They’ve been the first ones on the river as the fog rolled in and the last ones off as the water rose to flood stages. They’ve coached clients through the first catch of a fish, the first stroke of a paddle, and the first whitewater swim. They’ve been pulled under the surface of class V rapids, navigated through whiteout snowstorms, and recovered to tell jokes afterward. These are the professionals who make a living on the New River Gorge and Gauley River, and if they’ve taken you out on the river, they’ve taken you into their home.
The Video Kayaker
The fog is so thick in the canyon that the brightly-clad kayaker wouldn’t be able to be spotted from the opposite shore as he starts into the first class V rapid of the Upper Gauley—but that doesn’t matter, because there is no one around to see him anyway.
John Cornwell is a video kayaker, and it is his job to sprint ahead of his assigned rafting trip and film the rafts coming through the biggest rapids of the day. Completely alone, video kayakers paddle into some of the most hazardous places on the river to get into position for capturing the action. But Cornwell’s day on the job doesn’t begin (or end) on the river. Every day, he’s making a short film of the rafting guests’ experiences from the time they arrive until they’re safely back on dry land. This means giving an introduction speech on the bus, filming guests on their way to the river, and catching key moments throughout the day. Cornwell then rushes back to base to create a video of the guests’ adventurous day. The job is not simply kayaker or a videographer. One must meld kayaking skills, video production and on-camera personality to create a compelling video that guests will want to buy to take home and watch over and over.
For Cornwell, it all started with whitewater in 1989, and the video production side of things came later. Cornwell was a senior in high school when he got his first job as a raft guide on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. He continued guiding as he headed into college, and in 1991 he moved to West Virginia to work as a raft guide for ACE Adventure Resort.
As a young guide, Cornwell’s personality and paddling skills caught the attention of ACE’s video department manager at the time, Colleen Laffey. “After seeing me guide and seeing me kayak, she said, ‘John you need to be a video kayaker.’” Cornwell said. From then on, Cornwell migrated from working as a raft guide into becoming a fulltime video kayaker. Almost 30 years later, he has now worked on rivers all over the world, but he still calls the rivers of West Virginia home.
“This is the real deal—I’m not trying to glorify it, I’m just trying to capture it because when you capture that real emotion, that is what ties people to it,” Cornwell said. “When you are a young video boater you think it is about the action, but then you realize it’s about making the video about the people.” Cornwell, now 47, has spent 13 seasons working on the Futaleufu River in Chile, has worked in Costa Rica, and has paddled rivers all over the world. “I really enjoy the path that I have taken,” he said. “If I make it to a ripe old age, I want to still be paddling the Upper New.”
The Raft Guide
When Kerren Hall first arrived in West Virginia for raft guide training, it was in the midst of an ice storm. But as soon as she entered the New River Gorge, she knew she was home. “I felt like the mountains welcomed me and said, ‘Where have you been?’ and I knew that I would be staying in West Virginia for a while,” Hall said. “I had moved all the time, all over, my whole life, and had that feeling of ‘this is home, I finally found it.’”
That was 25 years ago, and Hall has been hooked by the raft guide lifestyle ever since. Born in Canada, Hall moved all over the U.S. as a child. After high school she moved to Colorado, where she met a boyfriend who led her to West Virginia, and, ultimately, to whitewater. Guide training was Hall’s first experience whitewater rafting, and the high water, flipped rafts, swim drills, and West Virginia’s erratic weather put her to the test.
By the time Hall finished training, she was the only one of 13 trainees to flip a raft—she had flipped two. “Your training is something that you never forget, you are so blown up with adrenaline and all your senses are alert,” she said. “The smell of the wetsuit room reminds you of fear… but you have to fake it and instill confidence in your guests or you are just never going to get anywhere.”
