Appearing as a deep gash in the ancient Appalachian Plateau, the New River Gorge carries a legendary stretch of whitewater known around the globe. But not many know that just downstream from its famous bridge and the still waters of Hawk’s Nest Lake lies a section of technical rapids that snake around house-sized boulders, a secluded place where the towering Nuttall Sandstone cliffs meet the frothing river’s lapping edge.
Meet the New River Dries: a rarely paddled five-mile stretch that is now open to private and commercial paddling trips that go out on scheduled dam release days. From tunnel disasters and industrial draining of the New to riverbed rock climbing and local movements to restore the river’s natural flow, few stretches of whitewater in West Virginia are mired in as much controversy as the Dries.
The Dries get its name from a hydropower project that dammed and diverted water from the New River through a tunnel, effectively bypassing 5.5 miles of the original riverbed and leaving it mostly dry throughout the year.
The history of the Dries goes back to the 1930s when the Union Carbide company needed to power a new manufacturing facility on the banks of the Kanawha River at the town of Alloy. Hawk’s Nest, just upstream from Alloy on the New River, was chosen as the dam site. Workers dug a 30-foot-wide tunnel under Chimney Corner and US Route 60—over three miles through the mountain—to send the New River’s water to the turbines of a powerhouse near Gauley Bridge. Active transmission lines still run electricity generated by the plant another five miles down to the mills in Alloy.
The rock through which the tunnel was bored contained high levels of silica and became an occupational disaster. Drilling and blasting in the confined underground space stirred up deadly dust, the fine silica particles wreaking havoc on workers’ lungs. The resulting disease ‘silicosis’ is closely related to the infamous coal mining scourge of black lung.
The death toll from silicosis at Hawk’s Nest has never been fully realized. Of the nearly 3,000 tunnel diggers, Union Carbide admitted 109 deaths. A Congressional hearing uncovered 476 deaths, and historical review by epidemiologists suggest at least 764 people died from silicosis. Much of the work—and death—at Hawk’s Nest was shouldered by African Americans. Segregated, unmarked, mass graves for poor workers were common. The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel remains among the worst industrial disasters in the United States and is memorialized just off Route 19 on Whippoorwill Road south of Summersville.
Hawk’s Nest Dam, its tunnel, and the Alloy manufacturing plant are still in operation today. As a licensed hydropower project, it is subject to permitting by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The Hawk’s Nest permit was renewed in 2017 and will dictate the next several decades of operation.
Environmentalists, paddling enthusiasts, and commercial rafting companies were unhappy with the status quo at Hawk’s Nest Dam. The Dries are subject to hydrologic schizophrenia, facing irregular and unpredictable flows. Most of the time the water level is at a paltry 100 cubic feet per second (CFS), the minimum ecological release required from the dam. But during high-flow events the Dries becomes a raging torrent, reaching up to 100,000 CFS, filled with the surplus water that the tunnel can’t take. Advocates for a new flow regime for the New River launched the Wet the Dries campaign to promote scheduled releases more suitable for recreation and the aquatic habitat.
However, releasing more water through the Dries means less water in the tunnel and less electricity available for the Alloy facility. Worried about losing manufacturing jobs, politicians wrote to FERC opposing any increase in recreation or ecological flows. During the relicensing process, Hawk’s Nest Dam became yet another chapter in the false choice debate between the environment and industry.
Ultimately, compromise prevailed for the Dries. FERC agreed to let more water through the dam to “wet the dries,” but it wasn’t quite at the volume or frequency desired by advocates. Improvements to recreational access, including better trails and put-ins, were also stipulated in the relicensing. It’ll be a year or so before those projects are finished, but the recreational whitewater releases started in March of 2018. There are nine days (two in March and seven throughout summer) scheduled for 2020 with target flows between 2,200 and 2,500 CFS.
Go with the Flow
In June of 2019, I met up with a local paddling crew to experience the New River Dries during a scheduled release. We drove past several buses and trailers stacked with rafts, proof that the whitewater companies are trying to make hay while the sun shines. These commercial trips, however, must have put on just in front or behind us because it felt like we had the whole river to ourselves.
We could have started at the Cotton Hill bridge, slated to get more parking and toilets, but chose to carry our boats an extra mile on the gated road leading upstream to Hawk’s Nest Dam. We scrambled through large boulders—popular with the local climbing scene—near the base of the dam to maximize a longer run. The extra paddling came at a cost: the biggest rapid of the day was now first. Without the chance to warm up, I snuck around; stronger paddlers in the group ran it without error.
The whitewater through the Dries at the recreational release was solid class III. The run wasn’t as pushy as the high-volume rapids of the Lower New or Lower Gauley, but it was very technical and the rapids were consistent. The Dries is full of huge boulders and rock gardens—one must be steadily alert for pour-overs. Many rapids force a paddler to choose between multiple slot moves between the big boulders. Some slots were blind drops, whereas others dumped into dangerous sieves clogged with debris. Scouting here is essential for a safe run. Fortunately, the crew I was with knew the Dries well, they had paddled here since the first release.
When the river finally allotted me enough time to look around, the scenery was absolutely stunning. It seemed as if the towering sandstone cliffs perched nearly 1,000 feet above the New River Gorge were brought right down to the water’s edge. With Route 60 high above, out of sight and out of mind, the Dries felt remote and isolated with only a passing coal train to break the solitude. The beautiful scenery and the novelty of paddling one of the first new releases made the whole thing feel like a grand adventure. The fact that it’s only an hour outside of my hometown Charleston was icing on the cake.
When the tunnel is full and Hawk’s Nest Dam is releasing excess water, the New River Dries is nationally known among top paddlers for its huge, standing waves that are perfect for river surfing and playboating. But at the smaller recreational flows, my group didn’t many good waves. They also cautioned me about a number of dangerous undercuts that come into play at the level during a scheduled release. A few of the more experienced paddlers thought that another 1,000 CFS or so would be perfect for kayaking, but such an agreement will probably have to wait at least forty years until the next relicensing.
In addition to the scheduled recreational releases, the minimum environmental flow was also raised from 100 CFS to 150-300 CFS. According to outfitters, this new baseline is friendly for duckies, suggesting trips through the Dries are still possible outside of release weekends.
About 5.5 miles from Hawk’s Nest Dam, you’ll pass the powerhouse on river-right, marking the point when the tunnel returns its water to the New River and the end of the Dries. Expect about another mile of flatwater to the takeout above Kanawha Falls in Gauley Bridge.
Until the recreational improvements are complete, parking is limited at the Cotton Hill lot. Get there early and carpool with a friend or two. If you’re not lucky enough to go with experienced paddlers that know the Dries well, be sure to scout the rapids and choose your lines carefully. Alternatively, you can head to one of the many great local rafting companies and sign up for a commercial trip. Either way, the Dries are worthy of a spot on your West Virginia bucket list.
Matt Kearns is a Coast Guard veteran and native West Virginian. He traveled through all 50 states and realized West Virginia was best, so he came back home.