By Jay Young. Photos from Adventures on the Gorge, by way of Class-VI Mountain River, by way of the Jeff Proctor and Dave Arnold Collections.

Compared to kayaks, whitewater raft technology hasn’t changed much since the early days of West Virginia river running… or has it?

One of my favorite things [read: makes me roll my eyes] is when raft guides from the 90s tell me how old school they are. Seriously? Are you kidding? You had self bailing boats. Here’s what I mean…

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Above is the first ever Class-VI River Runners rafting trip on the Lower New River, circa 1978. You’re looking at Joy Marr guiding. If you’re at all up on your WV rafting history, you’re probably wondering where the oars are. Class-VI was, after all, a proud oars-only company until the late 1980s. A little known fact, however, is that their oar frames were not yet ready for service when their first few trips launched, so crews paddle rafted. “I once did this on the Lower at 5 feet,” said company co-founder, Jeff Proctor. “I was terrified. Those things were like pancakes.” Also, note that the boats are black. That’s important for the next picture. 

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Okay, now we’re talking. This is 1979. The homemade oar frames are in service, and Proctor rows through Upper Keeney, Lower New River. His parents are in the boat, too. See how the boat is now silver? Their first fleet of boats had so many pinhole air leaks, that Proctor and company had Graco paint them after the first season. “At one point in time I counted over 70 vulcanized patches on one raft,” claims Proctor. Voila. Silver boats. This photo also pre-dates 4-tube rafts and self bailers—you can see the bailing jug there in the front on the floor.

So, the next time you want brandish your old-school cred, pause. Can you remember guiding when you had to make your own gear and it performed horribly? Do you recall guiding when NOBODY had more than a few years experience on the river? Is your name Paul Breuer? If you answered yes to any of these questions, boast on my friend. You’re old school.