A Day on The Gauley

Thorpe Moeckel Click to

tmoeckel-214Thorpe Moeckel is the author of three books, most recently Venison: a poem (Etruscan Press, 2010).  Earlier collections include Odd Botany (Silverfish Review Press, 2002) and Making a Map of the River (Iris Press, 2008). Recent nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Taproot, Alabama Literary Review, Adventum, and Lost Magazine. He teaches in the MFA program at Hollins University.

Pennsylvanian sandstone, Phil says when I ask. He’s on the river a few feet beside me. We’re cruising with the current. We’re stroking our canoes forward. For a moment, Phil’s motion reminds me of a power hitter striding to first base after being intentionally walked, but that’s simply not accurate. When paddling a river like this, it’s good to be as accurate as you can be, even when you’re talking. Phil looks like Phil, a lean and composed late twenty-something, a guy who can go hard all day on no more than a Kit Kat for nourishment. He’s a graceful and excellent canoeist, and anybody who pursues and often attains grace and excellence in physical activity has a certain look of ease, competence. There’s no exhibitionist flexing, rather a sense of him being in the right place on the river without trying and of letting the wrong place, if he’s ever there, appear just right.

We’re between rapids. The boulders, good gracious. They are huge, though many are not huge, and under the water there are more huge and not huge boulders. Dark stone, dark, silent, still. The dark a chemical remnant of West Virginia’s industrial heyday – the logging, mining, railroading — when they called the Gauley the “River of Ink.” Boulder gardens, rocks upon rocks, vertical rays staining the dark different shades of grey. Grey with burgundy, grey with green and purple, even pink. Boulders as large as houses, mansions, ships, and with pale lichen and spider egg sacs like broken clouds constellating many of them.

Rain still falls, heavy at times, and mist wisps and curls halfway between the river and the top of the wooded gorge. A golden tint seeps from the leaves on the banks and trees, smeary weather magnifying and distorting it. The water’s clear, unsilted, green-slatish, the current swift and thick, the next rapid always close. Phil wears a short, rockered, plastic canoe. The boat resembles a stretched and wildly curved Rubbermaid crate more than a traditional canoe. By wear it, I mean Phil’s knees and hips – he’s kneeling – are fitted snug into his yellow canoe’s foam-pedestaled saddle so if it flips, he can stay in the boat and roll it upright.

He wears a drysuit, too, and a lifejacket, and a helmet with felt fur attached over it, long tail in the back, plastic eyes glued over the forehead. When we pass or are passed by other groups of paddlers on the river, they give Phil and his helmet deco a double take. People in the whitewater world call him Furtrapper; Google it, you might get lucky. He’s not a trapper of furs, the way another canoeist with a pseudonym and cache of videos online is not really named Eddy McGnarlz. Phil’s a geologist and a serious whitewater canoeist, among other things. He’s been smart and lucky enough to marry his obsession with whitewater with that of his career as a geologist focusing on geomorphic landscape evolution of the Appalachian Mountains, which means he studies why these old mountains and rivers look the way they do. Most every week, year-round, Phil travels to paddle challenging whitewater. A couple of winters ago, he even landed a sponsorship from a canoe manufacturer that keeps him in boats.

There’s a little box of a camera poking up off his helmet’s top, mounted at the middle. His lean face, framed from faux-furred brain bucket to chinstrap, is all mustache and animated, joyful eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. From the composition of his gear, the way he wears it and it wears him, to the way he moves down the river, at once studying and working and playing, you can tell he’s a fastidious, capable guy.

Phil finishes scanning the horizon and looks back at me. Pennsylvanian sandstone, he repeats, and then goes on, sensing – correctly – that I want to know more. Remnants of the Appalachians’ west slope. Raised in South Carolina, there’s something of a southern Mr. Rogers in Phil’s slow, careful and caring voice. Eons ago when they were huge, he says, ten times the size they are now. There was a gulf here, a lot in common geologically with the present day Persian Gulf.

I want to keep listening. The history fascinates and boggles me, much as this river does. I have some questions to ask, especially about the Persian Gulf connection, but we’re entering the next rapid, one of the thirty or so named rapids in the nine miles between Summersville Dam and Mason’s Branch, and the water’s loud – he wouldn’t hear me. I set my boat angle and then pause to let Phil go ahead. He doesn’t turn on his camera for this one. Above only five rapids today – Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls – is Phil likely to point to that horny protuberance on his helmet and ask, is the light blinking?