As Hall got comfortable on the water, not only did her skills blossom, so did her love of guiding. “It was such a match made in heaven for me,” she said. “I love the water, I really enjoy people, and raft guiding to me is such a great step to anything else you want to do in your life. It teaches you these life skills that are really valuable.” Once Hall started guiding, it spoiled her for working in any other industry. “Every day is different raft guiding,” she said. “Even though, at this point, I’ve probably been on that gorge 2,000 times, I always see something I’ve never seen before. You always have a different crew, the water level is different—that is the beauty of it. I thrive on change and being a team on each trip.”
For Hall it’s not just about the rapids, it’s about the beauty of the gorge, collaboration with other guides, taking people on overnight rafting trips, and sharing the history and stories. “It is your job to entertain people and make them happy and make them relaxed,” she said. “For me, every day I want people to say, ‘That was the best day of my life.’”
Hall’s passion for guiding kept her going even as she saw peers transitioning to other lifestyles. “I just never got tired of it,” she said. “I would see people getting burned out and I just didn’t. I just loved it and I would look forward to it every year.” In the off season, Hall works as a substitute teacher’s aide, melding her love of teaching, children, and the skills that she has acquired from guiding into a job that allows her to continue guiding seasonally. “All the years I have guided I have always loved the Upper New trips because it is so cool to take children who are really scared and nervous and then to see them get to the end of the day and be excited for the rapids,” Hall said.
From entertaining families on the Upper New to keeping her cool while guiding the class V Upper Gauley, Hall lives for the challenges and rewards of raft guiding. “I think I’ll probably raft guide until I’m 70,” she said.
The New River Gorge draws outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world. From spring into late fall, seasonal employees come to West Virginia to work on the famous water, crags, and trails of the region. But for Larry “Redneck” Nibert, working on these waters is not a passing phase, it’s his life. Raised in a rural coal camp community, Nibert grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping on the rivers and streams of West Virginia. “I always had an interest in the outdoors,” Nibert said. “When I was growing up there was no cell phones or Xboxes, it was just a lot of shotguns and tackle boxes.”
Nibert’s father and uncle taught him to fish on the New River and in 1991, Nibert got his first job as a whitewater raft guide and proceeded to put himself through college by guiding and working odd jobs.
“I started at the ground level as a guide and have pretty much done every single job there is to do at a company,” he said. “I learned a lot from the mistakes I made and the success I had, and I decided I wanted to be an outfitter and take people out on fishing tours.”
The transition from working as a guide to running his own outfitting service wasn’t a quick one. “I didn’t have a lot of money, so I’d make a few dollars and I would invest it in the company,” Nibert said. He started the West Virginia Experience in 2003 and he now employs several guides and offers full-day, half-day, and overnight fishing trips on nine different streams, and offers hunting trips as well. “Once I’m on the water, it’s not about the money, it’s about the peace and tranquility—it’s about being a teacher and a coach,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on these local waters and my guides spend a lot of time out there and we try to share those experiences and what we have learned with those who are coming here.”
It is common for Nibert’s guests to come back year after year, and many of them have done more than 100 trips with the company. “It’s all about taking someone who doesn’t do it a lot out on the water and working with them,” Nibert said. “Then the seeds that we’ve planted start to bloom, and when those seeds start to bloom and the number of fish that they start putting in the boat multiply and smiles get bigger and the laughter gets louder and louder—that’s why I do it.”
On a day when Nibert is taking out a fishing trip, he’s up before dawn and it’s usually 15 to 16 hours before his work day is done. “It’s not what you love, it’s sharing what you love with others,” he said. “The mountains and the hollers, and the valleys and the streams, and the backwoods of West Virginia are what I love… and I absolutely relish and enjoy the opportunity to share that with others.”
The New River Gorge has taken in many young vagabonds. It has taught work ethic and cultivated dreams, shown love and delivered pain. It has written chapters in the life story of many guides, and for some, it writes the whole book. John Cornwell, Kerren Hall, and Larry Nibert are just a few of the many people who have been hooked by the majestic rivers of West Virginia and have chosen to make a living on the water.
Juniper Rose is editor-at-large for Highland Outdoors and a raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers. She’s also one of the many folks who make their living on the water in Fayetteville.