Memories From The River: A Life-Long Connection

Gauley Season. You can almost smell it. It’s true! There’s a distinctive, earthy smell that rolls along with the whitewater. Get yourself a big, deep lungful because it’s only here for a handful of days. There’s something special — magical — about this stretch of river, the time of year it runs and the people who experience it. 


Maybe it’s the cool nights or the crisp days. Maybe it’s the shared experience or those little nuggets of truth we find in natural places. Or maybe it’s more than the sum of its parts, something that can’t quite exist if even a piece is missing. When I look back on a decade or more of guiding people down the Gauley River, these are the things that stick with me the most.



You can always tell when Gauley Season is here because of the nights. Those campfires around which we sit eating dinner, cracking a cold one and telling stories, are no longer for ambiance. We need the heat. People talk about sweater weather. For Gauley Season, we talk about paddling tops and layers — how we keep warm so we can concentrate on getting the most out of our next trip down the river. Even now, I think of this time of year as Gauley weather.


Then, there is the water itself, the liquid embodiment of autumn, bracing but not unpleasant. The warmer air and chilly river conspire to shroud some mornings in the mist that only adds to the Gauley’s considerable mystique. When the sun rises high enough to burn it all away, it warms our bones and reveals the distinct Gauley landscape of hardwoods and rhododendrons and evergreens, sandstone formations and a river in motion. 



Once the sun rises higher in the sky and burns the mist away, it renders the river, rocks, trees and the sky in clear lines untainted by the humidity of summer. It’s like you’ve been wearing dirty glasses for months and someone did you the favor of cleaning them. Everything is sharper. Your lines on the river have to be sharp, too, along with your concentration. Losing focus ratchets up the challenge factor, which isn’t needed because the Gauley offers enough of a challenge itself. 



If the Gauley River gives off its own vibe, so does the collection of people who ride its rapids. Guides come from California and Colorado, Tennessee and Maine, from all over the country — and in some cases the world — to try their hand at guiding on the Gauley. They bring a welcomed new energy to a group of guides who’ve been plying their trade on the New River for the past four or five months. There is a palpable, infectious excitement that connects everyone, like electrical impulses jumping from neuron to neuron.


Rafters come for different reasons and experience the river through their own lens but just being on the water reduces things to the here and now. Each trip is a shared moment within shared moments, where daily life falls away and each person on the water is working toward the same thing. 



I hadn’t meant for this to get so deep in the metaphysical river rushes, but here we are. I guess that’s because the Gauley River leaves such a lifelong impression. It taps into something more than just boating. You can feel it when you’re out there. If you look hard enough you can see it, too — in the cardinal flowers along the calm pools between rapids, the sun lighting up cliff walls at Canyon Doors and Pillow Rock’s wild ride. It’s a glorious distillation of what’s real. 


If water is the essence of life, experiencing the Gauley together is about as connected as we can be — to life, to the world, to each other. Whether you’re crashing through the Hawaii Five-0 wave at the second drop of Lost Paddle or navigating the boulder field at Upper Mash, you’ll feel it for the rest of your life.


Make lifelong memories on the Gauley River this year. Start planning your 2020 trip now!