By Joe Mayer
First is a highly coveted and much sought after title in action sports. First means that you are a groundbreaker, a pioneer, a visionary. Firsts are a lot of work, and in this day and age seem to require loads of money for travel to exotic locations with a team covered in the latest high tech gear. Even more rare though, is figuring out a new way of doing something commonplace. I know a man who has just that kind of vision.
Curtis Warner hatched a plan earlier this year that was bold and audacious. He decided to build a wooden drift boat and pilot it down the Class V Upper Gauley River in West Virginia, during Gauley Fest weekend. Curtis said books like Big Water Little Boats, The Emerald Mile and 10 Drift Boats and Dories had ispired the endeavor. I have to admit that after reading The Emerald Mile I too harbored visions of a home-built dory run down the Grand Canyon. When I mentioned this to Curtis, he shrugged it off and said, “I just want to do something that no one else has done.” So it turned out to be as simple as a Gauley drift boat first descent.
When I asked if the boat was self bailing, Curtis replied, “Yes, I designed a self-bailing drift boat. All dories are self-bailing, very few drift boats are. I built the floor up two more inches and filled it with foam. The floor is half an inch above the waterline with 500lbs in the boat.” I assumed the boat was built using marine grade plywood but Curtis corrected me, “She is built from regular plywood. I did not use the good stuff because l did not know it would turn out this well. Also if l sink it on the Gauley l will only be out less than half the cost.” Solid strategy I thought.
To determine whether anyone had run the Gauley in a similar craft before, I reached out to the legendary Jim Snyder. He responded quickly, saying that he was pretty sure Greg Green had run the Gauley in a dory. Jim provided me with an email and I moved on to question the man himself. Mr. Green emailed me a phone number, so I called him up. The conversation was brief. Greg Green told me that he had indeed rowed a fiberglass dory, built by New River Dories, down the Upper Gauley a few times. He said his runs took place some time in the 80’s. When I told him about Curtis’s plan to make the run in a hand-built wooden boat that would not be decked, which technically makes it a drift boat, he became slightly agitated.
“Tell your friend not to bother trying it in an un-decked boat. He will be a detriment to himself and to everyone else on the river. It’s unsafe,” he said. Having secured this vital bit of information, I knew that Curtis was technically looking at a first descent. Rowing a wooden boat down whitewater might be an average occurrence on large western rivers, but it is very rare in the East.
When the morning finally arrived, I cooked up a hearty breakfast for the troops while shuttle was being set. Our crew consisted of Catboat Keith, Curtis Warner, Craig Pavlich and John Marino in oar rigs, with Bookem Danno and Ted Varney both running solo on shredders. Hookah Bob, Jeff Shaw and myself rounded things out in kayaks. The morning was sunny and clear with a chance of beatering. The kayaks took the lead, mainly to stay plenty clear of the battleship that Curtis was piloting. The Upper Gauley doesn’t wait long to get going. Boogie water and some class III lead up to a great surf wave at Geek Rock. Curtis rounded the bend and cut his drift boat right into the eddy with ease and precision. “Sensitive and spinny, yet somewhat cumbersome to move around in the heavy current,” Curtis said.
It wasn’t long before we reached the first major rapid of the day. Insignificant (My Ass) as Bob called it, is the first helping of Class V water on the Gauley. I immediately got stuffed in the big hole and had to beater my way out before watching Curtis systematically de-fuse this rapid.
At Pillow Rock, Curtis and his drift boat rode the standard raft line on the right and headed straight for the meat. After blasting through the inertia hole, the master oarsman skirted the pillow on the right side before being turned around at Volkswagen Rock and running the last bit of the rapid backwards. We continued to pick our way down through the read-and-run Class III water. Curtis negotiated all of the whitewater hurdles easily, but it looked like he was getting a pretty good workout on those oars.
Lost Paddle is about halfway down the Upper Gauley. It is the longest rapid on the river, consisting of about 400 yards of big-water Class V moves capped off with class IV Tumblehome after a very short recovery pool. This is not the place you want to swim on the Gauley. Curtis powered through successfully despite being half filled with water. At this point his driftboat barely looked scratched or dinged up at all.
Iron Ring used to be considered Class VI, due to a riverbed filled with jagged rocks from blasting to clear a route for timber years ago. It has been downgraded to Class IV+ because most boaters regularly run it, but the extreme danger still exists. I thought that if Curtis was going to sink his drift boat anywhere, it would be in this rapid. In fact I saw a guy at the takeout who had flipped here and his face looked like someone took a cheese grater to it. The river gods were smiling on Curtis this day and he successfully made the move to the right side and rode those big haystacks to victory. With Iron Ring behind us, that left only one major rapid.
The kayakers raced on ahead to Sweets Falls and unfortunately missed out on the most exciting part of the day. They say it’s not the big rapids on the Gauley that trip up a paddler. It’s usually the smaller rapids where boaters let their guard down that cause the unsuspecting waterman trouble. True to form, the drift boat turned sideways in a random Class III rapid and pinned. I was already relaxing at Sweets when word trickled down the river that the drift boat was stuck. The guy who told me about it said that it looked like it might stay there until they turned the water off on Tuesday. “You don’t know Curtis,” I said. “That boat is definitely coming off the rocks.”
Sure enough, within 20 minutes or so Curtis came into view and the crowd cheered as he ran the final drop of the Upper Gauley. The drift boat was nearly pushed up against Postage Due Rock, but Curtis managed to dig in and swing his craft around the hazard.
He told us it took the strength of Craig, Danno, Ted, four kayakers, himself and some fancy rope work to free up the boat. “It was completely filled with water”, he said. We raised our drinks high to celebrate our friend in his triumphant moment and Danno dubbed the pin spot Curtis’s Cove. We later discovered the rapid is named Double Trouble. Curtis couldn’t stop smiling and answering all kinds of questions about his boat.
On the way to the takeout, he gave his drift boat a victory flip in the flat water. At the end of the day, the drift boat remained unnamed and in one piece. When asked if the boat would be making another descent, Curtis just replied, “Nah, I think I’ll just take it up to our fishin’ camp on the New.”