We pass a cargo van-sized boulder that leans on a sedan-sized boulder with, it appears to me, a turtle face profile in it. The waves build. We’re moving along. I stroke and brace. Phil strokes and braces and strokes some more. This goes on, each of us doing our thing, sort of bat-like, scanning ahead, keeping our boats travelling along the liquid pathways we read as both safe and fun. We jag left and then right, threading our boats between features, hydraulics and pourover holes beefy enough to stop a boat and beat on it, recirculate it a while. Several paddlers are eddied out just downstream. To eddy out is to park in the boily, upriver-flowing current behind an obstruction, which is usually, as here, a boulder. There’s a guy in a black kayak surfing a wave, really carving it up, throwing moves – loops and other contortiony, gymnastic maneuvers I don’t know the names of. It’s on purpose that he’s upside down as much as he’s upright. I keep thinking he’ll get blown off the wave, but he doesn’t. My shoulders hurt just watching.

I haven’t known Phil for long. The first time we met was the day he drove to our place from his home an hour or so southwest of us in Blacksburg, where he works in the geology department at Virginia Tech. We’d connected through friends. He wanted to check out the creek down the road from us. My daughter Sophie and I wanted to go along, to learn a few things.

North Creek is like a member of our family, its rock and water and plants and creatures not quite wise elders we seek to know, but something like that. We care deeply for that watershed. We love to poke around, Kirsten, Sophie, and I, for snippets of days a few times a week, sometimes whole days. We like to check up on it. It settles us. There’s also a sense of letting it check up on us as well.

North Creek was not the same creek now. Two days prior to Phil’s visit, twenty-plus inches of rain had fallen in the watershed over a thirty-six hour period. High water had altered its bed and banks in massive and lasting ways, as a crazy wind event or fire can change the forest canopy. The creek we’d been coming to love rock by rock, pool by pool, plant by plant by critter for the last seven years, those things were in different places now, some of them gone. Even at home or at work, I felt a little out of balance by the changes. Imagine returning from a trip to find your spouse has, unbeknownst to you, had some major renovation work done on your home – it was like that, my vexation, sort of.

North Creek Road, repaved the prior summer, was closed to automobile traffic, would be for months, large swaths of it washed away or buckled or covered with driftwood piles. So we poked around on foot, Sophie, Phil, and I. We explored a particular cobble bar along North Creek that day, did what people do when they stand by wild moving water; we looked around and touched the rocks and the water and felt our lungs at first, and then our whole bodies grow both lighter and stronger. There was hardly any sand now where before the storm there were beaches. The rocks seemed freshly deposited. They were; the flood had rolled them. Phil pointed out nicks in a boulder midstream where rolling stones, some as large as trashcans, had made impact. I think he mentioned a scientific term for this. We spent hours walking the banks. Phil was fired up, generous, streamlined for us a semester’s worth of streambed geology lessons. We listened intently, caught what we could. His enthusiasm and knowledge didn’t help me feel more comfortable about North Creek in its new form, but it helped me understand my awe more clearly. I saw that my discomfort was a factor less of the changes than of the process of change, how among the land’s slow, continuous, and largely imperceptible changes across time, these sudden changes, the acute traumas of extreme weather events, can arise; and how implacable when they do so — the water, its volume and power, how it stops for nothing, not rocks, not pavement or steel, not even wind or fire or the oldest, heaviest logs. And alters it all.

Phil drops in his open boat onto that wave now, guy in black kayak back in the adjacent eddy where I drift. Immediately Phil throws the canoe backwards and then all the way around, staying on the wave. To swallow once would take longer than what he just did. The great thing is, Phil’s done it again. He’s still doing it, spinning, carving, having a surf. There’s something insectivorous about it – segmented yet fluid motions of boat, paddle, arms, torso, head. Phil’s paddling a canoe called the Spanish Fly. Designed by the late Frankie Hubbard, East Tennessee genii of whitewater canoe innovation, the Spanish Fly, like other boats of Frankie’s shaping, is a conundrum of a canoe – you wonder in a Spanish Fly whether you’re paddling the canoe or the canoe’s paddling you or the river’s flowing both of you into some dimension so close to the origin of time and things in general that you better be ready to hooked on this for the rest of your life.

People call this wave Phil’s surfing Geek Wave, I don’t know why. I won’t even know this wave’s name until later, when I’m writing this and have to look it up online. Very few were online, much less able to make a phone call from a river bank I first paddled the Gauley on a day off from guiding rafts here in 1991. I was nineteen years old; in love with rivers since youth, a childhood and adolescence spent poking around, fishing and swimming and paddling the Chattahoochee in Metro Atlanta, I was now – it could be said – in a relationship with the Chattooga River.

Fresh from my first full summer of guiding the Chattooga, where I’d been paddling a Frankie designed canoe, an Edge, after work and on days off, I came to guide rafts on the Gauley because I’d heard the money was good and so was the water. I think there was something of a fling aspect to it, as well. I was head over heels smitten with the Chattooga, the community of river people there, its lush forests and clean, free-flowing waters, and needed to test my commitment to it. In the end, and since, no river has elicited feelings that compare with those the Chattooga still evokes in me.

