Exhausting crazy fun reunion. That is the best description of Gauley Fest that I can come up with.
It all starts with Friday’s biblical proportion locust style swarm of kayak-laden subarus, trucks, vans and homemade jalopies encroaching on the small town of Summersville, West Virginia. Then comes the fun. As old friends, kayaking buddies, acquaintances and strangely familiar faces begin to mingle, the cool West Virginia night air gets heavy with laughter, excitement, music and dancing. It brings about the carefree energy of a time long lost by a majority of us.
As morning light and the characteristic West Virginia fog and dew envelop the sleeping hordes, Summersville Dam operators push the magic button and the beautiful Gauley river comes to life. For six consecutive weekends every fall, veteran river rats, first time rafters and bleary-eyed party-goers wake up early and descend upon this nearly lost gem. It is the celebration of a capsized hydroelectric project that nearly flooded this amazing section of river 25 years ago. And it doesn’t seem to be losing any support.
No matter how little sleep, how many highway miles or how many beers participants experienced the night before, everyone is up and at it. In a “river time” oriented crowd, it is amazing to watch as paddlers of all realms get up at dawn with uncoordinated pre-coffee furry in their step.
The put-in becomes awash with naturally bright kayaking and rafting colors. Typical logistical chaos ensues and eventually, the parking lot is full but empty. Hundreds of beastly racked vehicles, but not a person in sight. Just the faint whoops of joy coming from downstream.
On the river it is nothing but smiles and laughter. The before mentioned carefree energy of our childhoods seems to come rolling back and for a few hours, time stands still once again. A plethora of play holes, waves and infamous rapids like Insignificant, Iron Curtain, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweets keeps the body busy and the smiles steady.
After a few takeout beers and even a nap, the festival really begins. Sunset brings live music, carnie food, vendors and great deals on everything whitewater. It is one of the few places where you can casually talk shop with the designers of your kayak then mosey on over to watch the latest LVM (Lunch Video Magazine) with John Grace himself.
Like the night before, the party goes on into the morning hours, but it is still not enough to keep everyone from their early morning date with the river. Once again, the put-in is packed and onlookers hike into Pillow Rock and Sweets with their lunches and beverages. The previous day appears to be on re-run and nobody seems to mind.
Tired and in need of a real bed, most participants head home, but to the most ambitious, Monday brings the Animal Upper Gauley Race, a nine mile downriver race through the “Big Five.” Finishing at Sweets rapid, boaters congratulate each other and hang out by the river one last time. Until next weekend’s scheduled releases anyways.
After all of that, I am exhausted and a little glad that there are no more scheduled releases until next weekend. This year’s Gauley Fest truly held up to its reputation as the world’s largest, and possibly best, river festival.
2008 Animal Upper Gauley Race Overall Results:
- Mark Hamilton K1 Slalom 0:53:27
- Eric Orenstein Wavehopper 0:53:36
- Bryan Kirk K1 Slalom 0:54:12
- Jesse Shimrock Wavehopper 0:54:22
- Geoff Calhoun K1 Slalom 0:54:32