If you know anything about anything in the whitewater world, you’ve heard of West Virginia’s Gauley River. And if you’ve heard of the Gauley, you’ve most certainly heard a lot about the Upper Gauley. The so-called Beast of the East earned its whitewater reputation for good reasons, five of them being the legendary class V rapids with household names like Insignificant and Lost Paddle. But just several river miles below the take-out at Mason’s Branch, a lesser-known, but just-as-beloved section of the Gauley beckons paddlers willing to trade a little gnarliness for a lot of solitude.
Traversing 17 river miles and featuring a handful of choice class IV rapids, the Lower Gauley paddles and feels like the logical conclusion to the world-class adventure that is the Gauley River. Although this stretch is often overshadowed by its bigger, badder sister, the ‘Lower G’ is a stand-out destination run, worthy of a trip on its own. Whether you want to push your limits kayaking a new section of water, or you want to go paddling with one of your girlfriends and take in the fall colors, or you want to test the latest river surfboard, the Lower Gauley has much to offer.
I was blessed to grow up canoeing with my family in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains. My home creeks were small enough that we could take a canoe and run pretty much anything if there was enough water. Every year, we got in as many trips as we could on classics like the Buffalo, Mulberry, and Big Piney. We took family road trips to canoe the headwaters of the Missouri and the interconnected lakes of Isle Royale, including one harrowing experience crossing Lake Siskiwit with a strong head wind and breaking waves. While each of those rivers and lakes posed formidable whitewater challenges for a kid in a canoe, those trips were ultimately about fun, connecting with family and friends, and immersion in the environment.
One thing I remember most wasn’t the whitewater, but looking around at painted bluffs and beautiful leafscapes, spotting wildlife, and playing in the water. It was having the trust and independence to be in charge of my own craft while playing outside with people I love. The whitewater was just the icing; the cake was simply being on the water.
I think about those experiences when I compare the Upper Gauley (which I haven’t run for several years now) and the Lower Gauley (which has become my WV staple). While we didn’t have access to the commercial whitewater industry and big-volume boating in self-bailing, seemingly indestructible inflatable rafts when I was a kid, we did have access to some of the most scenic rivers in the continental United States. That early access to canoeing classic whitewater creeks influenced my appreciation of the Lower G, which is a bigger, badder version of what I ran with my family in my childhood. The scenery is beyond scenic; it’s surreal. Take Canyon Doors: from the moment those streaked, towering cliffs come into view through the rapids, it feels like you are starring in your own whitewater movie.
The Upper G definitely wins on adrenaline factor; during normal Gauley Season releases, the dam release starts early in the morning. You can sprint through your trip, take out at Mason’s Branch, and be home for lunch. You can spend the rest of your day enjoying a big boost of happy river hormones knowing you’ve survived a class V river run.
And yet, there is something to be said for slowing down and taking one’s time. The water gets to the Lower Gauley later in the day, giving you a chance for a leisurely morning and plenty of time to set shuttle. The Lower G features some longish pools and a flat-water paddle to the take-out, a great opportunity to wind down after the rapids.
With twenty named rapids, including Koontz Flume, Heaven Help You, and Pure Screaming Hell, there is no shortage of adventurous adrenaline to be had. It’s also a great section of whitewater for surfing at Diagonal Ledges or having a picnic lunch on the rocks.
On top of some spectacular paddling, I appreciate taking the day to slow down and savor the entire trip. Floating gives me an opportunity to look around, just like when I was canoeing the Buffalo with my family as a kid. And in light of COVID, I gained a deep gratitude for slowing down while doing something that makes me feel really good. Sometimes there is something to be found inside ourselves during the flat water when we drop into a steady pace and rhythm.
Appalachia is full of scenic rivers—full of beautiful places to check out fall colors, fish, hunt, hike, bike, paddle, and even surf. Although the Upper Gauley will not disappoint your inner thrill seeker, the Lower Gauley is not too shabby. With the exposed cliffs and long pools between rapids, it is a little more pleasant, a little easier to appreciate the scenery and stretch out, and a little nicer to share the river with everyone. With the later start on regular release days, it has a quieter, more relaxing pace and everyone on the water is a bit more staggered. And with several big, beefy rapids, you still get your whitewater fix.
While you won’t have that Coliseum feel that you get dropping over Sweet’s Falls on a busy Gauley day surrounded by video kayakers hoping you’ll make their next carnage highlight reel, you might find some other features that are worth celebrating.
Sometimes slowing down and taking in the scenery is just as rewarding as speeding up and chasing adrenaline or being the show. Sometimes, it’s not about the adrenaline at all, it’s about the entire experience from start to finish, top to bottom.
Mariah Lee Hibarger is a teacher, traveler, and professional guide who splits her time between Fayetteville, the Grand Canyon, and Latin America.