[UPDATED Ed’s Note: After filing this story on Tuesday afternoon, Alan Panebaker, a dear friend of the magazine and frequent contributor, drowned Wednesday while paddling New Hampshire’s Upper Pemigewasset River. New Hampshire Public Radio News reported the story HERE. Panebaker made a huge impact on close-knit padding communities from Colorado and Montana to New England, where he served as American Whitewater’s Northeast Stewardship Director. He was a passionate advocate for under-appreciated river stretches from near his home in Montpelier, Vt., on the Green, to far from it on the Susitna. A year ago, Panebaker wrote a blog entry HERE, and quoted below, titled ‘Keeping On’ about the loss of Boyce Greer, an apt mentor for another budding Northeast paddling and river stewardship icon.]
“Paddling difficult whitewater is about being alive. It is the most pure and true experience that I have ever known, and it has brought me more joy, pain, and satisfaction than anything else. So while it may be a little fringe to be out there running the hardest whitewater you think you are up to, it isn’t crazy. It’s life. And while we all need to be cognizant of the dangers and take care of each other on the river, we can’t live our lives in fear.” — Alan Panebaker, ‘Keeping On‘
By ALAN PANEBAKER
It may well be the largest whitewater gathering in the world. Filled with powerful rapids, late-night parties and more than a few walks of shame on Sunday morning, Gauley Fest is all it’s cracked up to be.
Learning to paddle in the Southeast, the river gets built up as a steppingstone for any aspiring boater. While the rapids on West Virginia’s Gauley River are nothing short of classic, the real show is the festival: part county fair, part bacchanalia.
It is sort of a rendezvous for paddlers of varying abilities and crafts. As athletes continue to push the sport and find harder and more remote rivers to paddle, the Gauley River, with its rich history and paddling culture, it seems will always be a staple year after year.
According to a 1999 article by Ambrose Tuscano, the history of carnage on the Gauley dates back to the Civil War, when a confederate general tried to ferry a “flat-boat” across the river upstream of what modern boaters call Lost Paddle. Four soldiers died when the current swept their boat downstream.
A hundred years later, a new generation of adventurers explored the river in fiberglass boats. In 1968, John Sweet completed the first known descent of all the river’s rapids (hence Sweet’s Falls).
Unlike some rivers that lose their popularity with advances in technology and skills, the Gauley remains a solid run. The best part, as a Gauley virgin in 2012, I found, is that you can basically run the river in any type of boat and have a stellar time. No one is too good to paddle the Gauley, and if you say you’re bored out there, you obviously don’t have much imagination.
And while access to the river is pretty seamless these days, that wasn’t always the case. Old-timers tell stories about hiking across a sketchy railroad bridge some 50 feet above the river, and through a tunnel to access a put-in on the lower. Groups running the whole stretch of river would stash their boats after running the upper, scurry through the same grimy railroad tunnel to camp at Peter’s Creek, then come back to finish the run.
The interesting part about the Gauley is not so much the high-quality big water rapids, but the rich history of paddling in the area. Gauley season, in the fall, is a sort of accidental result of attempts by the Army Corps of Engineers to rein in the natural environment. In the 1960s the Army Corps built the Summersville Dam at what is now the put-in for the Upper Gauley. The flood-control dam created a reservoir upstream, and a fall drawdown to make room for water from spring floods yielded releases. In the 1980s, paddlers started working with the Army Corps to provide formal scheduled releases.
With reliable whitewater and other nearby dam-release runs like the Upper Youghiogheny and Green, the Gauley has become a must-go destination for East Coast paddlers (and boaters from all over for the matter). Gauley Fest is also the largest annual fundraiser for American Whitewater, the non-profit organization that works to conserve and restore whitewater resources across the country.
The Gauley is an icon for why keeping rivers healthy matters. The forested hills and giant boulders in the ancient riverbed create a serene landscape in the middle of a state struggling to boost its economy by exploiting its natural resources through things like mountain-top removal coal mining.
About 10 miles from Charleston, W.V., we drove by the DuPont Belle chemical plant—an industrial behemoth that seems to span for a mile. The plant and its neighbor, create a stark contrast with the scenic whitewater of the Gauley River just over an hour away. But that’s West Virginia: a sort of juxtaposition between natural beauty and corporate giants trying to tackle the natural environment for profits.
Driving back from the Gauley to fly back to Vermont, I thought about the sort of odd situation in West Virginia. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the country, but also one of the saddest, with poverty and environmental degradation in plain sight. I thought maybe it’s kind of ironic that the push to save rivers happens in one of the toughest places to do that. I guess if there’s one thing to take away from Gauley Fest, besides a hangover and a stomach ache from porky cheese fries and funnel cakes, it’s that we shouldn’t take the Gauley, or any river for that matter, for granted.