Pioneers down the Gauley

The Charleston Gazetterecently had a story about a reunion of the group that first took kayaks and canoes down the Gauley River in 1968, including the part that is now under the dam.  It included a nod to Sayre and Jean Rodman:

Walbridge kicked off the event by giving a brief account of the Gauley’s whitewater history before the now-famous 1968 run by Sweet and his companions.

Walbridge said the canyon was first explored in 1961, by a team led by Sayre and Jean Rodman of the Pittsburgh Canoe Club. The group ran the river in rubber military-surplus life rafts.

“They had a very exciting trip that involved boats being torn apart and serious time under rocks,” Walbridge said. “After that trip, there wasn’t a lot of interest in going back.”

The story reminded long time West Virginia Highlands Conservancy members of tales from the Rodmans about their adventure.  Here is a story that Sayre wrote for the April, 1987, issue of The Highlands Voice.

The First Run

By Sayre Rodman

People seem mildly intrigued by the idea of the first run, ever, on the whitewater section of the Gauley River. Nobody had the faintest idea what was down there, even

around the next comer.Jean and I and a few friends seem to have lucked into the experience.  What was it like?

Compared to the way people think about white water today, any trip in those days was in another world. If you write about a present-day trip with intent to impress people,

plenty of potential readers will know what you’re talking about. Hundreds will think that they could have run it better. Most of them could. And hundreds of thousands, or maybe millions, have been bounced and splashed on commercial raft trips. They know what class IV or V water looks and feels like from river level. Serious whitewater means something to lots of people.

Twenty-five or thirty years ago, talk of 500,000 people who’ve felt big water would

have sounded like weekends on Mars. Only the idea of a useful computer for a few hundred bucks would have seemed sillier. If you were on or near nice rapids then, you were very alone. [Remember, this was written in 1987.]

Jean and I and a very few friends went down anything we could find within a weekend radius from Pittsburgh, rowing Air Force surplus rafts. Rigid boaters? Berry and Harrigan and Sullivan in Washington and Bickham and Sweet at Penn State were acquiring their impressive skills, swapping river descriptions with us. In 1961, if everyone who’d run West Virginia Class V water in anything that floats came to a Highlands Conservancy Review, we still wouldn’t have broken even.

Why do we think we were the first to boat the hard part of the Gauley River for fun?

Hard to be sure. Oldtimers at Swiss told me that kids bad gone down in dead low summer water a long time ago, walking parts and floating the pools on air mattresses or something.  But they were certain that no one was idiot enough to have done it in even moderate water before we did.

Real credit for finding the Gauley, and inventing ways to run it, goes to Ray Moore of Alexandria, Virginia. He was an innovator, who loved to try his own methods of getting where no one else bad been, on rocks, in caves, or on rivers. His early tries at Cass Cave would give the NSS apoplexy .In the 50s he discovered Air Force surplus rafts and West Virginia white water. He was not a slow learner. A February Class IV run in the rain in blue jeans, without life jackets, bad seemed reasonable but turned out to be totally unsatisfactory. Don’t do it again. He learned efficient ways to row a 6-man raft, solo, with big oars, Western-style. He taught Jean and me what he knew about rafts, short-fused dynamite sticks, and other subjects where one should pay close attention. There was no authority to guide people. If trying freaky ideas disturbed you, you stayed off the rivers.

Our first run at the Gauley was a fiasco. Early in 1959, Ray and a few friends from Washington, plus two of us from Pittsburgh, met at Summersville, far beyond our familiar

Potomac headwaters. (Jean opted out; our first kid was still sort of new.) Only Ray knew just where he meant to run, and we didn’t exactly get there.

We put in at Route 39 east of Summersville. We hit the first interesting water (now under the lake) at the old Route 19 crossing. The river was sort of high, out of its banks.  We soon were in the woods, lining around rapids, laboriously roping from tree to tree in water over our heads. Rafts may be better than kayaks for this. The owner of a house along the river took pity on the sodden group, and sheltered us for the night. He talked bitterly about the proposed dam, which would one day drown all his land.

We made a few more miles the next day, but it wasn’t much fun. One shaken man said that his big raft did an ender cleanly over his head. Fortunately, Ray’s guys were good at reentering their rafts via the bailing-bucket roper. Totally exhausted, we camped just above the dam site. Ray wanted to continue but was too tired to argue, except lying down.

Next day, I kicked rhododendron out to the now-vanished community called Sparks, hitched a ride to the proposed takeout, and returned with a car. I’d already learned that, on Ray’s exploratory runs, you bring topo maps and pack frames. With enough psychological drive, you can hump out two deflated rafts per trip. Ah youth. Gauley I,

boaters 0.

I thought of that stream often in the next two years, as our friends developed a more practiced and conservative approach to rafting.  Row precisely, weargood lifejackets, scout big rapids. Details like that. Then in late May in 1961, six people from Pittsburgh tried again,with much better results. The river was probably below 1500 CFS, a bit low, no complaints. Jean and I have had worth-while outings in nice places.Consider first seeing the tip of Mount Everest by moonlight on New Year’s Eve from Tyangboche Monastary. The first Gauley run was about that good.

On day One, we sat out a snow squall under the old Route 19 bridge, ran superb water the rest of the day, and camped precisely under the present dam. Not many people have run that part. Take the best of the rapids on the Cheat run below Albright; add many more; pack them into shorter distance. A few gentlemen’s Class V’s; nothing really hairy. I remember it as much better than the part below Sweet Falls. My old slides show a dark foggy day. We enjoyed it, immensely.

You will never see that run, nor will your children. When next you feel grateful for a scheduled release from the Summersville dam, think of the once free flowinq riverbed, down in the mud under the lake. We delighted in running it, a quarter of a century ago. The dam builders took something very special from you.

Then, on a bright day, six people, more privileged than we knew, were the first semicompetent modern boaters to find and scout and run the rapids that define the Gauley for thousands today. The run to the Meadow River was just fun. We’d earlier scouted a big one below Carnifax Ferry, big waves but no problem. Below the Meadow, we quickly saw that things were getting more interesting. The first serious rapids ate one of my oars. Was it Sweet’s “Broken Paddle”?

I think the rapids that nearly killed one of us is now called Iron Ring.Several rafts ran it, impressing the operators but doing nothing unpredictable. Then Kay’s boat stalled upstream, and vanished, like a fly taken by a trout, in mid-river. A remarkable lady, she dove, making the snap decision that going through a hole ahead of a big raft is better than the alternative. We, including her husband, watched the downstream, as did her 6 by 12 foot raft with oars still intactin the oarlocks.  Twice she bad come up in the dark, and grabbed a breath. Behind the long slab leaning on the bank, river right, flows a lot of water. In hindsight we might have read the surface currents better.

We were then in no mood tosee if we could manage Sweet Falls. We saw it as a sure-fire slicer of raft bottoms, at that water level. Carrying around was easy.While we did so,Kay’s lost bailing bucket caught up with us.

We found a campsite on a sandbar, built a huge fire, and enjoyed our second night on this lovely river. The last day was brilliantand clear, and the purple rhododendron was in bloom along the canyon walls. For a while, we had good fast water to enjoy, with nothing to worry Kay, who felt a tad cautious now.  When we hit the quieter water above Swiss, we knew we’d had three memorable days.