By Jean Rodman:
The trip was run over the long Memorial Day weekend of 1961. It was cold. At one point it snowed on us. There were no easy roads down to the Gauley in those days. So, to drive from western PA, it took a 4-day weekend to even think about such a trip. We paddled on 3 days and camped for 2 nights along the river.
Our group of 6 from the Pittsburgh Climbers was made up of Sayre & Jean Rodman, Ralph Krichbaum, Dr. Kay Thompson, David Barbour, and Ken Hawker. The Climbers had been doing all sorts of things like rock-climbing, caving, mountaineering, backpacking, skiing, and white-water boating since the 1950s and earlier, long before any one thought to call them “adventure sports”.
At the start of the trip, Kay and Ralph Krichbaum discovered that they had not packed their life jackets (Personal Flotation Devices) and went off to look for replacements, while the rest of us set the car shuttle. They found some orange “horse collar” vests somewhere. Hurray and thank goodness for WV country stores. Later, I saw Kay suddenly disappear underwater at what would later be called Iron Ring, and she was underwater for a long time before popping up downstream. I’d only ever read about it happening, but at that moment, my knees really did give away.
We used inflatable, military surplus life rafts. My raft was made of cotton with a rubber lining. The inflatable tubes were divided into upper and lower chambers. It was manufactured in 1944. Metal frame rowing decks that add stiffness had yet to be invented. You just had to keep pumping your raft back up as they inevitably leaked and softened. The raft came with tiny aluminum oars that we pried apart, inserted bigger blades, and riveted shut again. These were not self-bailing rafts.
We carried around several rapids because the biggest water would have just torn the bottoms out of our boats. With even a few inches of water in the boat, they could be like trying to paddle your kids’ backyard pool, so a large bailing bucket was a must. Keep in mind that we also had food and camping gear for 2 nights with us. We did stop to scout bigger rapids and then take them one boat at a time for safety and the chance to take pictures. We ran our boats with one person per raft; you picked your own line thru the rapids and took them all solo – just the greatest.
In late October, I will be 88 and it’s fun to remember a river trip like this. Especially that part of the river above the dam that only a handful of people ever got to fully experience. But you need to keep looking ahead, or downstream. Last month I bought another canoe.