Raft guides are a hard group to pin down. Transient souls, they spend most of their day out of cell service, and most of their year living off the grid in tents. But when the second weekend of September comes around, there is one place they are sure to be found: the base of Summersville Dam.
It’s Gauley Season, and whitewater junkies who work seasonal guiding jobs across the country travel east like a flock of migratory birds for six weeks of recreational whitewater releases and the biggest paddler reunion in the world.
“It is really the place to be in the fall,” said Glenn Goodrich, a river guide who has chased whitewater around the globe but always returns to West Virginia to spend September and October guiding for Adventures on the Gorge on the Gauley River. “It’s just a world-class river.”
When Goodrich calls a river world class, it’s not just a cliché. He’s guided on 65 different rivers throughout the world, and when it comes to whitewater, Goodrich said it’s not hard to designate the Gauley as his favorite. It was his first whitewater rafting trip, as well as the river on which he trained to become a guide. A true veteran of the river, 2017 marks his 40th Gauley Season.
“My career started on the New and Gauley Rivers,” Goodrich said, who is often referred to as the Gauley Llama. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that this is what I love and I’m going to do it as long as I can.”
Gauley Season is a six-week window of recreational release levels beginning te weekend after Labor Day and stretching until the third weekend of October, with the first five release weekends spanning Friday through Monday and the final weekend cutting back to only Saturday and Sunday. The arrival of Gauley Season after operations have drawn to a close on most recreational rivers around the country makes it possible for guides to work on other rivers throughout the summer but still return to the Gauley each fall, and that is exactly what Goodrich and many other guides from across the nation and world choose to do year after year.
“It’s just such a great river, and it is a good river to have on anyone’s resume,” Goodrich said. For Goodrich, the Gauley was a launching pad that took him to rivers across the globe. It remains a river on which he continues to push himself. “I like to guide different rivers every year, but I don’t seek out guiding on new class V,” he said. In his mid-sixties, Goodrich continues to guide the class V Gauley because he knows it so well and has a deep respect for the river. “The Gauley is the perfect fix for me.”
Although Goodrich now spends most of the year in different parts of the country and around the world, Gauley Season remains his annual pilgrimage to West Virginia and chance to reunite with fellow raft guides who return to the river each fall.
For guides who spend the summer season guiding on the Gauley’s neighboring New River, fall brings just as much excitement. “Gauley Season is like raft guide Christmas,” said Tony Morris, a guide at New and Gauley River Adventures who fell in love with the raft guiding culture when he first visited Fayetteville and rafted the Gauley River eight years ago. “We all just work the New in anticipation for the Gauley.”
As Gauley Season begins with the change of seasons, the atmosphere of the region transitions. The arrival of new out-of-town guides and fresh whitewater that hasn’t been seen by many for almost a year floods the mountains with excitement. “The whole town just turns into a big party for like six weeks,” Morris said. “It’s like adult summer camp.”
Despite the festive vibe around town and even on the river, things get serious when it comes to guiding the Upper Gauley.
“While we’re having fun, we’re also constantly worrying about keeping eight people alive all day during class V whitewater,” Morris said. “If it was safe and easy then it wouldn’t be so special.”
An adrenaline junky who was a skydiver before becoming a raft guide, Morris said doing a backflip out of an airplane pales in comparison to the nerves he gets when preparing to guide the Gauley. “Even the night before an Upper Gauley trip, I’m nervous,” he said. “But it is the manageable fear that we love — it is the adrenaline rush that lasts for four hours.” With a healthy respect for the river, that adrenaline never goes away no matter how many successful runs down.
After 40 years of rowing the Upper Gauley with rarely ever having anyone fall out of his raft, Goodrich still never gets complacent. “Every day on the Upper Gauley, as comfortable as I feel, when I am below Sweet’s Falls, it’s a sigh of relief,” Goodrich said. “I will always have a huge respect for that river.”
But for Gauley guides, it’s not just about the whitewater, it is also about the overall experience. Goodrich’s favorite trip is doing a two-day adventure including the Upper and Lower Gauley and camping in the canyon. If he can’t work an overnight trip, he embraces rafting the whole 26-mile river from the Summersville Dam until the rapids run into flat water—all in one day. Rather than having guests only get the chance to raft the Upper or the Lower, Goodrich said the combination makes a well-rounded experiences for both the guests and guides alike. Despite being overshadowed by the Upper Gauley, the Lower Gauley stands alone as a stellar whitewater run surrounded by stunning scenery.
This Gauley Season, Goodrich is expected to clock his thousandth run down the Gauley, but said it never gets old. “I never get bored with whitewater, period,” he said. “I love what I do.”
It is not just the challenge of guiding that keeps people coming back for more—the Gauley also draws guests from across the globe. James Lambden flies oversees from London each year to raft the Gauley with Goodrich; the duo completed two back-to-back overnight trips on the river.
Lambden met the legendary raft guide on a Grand Canyon trip and came to the Gauley upoon his recommendation. Now, Lambden said he always requests Goodrich for his experience and calm demeanor on the river. “He is so focused on the water even after almost 1,000 runs on the Gauley,” Lambden said. “He is never complacent going into a rapid, and this approach instills confidence in any paddler crew lucky enough to have him as their guide.”
The Gauley doesn’t just draw people from overseas—it inspires locals to venture into whitewater rafting. Connie Lesler was raised on the banks of the Gauley River below the whitewater section, and grew up playing in the river in row boats her dad built. Lesler moved to Ohio at age 18, but now nearing age 70, she is still drawn back to the river and brings friends and grandchildren with her. She plans to continue rafting the river as long as she can. “I like that feel when I get in the boat and I know I’m going to hit that first rapid; I just start thinking about being on the water and the thrill of being on the rapids,” she said. “I think maybe my legacy is going to be the ‘old lady of the river.’”
Despite the risks involved and a scary experience on the river, Connie embraces the adrenaline. “I only know that when you quit living, you’re dead already,” she said. “I just like things that make me feel alive and like I’m participating in life.”
For many Gauley River guests, the whitewater is only a component of what draws them to the river each year. “It’s not just about the river, it’s about the whole experience,” said Holly Hollar, who lives in Nashville and makes an annual pilgrimage to the Gauley with her husband Aaron. “The last few times we’ve gone, we’ve taken a bunch of friends with us and recruited enough for a boat of our own.”
It’s not just the friends you bring with you, but also the ones waiting at the Gauley. Hollar requests Tony Morris of New and Gauley River Adventures each year. “You don’t get a guide like Tony just anywhere,” Hollar said. “You would really have to work hard to get in his boat and not have a blast.” Hollar has paddled other world-class rivers, including the famous Futaleufu River in Chile, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.
“We’ve had better times on the Gauley than we have had any of those other places because of the crowd that is there; because of people like Tony and because of the rapids being so non-stop,” she said. “It really is an incredible place.” After their rafting trip, Hollar and her friends camp out and get to know other guests and guides at the campground.
“We just make it like a whole long weekend of fun,” she said. “There’s a lot of places that have incredible whitewater, and there’s a lot of places that have incredible people. And every now and then you, stumble upon that place that has the combination of the two.”
Juniper Rose is an editor-at-large for Highland Outdoors, and a whitewater raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers.