Photo by David McLain

Photo by David McLain

This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.

By Susan Hollingsworth Elliott

Fall paddling hasn’t been the same since 1968, when six paddlers ran the 26 miles of Class IV and V rapids below the newly constructed Summersville Dam on the Gauley River. John Sweet and his cohorts discovered a whitewater playground full of steep cliffs and house-sized boulders, serene pools and complex whitewater. In those days the Gauley represented the pinnacle of eastern whitewater, and the intermittent dam releases brought an air of celebration mixed with trepidation.

“We met in the shadow of the dam,” West Virginia paddling legend Charlie Walbridge wrote of one early trip in the 1973 AWA Journal. “An adrenaline-induced sense of humor prevailed.”

The Gauley was destined to become a West Virginia classic, not least because since 1984 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from the dam for six weekends each fall. Those scheduled releases gave life to Gauley Season, which now draws tens of thousands of whitewater boaters to West Virginia, not to mention busload after busload of rafters and the raucous tribe of river guides who follow in their wake.

We take it all for granted now, but in the early 1980s a hydroelectric project threatened the Upper Gauley’s best rapids, and releasing water for the enjoyment of a few unkempt river runners seemed like a radical notion. Changing that view would take paddlers years of hard lobbying. Naturally, they began the campaign with a party. Citizens for Gauley began the tradition with the West Virginia Whitewater Festival in September 1983. The following year, the task devolved to a fledgling group of paddler-conservationists known as the American Whitewater Association.

“It was bad, really bad,” says Peter Skinner, a director with American Whitewater at the time. “AWA was on its last legs and the hydro developers were poised to pounce on our favorite rapids.”

Rivers across the country faced similar threats, but paddlers rallied to defend the Gauley. The small cadre of boaters soon developed a reputation for partying and a talent for pissing off hydropower executives. They also demonstrated incredible commitment to preserving their playground. With letters, phone calls, legal interventions and more, the AWA pushed hard against hydro development and for scheduled whitewater releases from Summersville Dam.

The soul of that effort—not to mention its economic engine—was Gauleyfest. “The first Gauleyfest was epic, just plain epic,” former AWA director Peter Skinner says of the 1984 festival. As a massive thundercloud threatened the event, organizers meandered around the fairgrounds, unsure of how to organize the festival.

Good Gauley: The annual fall celebration moves seamlessly from raging river to riverside rager (even if some of the boaters don't). Photo by Michael Malloney

Good Gauley: The annual fall celebration moves seamlessly from raging river to riverside rager (even if some of the boaters don’t). Photo by Michael Malloney

Just when they most needed a dose of encouragement, the reigning Miss Florida sauntered up to Skinner, who was preparing the t-shirt sales. “I told her, ‘You’d look amazing in this one,’” he recalls, “and without the slightest hesitation, she grasped the sides of her top, pulling it up and over her head in one very smooth movement. Only a tiny overburdened pokadot bikini top on a perfectly tanned rib cage remained.” Skinner promptly convinced the beauty queen to wrap herself in a roll of raffle tickets. “She sold more raffle tickets than I ever dreamed was possible,” says Skinner.

Organizers were not so lucky with the scheduled entertainment. “I was pissed as hell that night at the bear guy,” says AW director Pope Barrow, who thought bear wresting would be a hit with river runners: Take on the most challenging rapids in the East, and then try your luck with a bear. Alas, it was not to be. “He never showed up and I later learned that an outfitter on the New had paid him a few bucks more to go to his event instead of ours,” says Barrow. “You just can’t trust bear wrestlers.”

Even without the bear, Gauley fans had begun to arrive in unexpectedly high numbers. Organizers couldn’t cook the chicken and corn fast enough, so they served the chicken half raw, and gave free beer to folks who helped shuck corn. Somehow, everyone got fed. The party was a fundraising success, Barrow says, and “AWA actually had enough of a budget to start causing trouble at FERC.” That would be the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that issues hydropower permits.

As Gauleyfest became an institution (this year’s festival, the 30th, is Sept. 19-20 in Summersville, W.Va.) American Whitewater continued to lobby for boater access and recreational dam releases. Today, dam operators and officials at FERC and other government agencies know the six of full-time AW Stewardship staff members well. Thanks to the persistence of Skinner and his generation of river conservationists, these relationships have blossomed immensely. In 2013, American Whitewater participated in management decisions that provided scheduled dam releases and paddler access on at least 24 rivers across the country.

And as tradition dictates, this new crew of whitewater stewards—a little less ragged, slightly better connected, equally passionate—travels to the hills of West Virginia the third weekend in September every year. Here, they string lights, park cars, sell t-shirts, quell rowdy crowds, and ultimately collect the money that will allow them to return to their work and fight for the conservation of our favorite rivers.

–Check out C&K’s coverage of last year’s Gauley Fest here.–