Beginning in spring and running through fall, West Virginia is the Disneyland of whitewater. During October, the Gauley is like the 405 in LA. Rafts up to 16-feet long maneuver around each other like minivans on the freeway. Kayakers dart between them—the motorcycles of the river—trying to pass and avoid getting run over. The passengers, ranging from overzealous teenage boys to grandmas looking to check one last item off the bucket list, hang on for dear life.
When T-shirt weather begins to fade, so does the chaotic clientele. As commercial rafting operations and tourism-supported businesses go into hibernation, local boaters come out to play. Although the industry is slowing down, the whitewater is ramping up. As Appalachia’s autumnal rains hit, creeks that have been dry for months begin to run.
“In the winter time work slows down, but I feel like the fun picks up for a river guide,” said Zach Coakley, a guide on the New and Gauley rivers who lives in Fayetteville year-round to take advantage of the region’s renowned winter whitewater. “We get to go out and have all the fun that we wish we could have had during the commercial work season, getting in some rowdy holes and testing out new lines.”
Most guides leave the area to travel or work other jobs during the winter, so the boaters who stick around are close-knit and spend most mornings playing on local creeks.
“It is just really hardcore enthusiasts that get out during the winter,” Coakley said. “The weather is bad so you’ve got to love it to be out there.”
Josh Collins, a whitewater kayaker who works as a video boater during the rafting season, is a member of a group of kayakers known as Boof and Destroy that looks forward to the West Virginia rainy season each year despite the challenges that winter boating presents.
“You just have to be here in the winter time to get the good paddling, it is just the only time of year in West Virginia where everything is wet enough to run consistently,” Collins said.
“You’re dealing with ice, pools that are frozen over, ice sieves, the whole element of being submerged in freezing cold water…it’s sleeting over in between rapids; but snowy paddling is pretty much the most beautiful paddling you can do.”
Collins has paddled rivers across the U.S., South America and Canada. He said the West Virginia boating community, quality whitewater and low cost of living make it hard to want to spend the winter anywhere else.
“West Virginia is just as good as anywhere else in the world, possibly better,” he said. “You can play boat, creek boat, fire up whatever you want or surf the biggest waves in the country.”
WV’s Top 10 Winter Runs:
Big Sandy Creek (III-V)
Located close to Morgantown, the Big Sandy Creek is a great destination for both intermediate and advanced boaters. It has a class III/IV upper section and a much more technical lower section packed with ledgy class IV rapids, blind drops and two class V waterfalls.
The Blackwater is an experts-only kayaking run near Davis in Tucker County. The upper section of the river is filled with continuous, consequential class V drops, steep boulder gardens and deadly sieves. The Lower Blackwater, while milder, is also stacked with class V whitewater.
The Cheat River and its five forks (Blackwater River; Shavers, Dry, Glady, and Laurel) provide a sprawling array of boating options from the Potomac Highlands to northern West Virginia. With sections ranging from the class II/III Cheat Narrows to the class IV Cheat Canyon, the Cheat draws in rafters and kayakers from across the state.
Starting in the town of Richwood and merging with the Gauley River nine miles downstream, the Cherry is ideal for the beginner to intermediate paddler and offers many small play spots and continuous boulder gardens.
Another tributary of the Gauley River, the Cranberry provides almost 30 miles of whitewater which is usually broken into three sections known as the Upper, Middle and Lower. The Cranberry is a stellar wilderness creek boating option with varying difficulty based on section and water level.
The Gauley River is infamous for its six-weekend releases each fall, but for local boaters Gauley Season lasts long after the guides and guests from across the country have gone home. With 26 miles of whitewater, the Upper, Middle and Lower Gauley runs range from high volume holes, waves and drops to technical rapids laden with undercut boulders.
Manns Creek (V+)
This creek has no room for rafts or rookies. It is top-notch steep creeking that should only be attempted by experts. With continuous blind drops, slots and tight maneuvers, Manns is hard to beat and easy to get beaten by.
The upper and middle sections of the Meadow are a playground for kayakers and can be rafted at high water levels. The Lower Meadow is a notoriously gnarly section of whitewater with no room for error and deathly consequences. It can be rafted at certain water levels but is generally reserved for expert kayakers only.
The New River Dries (IV-V)
While most of the New River is runnable all year long and is a popular destination for first-time rafters and beginner kayakers, the New River Dries are another story. The Dries only run when the New River is at high water, sending boaters rushing to the put-in. The first rapid includes what’s known to be one of the best surfing waves in the country for kayakers as well as whitewater junkies on surf boards and SUPS.
Paint Creek (II-IV)
Three sections of Paint Creek make up almost 15 miles of whitewater. Half-way between Charleston and Beckley, the creek is runnable by rafts and kayaks.
NOTE: Do not attempt to paddle these creeks without sufficient skills, knowledge and someone who knows the section and can show you the way. For more information visit the American Whitewater river database at www.americanwhitewater.org