Gauley Season kicks-off to celebrate 50 years of white water rafting in W.Va.

A rafter hangs on to his paddle as he is swept over the side of his boat. Chad Foreman for the Register-Herald.

SUMMERSVILLE — Whitewater rafters from all over the country gathered near the riverbank to await the buzzing, a  sound that signifies roaring and rushing water is about to be released from the dam. As water releases, rafters cheer.

This could only mean one thing — Gauley Season is here, officially. 

To kick off the season, rafters gathered Friday at the Upper Gauley River put-in. Vehicles were parked along side the road as far as the eye could see, with either a raft or a kayak on top of each one. 

Along with West Virginia natives, outdoor enthusiasts from Colorado, North Carolina and several other states were checking their gear one last time before their launch.

Kelly Gladen couldn't get on the water fast enough. 

Gladen had been a river guide on the New and Gauley rivers for five years before making a move to Colorado. She said Gauley Season is anticipated by rafters as soon as summer begins, and although she has been in Colorado for most of the season, she had to make it back for this. 

"This summer I've spent most of my time on the Arkansas River, the Roaring Fork River and the Colorado River in Colorado," Gladen said. "So, I've been pretty busy, but I'm more than excited to take this on." 

Gladen compared Gauley Season to Christmas because of the joy it brings. 

"Six weeks out of the year we get to come out here and enjoy some of the best white water in America, so how could you not be stoked about that? This river is high up on the list for a reason." 

Gladen called the Gauley River "the best river" because of its steep drops, big waves and large hits. She said there's no better feeling than the anticipation right before going over a 14-foot waterfall, or going through an almost mile-long rapid. 

"It's just such an adrenaline rush," she said, "but you must have a healthy sense of nerve while on the water. The best advice I could give is to always brace yourself, and always paddle. The more you paddle, that's what's going to help you the most." 

Eric Acheff, of Asheville, N.C., was beginning to launch his kayak into the river before he stopped to admire the few kayakers who were about to set out before him. 

"That's my goal, to be able to do it like these guys," Acheff mused while pointing to what he referred to as a "squirt boat." 

Squirt boating, a form of whitewater kayaking or canoeing, is where the boat is designed to be as low in volume as possible while still allowing the paddler to float, Acheff explained. 

Many of the squirt boaters at Friday's kickoff were almost completely emerged in the water, but were managing to stay upright. 

"But, I'm not ready for that yet," Acheff said, with a laugh. "I've been doing this for five years, and I know I still have a lot more learning to do." 

For Acheff, the kickoff of Gauley Season is all about enjoying the good vibes, he said. 

"I come every year, and it just has a really good vibe. Those scary rapids everyone is so afraid of, are actually so much fun," he said.

"The rapids are very clean, and you have a lot of margin for error," Acheff said. "You can get flipped upside down, and you won't touch a rock. You can go right into something sideways, and you'll make it out perfectly fine.

"Everything is always fine at the Gauley. It's always super cool." 

National Park Service officials were also on deck — not only to make sure everything was running smoothly, but also to enjoy the good vibes of Gauley Season. 

According to Lizzie Watts, Superintendent of the New River Gorge National River, Gauley River National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River, celebrating Gauley Season is a joy in itself, but to also celebrate 2018 as being the 50th year of whitewater rafting in the state — that's even more incredible. 

"Just like everything in the tourism business, whitewater rafting comes and it has its ups and downs, but what it has done almost more than any other sport is show the world how special West Virginia is," Watts said. "People from literally around the world come here for Gauley Season, and whether you're a private boater, a commercial boater, or someone who has never even tried it before, can come here and enjoy it."

Watts said the state claims rivers classified as some of the most spectacular in the world.

"It really has opened us to the rest of the world, and I think that's something special."  

— Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH 

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