Over the twenty years or so that have passed since the first time I was here, I’ve kept canoeing — on whitewater, slackwater, whateverwater – and guiding but with much less frequency than those first several. I didn’t return again to the Gauley until 2002. Once our child was born and another career took shape (I now read and navigate people into and through books instead of moving water; the pleasures are similar), my river-life became more local in scope. We live a mile from a fine river and a few more from some beautiful, rain-dependent creek runs, flood-altered North among them, so while I get on the water for a piece of a day most weeks, I rarely drive far to get my fix. My last Gauley run was a day trip from our then home in Charlottesville and my only visit before this one in 2012. There are regulars here, you can see it in their eyes and their ease, but I’m not one of them.

Phil and I are down above Iron Ring now. Of the big rapids, we’ve run three: Insignificant, Pillow Rock, and Lost Paddle. Things have gone very well. The river gods, as they say, have been merciful, our lines clean, accurate enough. I’m still feeling shaky, for sure, but a calm shaky, better than how I thought I’d feel now. Passing into West Virginia, coming through Sam Black Church and along U.S. Route 60 and the Meadow River this morning, I was plain nervous, anxious and excited both. In addition to my teaching job, I help my wife Kirsten run a small, diversified family farm. Among the herds and flocks, beds and sheds, is a trio of Homo sapiens, our offspring — a fourteen year old girl as well as nearly two year old twins. Ours is a good, lucky, and often overwhelming life, full of tasks that can isolate you and put a destabilizing spotlight on the smallest changes in routine, much smaller ones than a trip to paddle the Gauley.

Something clicked, something good when I pulled in to the parking lot at the put in and saw Phil and the rest of the paddlers gearing up, many from different parts of the country. I felt reinitiated into a tribe from which I’d wandered. I felt connected. It was Gauley Season, a special time for whitewater paddlers, and I was swept up by being part of the crowd, one the ritual-goers. The longer I hung around, getting geared up, the more people I recognized and exchanged greetings with. It settled me. Whitewater paddling culture changes and grows along with other subsets of the dominant culture, but it will always be intimate.

Since most rivers with natural flows run low in the leaf-brittle days of September, people who like paddling big, rowdy water migrate, many from much farther than I have come, to the guaranteed water on the Gauley. For this weekend and the following four, the Army Corps of Engineers will release roughly 2800 cubic feet per second of water from the lake through the dam each day from Friday to Monday – that’s around 21,000 gallons per second. The local economy will get a jolt as rafters and hardboaters flock to play in the juice and then camp or take a room or get gas and a meal and head home. It’s estimated that one million dollars a day gets dropped in businesses due to the releases. This morning I did my part: a few miles from the dam, I spent nearly twenty bucks at a Sheetz on breakfast, lunch, snacks, and beverages.

In addition to rivers, coffee is another of my favorite things, and I sipped from my umpteenth cup while milling around the gravel lot, visiting with friends from the homewaters in Virginia, many of whom I hadn’t seen since the good rains of last spring. A congenial, reunion-like vibe seeped about. You might think the heavy, wet air reeked of bulging adrenal glands and testosterone, but mostly it smelled like cooling engines, ripe underlayers, and September rain. You could hear the roar of the dam a quarter mile upstream, that forty story tall earthen mass out of which, through three separate valves of nine feet in diameter each, water blasted with a force that shook the ground as well as the air.

Now that’s a good old boat, a guy said to me. I was down on my knees, messing with the outfitting in my early 90’s era decked canoe. Yes, I said, a good Gauley boat. He had already moved on when I stood. There was a rangy assortment of kayaks and canoes to check out, everything from vintage designs to the latest. After a time of shorter, more bluntly sliced boats, many of the newer boats are harkening back to older, longer boat designs. One could note a similar trend among the individuals in the paddling crowd, particularly in their hairstyles, facial and otherwise.

Headed to the changing rooms then, one of those government-issue cinderblock, concrete-slabbed outfits, I saw Cam and Dave, local guys from home, and shared some stoke with them. Along with a few others, they were moseying down to the river, all shouldering newer longboats for a full run of all one hundred rapids and twenty plus miles of the upper and lower stretches combined. Many other faces I recognized from various river trips over the years, including people from the Carolinas and Georgia, Pennsylvania and Maine. Due to the advent of social media and digital photography, as well as my own appetite for river talk and eye candy, I also noticed people whom I’d never met but seen in whitewater videos online. This was strange for me, but I rolled with it. In all, license tags represented fourteen different states, including Colorado and Alaska, and those were just the private boaters’ vehicles, a rough count. Who knows where all of the 10,000 or so commercial rafting customers come from over the course of these twenty dam release-days.

