rapid names help other people learn the river, and so scale up the numbers of people visiting it.”
Ultimately, Stuart’s plan to publicize and protect the Gauley worked. As word got out about the river, boaters began to make their way to the then remote region to run what was one of the most challenging whitewater stretches of the era.
A proposed dam that would have flooded the whitewater was thwarted, the river was protected as a National Recreation Area, and the whitewater caught the attention of hard-shell boaters and rafters.
As rafting outfitters began to take commercial trips down the Gauley, additional rapid names were added to the list as guides needed a frame of reference, said Paul Breuer, co-founder of Mountain River Tours, which was the second company to operate on the Gauley River. “It evolved,” Breuer said. “Some rapids weren’t named for years.”
Developing names wasn’t only important for explaining and running the rapids safely, it also generated conversation about the river, Breuer said. “The big ones stick out in people’s minds, not only because of the difficulty of the rapids, but also because of the names,” he said. “A lot of the credit goes to the guides who talked to the people and explained what was going on and really enhanced the names and increased the mystique of the names.”
As the years progressed and rafting the Gauley went from a niche band of hardcore adventurers who were willing to experiment with reconditioned military rafts or their own handmade creations to a commercial industry, the role of the rapids also transitioned, explained Roger Wilson, who first ran the Gauley in ‘75 and currently manages a rafting operation there.
As commercial rafting grew in popularity, the rapids and their features were no longer just named for the purpose of explaining how to navigate them to fellow boaters, their infamy became a marketing technique that drew in customers who wanted to test their bravery and push their boundaries on the momentous rapids.
“The business started very small, and the popularity of whitewater rafting just went from nothing and boomed within a five year period,” Wilson said. “All the sudden, people started coming and the word got out about these rapids.”
The river is now well-known as one of the top five single-day rafting trips in the world. As the years passed and boating became more and more popular on the Gauley, smaller rapids began to fill the gaps. And while the combination of the beauty of the canyon and the dense concentration of fun and technical rapids makes for a full package that keeps people coming back for more year after year, it remains the famous Big Five that draw in guests and guides — like myself — from all across the nation to see the mythical Beast of the East for themselves.
Juniper Rose is an editor-at-large for Highland Outdoors, and a whitewater raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers.