On the third weekend of September paddlers from across the globe descend into Summersville for Gauley Fest, one of America’s largest whitewater celebrations.
It hasn’t always been this way—in 1981 a community of activists and paddlers fought a hydroelectric proposal that would have eliminated the treasured section of water for paddlers, said Mark Singleton, executive director of American Whitewater, the nonprofit organization dedicated to river conservation and access that puts on the festival. The initiative was a success, and a party was thrown to celebrate. The first party was attended by around 100 paddlers, according to Singleton. The annual event became known as Gauley Fest, and last year drew in about 3,500 people ranging from expert paddlers to first-time boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts.
“It is a fun gathering for the tribe,” Singleton said of the combination of expert athletes and party-going paddlers who come together for the festival.
“It’s a bit like crossing an Olympic Village with a Grateful Dead show.” – Mark Singleton, Executive Director of American Whitewater
For the Paddler
From the moment the dam is uncorked at 6 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 16, paddlers can be found picking their way down the technical playground of the Upper Gauley. Between downriver races and people just out to have a good time, Gauley Fest creates one of the busiest days of the year on the river.
“You could hopscotch on boats down the river and never touch the water there are so many boats out there,” said Aaron Mittel, whitewater guide and Gauley Fest attendee.
For the Gear Junkie
As the release wraps up at the end of each day, crowds migrate from the river to the vendor booths occupied by a wide range of outdoor retailers, including top gear providers in the paddling industry.
“It is the best place to find a deal on something,” Mittel said. “If you have one piece of paddling gear you need you can go there and find it 30- to 40-percent off. And save on shipping.”
For the Party Animal
Donning everything from spray skirts to dancing skirts, festival goers merge at the end of each day for DJ dance parties, live music, raffles, mud wrestling, and countless other shenanigans. With beers on tap throughout the event, and camping included in the entrance fee, staying at the fairgrounds is highly recommended.