The first time Margaret Cadmus competed in a rafting race she hated it—for the first 15 minutes. But by the end of the hour-long race, she was hooked on the adrenaline and the new way of seeing the river. Most of all, she was hooked on the intense bond she had formed with the women that surrounded her on the raft.
It was that feeling that led Cadmus to co-found the Sweets of the East, which is the east coast’s only established women’s rafting team. It’s what motivated her to drive hours each week for long flatwater practice sessions, and to eventually travel across the country to compete in events that most people have never heard of, like the prestigious National Rafting Championships. Cadmus’s passion for raft racing is especially fueling her psych for this year’s edition of the annual event, which will be hosted on the New and Gauley rivers. From September 4 – 8, Cadmus will share her home rivers with paddlers from across the country, and share the sport she loves with her local community.
Raft racing is a niche sport that brings teams of paddlers together to compete in events such as the sprint, slalom, and downriver events, and is governed by the United States Rafting Association (USRA). While “fun” races, like The Animal River Race on the Upper Gauley, are occasionally held throughout the country, the competitive National Rafting Championships are typically held in western venues such as Colorado, Oregon, and California. But this year, the event will be making waves in West Virginia for the first time. Eastern paddlers—participants and spectators alike—couldn’t be more excited.
Jo-Beth Stamm, cofounder of Sweets of the East and vice president of the USRA, set out to expand this rotation. In the summer of 2017, she propositioned the USRA to host 2018 championships on the New and Gauley. This year’s race will determine which teams will represent the nation at the International Rafting Federation’s 2019 World Rafting Championships in Australia.
“It wasn’t necessarily important to me that it was here on the New and the Gauley—although I do want to get people here because I think this place is amazing and I want to share that—but I felt like it was important to expand where Nationals is held,” Stamm said. She hoped that bringing the competition east of the Mississippi would raise awareness and increase accessibility to the sport.
“I’ve had so many people along the East Coast tell me they didn’t even know this existed as a sport, and these are people who are paddlers and are on the rivers. If we are trying to make this a sport that represents river athletes all over the country, then it is important that Nationals is held all over the country.” Stamm hopes the event will inspire new teams to form within the eastern paddling community, increasing the number of teams competing in Nationals and potentially building up enough teams to have regional races throughout the year.
For USRA board member Julie Sutton, West Virginia stood out as a prime location not only for its whitewater but also because of the local support advocacy from the Sweets of the East. “Putting on a national event is not an easy task,” Sutton said. “We want to grow the sport throughout the country, but it’s hard to do when the majority of board members are from one state.”
Of the eight board members, four are based in Colorado. Board members serve on a volunteer basis and resources are limited, therefore Nationals, which runs off of sponsorships and fundraising, is often held in areas where board members are located. “That’s why so often you see events close to Colorado or attached to a festival,” Sutton said. “But, we still try to go out of our comfort zone when there is an interested group of people that want to take on the task. As soon as we find someone or multiple people that are willing to help a growing sport, we tend to gravitate toward them. That’s what’s so great about what’s going on in West Virginia.”
Stamm is one of only two board members based east of the Mississippi, so her initiative to host the event was essential to bringing Nationals in West Virginia. “One thing that will help our goals in the long run is to have more people on the board from more areas,” Sutton said. “We want more representation from different states on the USRA board to bring more ideas, creativity, and opportunity to our sport.”
Fayetteville not only had an inspired local team, but also the support of Mike Cassidy, a whitewater rafting enthusiast who Stamm brought on as the event director. Cassidy has been dedicated to making the event happen from early logistics such as permitting and insurance to handling registration and being the organizer during the race. “This event… has the opportunity to expand competitive rafting to the East Coast [and] bringing that kind of event to Fayetteville increases our exposure to the U.S. both as a tourist destination as well as a whitewater destination,” Cassidy said. “I love the area and I love the people and I love the sport of whitewater rafting, and this one event kind of brings that all together and it inspired me to try to make a difference.” Cassidy hopes the race will prompt locals to start up teams or get involved with current teams.
