SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — Skip Heater has been guiding raft trips in West Virginia for 30 years. He’s shot the rapids of the Gauley River more than a thousand times. He said it never gets old.
“All the big ones on the Upper Gauley, Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Lost Ring, you kind of count those down as you go,” he said recently on MetroNews Talkline. “As you get past one you’re always like, ‘Whoa, there’s one off the tech list.’”
Thursday will mark the first of 22 days known in the industry as Gauley Season. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in cooperation with the rafting industry slowly drains the water from Summersville Lake to create Class IV and V whitewater conditions consistently on the Gauley River.
“You’re going to have a controlled amount of water, whereas in other places it’s by nature, rainfall, and what’s going on,” Heater, with the group New and Gauley River Adventures, said. “With the Corps of Engineers working with us people know when they get there it’s not going to be too low or something that’s disappointing.”
Thousands of thrill seekers flock to West Virginia for the annual season. Heater described it as 22 nights of anticipation much like the night before a Mountaineer football game. He added West Virginia has become one of the destinations rafting enthusiasts worldwide have put on their list. For many, it’s a can’t miss opportunity.
“We’ll have guides coming in from Colorado, California, Utah, Costa Rica, New Zealand. It’s well known,” he said. “We’ll get people on the river with us that have been rafting on the Colorado River and one of the first things they’ll say is, ‘Our guide out there told us this is where they come in the fall, that’s why we’re here.’”
Through the summer months the New River draws most of the attention as thousands make West Virginia a summer vacation destination for whitewater rafting and other outdoor activities. However, Heater said the Gauley is at a whole different level from New River.
“The New River drops about an average of 14 feet a mile, whereas on the Gauley you’ll drop on average over 60 feet a mile,” Heater said. “On the Lower New River you’ll do about 24 major rapids, Class III to V in a 15-mile stretch. All 26 miles of the Gauley you’re going to do over 150 major rapids.”
The season runs Thursday through Sunday for the next five weekends.