Going down the bigwater. Paddling through the iconic Pillow Rock Rapid on Gauley. Photo: Nick Gottlieb

Going down the bigwater. Photo: Nick Gottlieb

By Eugene Buchanan

Want Woodstock on the water? Head to Gauley Fest, American Whitewater's biggest fundraiser, held every third weekend in September (this year: Sept. 17-19) on West Virginia's Gauley River.

Marking the world's largest whitewater festival, the debauchery-filled festival event is held mid-way through the six weekends of water releases on the Gauley, one of the classic whitewater runs in the country. Now entering its 31st year, all proceeds from the festival support AW's river conservation and access works (the event was started in 1983 to celebrate the derailment of a hydro-electric project that would have disrupted the flows on the Gauley).

"Gauley Fest is part Grateful Dead show and part Olympic Village," says AW executive director Mark Singleton. (Unofficial theme song: Casey Jones (you better watch your speed). Because local cops like to make Gauley season a fundraiser of their own.)

Singleton estimates that this year's event will see more than 3,000 participants and 60 exhibitors displaying their wares in the festival campground and marketplace at the Nicholas County Veterans Memorial Park just outside Summersville, W. Va. As usual, this year's event will feature live entertainment, a whitewater marketplace, raffle, and a silent auction. The festival also offers live entertainment throughout the weekend, this year featuring the Halftime String Band and Kalob Griffin Band. Attendees can also view product demonstrations, interact with manufacturer reps, and buy gear and bargain prices.

Entrance fees for this year's event are $25 for a weekend pass Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; $20 for a Friday and Saturday pass; and $15 for Saturday only.

Of course, the real reason to attend is to paddle the Gauley, one of the best whitewater runs in the country. While the river courses 105 miles through the Appalachian Mountains, merging with the New River to form the Kanawha River, it's the 20-mile stretch below the Summersville Dam that's the money run.

Releases starts the Friday after Labor Day when the Army Corps of Engineers begins a series of 22 controlled, 2,400–2,800-cfs water releases on six successive four-day weekends (Friday – Monday), specifically for paddlers.

The whitewater sections include the 9.8-mile, Class IV-V Upper and the Class III-IV Lower, which are connected with a 5.5-mile middle section. With a relatively new take-out for the Upper and put-in for the Lower at Woods Ferry, public access is easier than ever, eliminating the steep hike out.

Rapids in the Upper section include Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls. On the Lower they include Wood's Ferry, PJ's Hole, Julie's Juicer, Koontz’s Flume, Canyon Doors, Good ol' Rocky Top and Rollercoaster.

If You Go: The largest airport is at Charleston, W. Va., 65 miles from Summersville (there are small airports at Summersville and Beckley). If driving, the main entrance to Gauley River National Recreation Area is off U.S. Route 19 south of Summersville and north of Fayetteville, W. Va. (turn onto WV Route 129 toward Summersville Dam). Take the second left after you cross the dam and follow the signs. And seriously, watch your speed.

2013 Gauley Festival Schedule

Thursday, September 19, 2013

12:00 PM Festival Campground Opens
Friday, September 20, 2013

5:00 PM Festival Marketplace Opens
8:00 PM No more vehicle access to inner festival area (must walk from parking area)
12:00 PM Field Lights off / Quiet Hours Begin
Saturday, September 21, 2013

6:00 AM Gauley River Release
8:00 AM 4-H Breakfast at the Dining Hall opens
2:00 PM Festival Marketplace Opens
2:00 PM No more vehicle access to inner festival area (must walk from parking area)
5:00 PM AW Silent Auction Open
6:00 – 7:00 PM Halftime String Band
7:30 – 8:30 PM Halftime String Band
9:15 – 10:15 PM Kalob Griffin Band
10:00 PM AW Membership Drive Closes
10:00 PM Silent Auction Closes
10:30 PM Raffle Drawings
11:00 PM Kalob Griffin Band
12:00 PM Field Lights off / Quiet Hours Begin
Sunday September 22, 2013

6:00 AM Gauley River Release
8:00 AM 4-H Breakfast at Dining Hall opens
9:00 AM Festival Breakdown and Cleanup begins
7:00 PM Camping and vehicle parking on site ends
Info: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Wiki/aw:events_gauley?