For Abbie Clasgens, a guide on the New and Gauley rivers and new member of Sweets of the East, Nationals will be her first-ever raft race. “It’s super nerve racking because I don’t really know how I’m going to do,” she said. “But I am super stoked, I feel so lucky that my first race is not only going to be Nationals but it’s going to be Nationals on my favorite stretch of whitewater.”
Clasgens started training with the Sweets of the East in January, paddling on the edge of a pool with a few other team members to build up strength and learn the paddling techniques even when it was too cold to train on the river. As the season progressed, the team of six began meeting for on-water practices. Coordinating the schedules of six women—most of whom have full time jobs—has been a challenge, but the team strives to meet twice a week for two hours and does strength and cardio training on their own or in pairs, said Cadmus, who is team captain and organizes the practices.
“I think a lot of people’s concept of raft racing is just that it is a downriver race and that is what we do, but I think people are learning that there is a lot more events that are way more technical than just a straight, paddle downriver as fast as you can,” she said.
At 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning—regardless of the conditions—the team can routinely be found on the New River for two hours training for each of the events from sprints to endurance. “We pretty much don’t pay any attention to weather, we go anyway,” Cadmus said. “We were paddling in the snow this spring, it was thunder and lightning the other day, and we just still push through everything because it’s West Virginia and you have to deal with it all.”
Practices are exhausting, but also rewarding. “A big thing is having the motivation…and having other people there to cheer you on,” Cadmus said. “I enjoy going to practice, it is painful and it takes away from other things I want to do, but we laugh so hard we cry at practice and we push each other to our limits.”
While a dedicated training regime is typical for the Sweets, preparing a national event on their home rivers makes the pressure higher, Stamm said. Despite being able to train on the sections of river where parts of the race will take place, the water levels vary so much on the New and Gauley that it is hard to prepare for exactly what will be in store for them on the race weekend. Thus, even as the home team, Stamm doesn’t expect to have an advantage. “Some of the girls on the other teams, they know the Gauley, some of them guide it even, and they are really good,” she said. “We just strive to be as good as them.”
The Sweets are used to showing up in a new town far from home to race on rivers they have never paddled before. Now, they will be the hosts. “We’ve just kind of been the new girls for a long time and now here we are, we are the home team,” Cadmus said. “We don’t want to let our town down.”
The dedication Cadmus feels is not only to her own team members, but also the other paddlers who show up to compete. “The reason I love it, even though it hurts, is because of the feeling that I have at the end… like you just went to battle together,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you won or lost; you are all in the same pain and you can all just hug and cheer everyone else on… You are just bonded to everybody because you all just had the same experience.”
For Stamm, being the home team adds a whole new perspective. “I feel a very strong sense of duty to ensure that [visiting teams] have the best possible experience and they have a positive image of our area and they are left with a good enough feeling about the race, about the area… that they want to come back, and I feel very strongly that they will,” Stamm said. “It doesn’t take much to show up, experience our rivers, meet the people, and see the absolute beauty that we have here, to want to come back time and time again.”
Indeed, Stamm’s goal is that this won’t be a one-off event, but instead hopes to see Fayetteville become a recurring location for the rotating competition like several current western venues. Sutton is also excited for the opportunities for expansion. “Eventually, one of our goals would be to have a circuit throughout the country to tap into all of the amazing talent that is out there so that we are sending our best teams and individuals for raft racing to the World Rafting Championship,” Sutton said. “The Gauley in the fall draws in amazing boaters and athletes from all over the country. It only makes sense to be able to encourage and tap into all of that talent.”
The event will not only showcase the Gauley, but also the most iconic section of the New River, as half of the events will be held beneath the arch of the New River Gorge Bridge. “The Gauley is going to be awesome, but I am really excited about getting them on the New,” Stamm said. “When people think of us here they always just think about the Gauley and I don’t think they realize the New is a really amazing stretch of water, too.”
While many of the racers who will come to compete have paddled on the Gauley, other will savor their first exposure to West Virginia’s legendary whitewater. “Some of these people have paddled all over the world but have never paddled here,” Stamm said. “I’m very excited to get those folks here and show them what we have, and maybe they enjoy it so much that they try to come back here in the future even when they are not racing.”
Juniper Rose is editor-at-large for Highland Outdoors and is a whitewater raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers.