Special notice: Copies of Whitewater Rafting on the New & Gauley Rivers: Come On In, the Water’s Weird are now available on Amazon and at History Press!

The book has gone to press! It looks like the last excerpt I posted for Come On In, the Water’s Weird was well received, so I think I’ll post another. (You can also see Photos of Gauley Rapids You’ve Never Run here.)

First, however, a bit of background. This excerpt is from a chapter on the Rodman expedition, which was the successful first descent of the Gauley River. The Gauley brings the full package. It is big, powerful, pushy, technical and dangerous, and it winds its way through a beautiful remote gorge. The Rodmans and crew didn’t have the benefit of years of collective river lore from which to draw. They were explorers in every sense of the word, which carries with it a certain gravitas for those doing the exploring.

Memorial Day 2011, by the way, marks the 50th anniversary of the first descent of the Gauley River.


Gauley River, Tumble Home

Circa 1980s, a Wildwater raft "tumbles home" at the end of Lost Paddle rapid. Photo: Butch Christian Collection

Perhaps fittingly for the most challenging big-water river in its region, the Gauley did not give up its first descent easily. It fought kicking and screaming by nature of its difficulty and its obscurity relative to the New River.

Tucked away in a winding, inaccessible gorge, the Gauley flowed unknown to all but local non-boaters and fishermen until well into the 1950s, when Ray Moore of Alexandria, Virginia, found it. In 1959, he invited a few friends from the Washington, D.C. area, plus two from Pittsburgh, to attempt a run.

One of those Pittsburgh paddlers was Sayre Rodman. Rodman and his wife, Jean, were accomplished rafters and apprentices to Moore. “He taught Jean and me what he knew about rafts, short-fused dynamite sticks, and other subjects where one should pay close attention,” Rodman wrote in the April 1987 edition of the Highlands Voice, a newsletter that the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy publishes monthly. (I actually stumbled across a reprinting of that article by Dave Elkinton, also in the Highlands Voice, this time in December 2006.)

Jean Rodman's "Hard Hoe" to row. Photo: J. Young

Doug Proctor inflates Jean Rodman's old raft, "Hard Hoe."

The rafts Moore taught the Rodmans about were odd boats, indeed. There were few, if any, companies making rafts specifically for whitewater at the time, so they cut their teeth in jury-rigged army Air Corps surplus boats. The boats were twelve feet long, six feet wide and designed to be paddled by six people. The Rodmans glued flexible oarlocks midway along the outer tubes and adopted a western style of rowing. As with most things jiggered, the boats needed repairs often. The Rodmans reportedly went through more than their share of glue and duct tape. Without a rigid rowing frame attached to their boats, they soon added their own techniques to their repertoires, bouncing off rocks to change direction and even tipping boats onto their sides to slip through some of the narrower channels.

The Rodmans rowed their boats into more history than just the Gauley River, by the way. Boaters also credit them with first descents on the Youghiogheny and early descents on the Cheat River.

The group put in at Route 39, east of Summersville, and encountered its first serious whitewater at the old Route 19 crossing, which is now submerged permanently under the waters of Summersville Lake. “The river was sort of high; out of its banks,” said Rodman. “We soon were in the woods, lining around rapids, laboriously roping from tree to tree in water over our heads. 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,” Rodman continued. “One shaken man said that his big raft did an ender cleanly over his head. Fortunately, Ray’s guys were good at re-entering their rafts via the bailing-bucket roper. Totally exhausted, we camped just above the dam site.” Except for Ray—and he only halfheartedly—the group was ready to call it a weekend. The going was simply too rough, and the next day, Rodman bushwhacked, hitchhiked and finally returned with their car from the proposed takeout point. “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: 1, boaters: 0.”

Rodman thought of the magnificent Gauley River often over the next two years. Then, one dreary day in May 1961, he and Jean, plus Ralph and Kay Krichbaum and Ken Hawker, returned to try again. Simply getting to the river proved to be no mean feat. “We had shuttled a car down near Swiss somewhere,” said Jean. “Ralph and his wife, Kay, had forgotten their PFDs and had to find a store that sold the old horse-collar orange life jackets. There were no interstates or three-lane roads in those days, so it all took a lot of time.”

The group sat out a brief snowstorm under the Route 19 bridge and then set out in water Rodman estimated to be in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred cubic feet per second, or cfs. Rodman described that momentous day in nearly giddy terms. The group, he wrote, “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’s Falls. We enjoyed it, immensely.”

Ken Hawker in Iron Ring

Ken Hawker all turned around in Iron Ring rapid. The overhanging slab-cave is to his left. Photo: Sayre Rodman

The next day dawned sunny, and “the run to the Meadow River was just fun. We’d earlier scouted a big one below Carnifex Ferry, big waves but no problem. Below the Meadow, we quickly saw things were getting more interesting. The first serious rapids ate one of my oars.”

In his Highland Voice article, Rodman described what happened to Kay Krichbaum at a rapid now known as Iron Ring. Of course, modern Gauley boaters probably aren’t too surprised to read that it was the hairiest moment of the trip. Though most people don’t find the standard line through Iron Ring to be especially difficult, many feel the consequences for blowing it are some of the most severe on the river. A lot of water flows into a cave formed by a large, overhanging slab of rock on the right bank, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that it’s a bad, bad place to go.

“Kay’s boat stalled upstream,” Rodman wrote, “and vanished, like a fly taken by a trout, in mid-river.”

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