Phil’s being patient with me. My right knee’s achy and I need this stretch before we run Iron Ring. He’s ready to go, doesn’t need to look at the rapid. Because this drop is all in the approach, I study the approach. I study it hard. You go too far left or too far right and there’s a good chance you’re going into a mongo hydraulic where a violent recirculation awaits. If you paddle through the approach waves and keep the angle, hitting the drop in the sweet spot, things can’t go too wrong. It’s a Class III move, I tell myself, staring at it. A Class III move with Class V consequences.

I don’t remember a whole lot from the six weeks I worked that Gauley season in 1991, but I remember that my line at Iron Ring in that beat-up, old Kevlar We-No-Nah Edge was clean. I recall as well seeing a friend who had also come up from the Chattooga to guide here for the first time. Because he worked for a different company, I only saw him one time and that was at Iron Ring when his raft dropped into the hole at the bottom and flipped quickly and violently upstream, depositing Jack and his six customers into the maelstrom. It took a few recirculations, but everyone emerged alive, unscathed. The raft stayed in the hole for a full five minutes, which doesn’t seem like a long time but is.

I remember other things, but they are not important now. What matters is getting back in my boat and running this drop. I swill the last of a Monster Energy Drink, the uncarbonated version, slide a fine chunk of driftwood — a keepsake for my kids– in the boat, and saddle up. My commute to work on Interstate 81, I remind myself, is way more dangerous than paddling through this rapid.

Phil, smooth as ever, approaches and then disappears over the hump. I paddle in. Things are good, the approach accurate. I’m in the steep section now, dropping fast. The acceleration is fine but abstract. And then at the bottom, in some wavy, wildy aerated water, just as I lose balance, things slow down. I notice Phil and a few other boaters in an eddy not far to my right. I notice a sycamore tree, a few of its leaves brown. There’s the wet face of a boulder rectangular and dark.

My first roll attempt is hasty and bad; I lift my head, which blows it, but I get a lungful of air. I take my time, set up well for the next roll. Upright again, but loose in my saddle, I drop sideways over a little pourover. Phil’s hooting. Others are hooting. A great noise of water being broken by great boulders. I’m tense, panicky. My flip this time even slower. The word charc comes to mind, how I have bad charc right now, how I’m not seeing my moves through to the finish. Again I set up to roll but pull my skirt instead.

When you swim from your boat in whitewater, you want to hold on to your paddle and your boat. You want your body to be intact. Your checking account doesn’t matter now, nor the level in your gas gauge, nor your family’s health, nor the state of your love life, the body politic, or the planet. You want a good breath. You want to scan ahead for features that might be dangerous and adjust accordingly. You want good charc, you want to see what you’re going to do and start doing it right now just the way you see it.

Body intact, feet downstream, paddle in hand, I’m drifting in some slack water behind that little pourover. I see my boat rushing with the main channel downstream. It seems to have fled, as if disgusted with me for abandoning it. I see Phil and anonymous kayaker give my boat chase. Thank you, Phil, I think. Thank you, Anonymous Kayaker. The bank isn’t far, ten feet or so. I turn on my belly and stroke for it.

It feels mighty good to be standing on the Pennsylvanian sandstone; of course, if it was quartzite or gneiss, it’d feel just as good. The fact is I’m feeling more settled now than I have all day. It’s good to swim from your boat sometimes. I don’t swim that often. I don’t paddle rivers with volume like the Gauley too often, mostly the local creeks and other, local class III/IV water. Part of the reason I came over here today, I think, was to risk a swim. Consider it done, that risk and that swim, anyway.

The walk downstream is scrambly. The rain, which pelted furious and thick-dropped a little while ago in the rapids above Pillow Rock, falls easy now. It’s pleasant. The booties I wear have decent grip. I climb and descend and leap and slide down to a big eddy across from Phil, who is on the opposite bank with my boat. Nice work, Phil, I say. He can’t hear me. The river’s swift and bouncy between us. I jump and swim but can’t break through the eddy wall into the current. A boulder slab blocks my view upstream, but I remember a few rafts approaching the staging eddy above Iron Ring as we entered the rapid, including a nice looking crew of old heads from an outfit on the French Broad in North Carolina. One is rarely alone in September on the Gauley. I wave my thumb at Phil, who is still holding a rope, waiting to hit me with it when I swim. He understands, nods. Soon enough a raft approaches, the one I hoped to see. I do the hitchhiker thumb thing and they bite, pick me up, ferry me across. Everything’s dandy. There’s even a Clif Bar still in my boat, as well as the driftwood and a fresh piece of 4mg Cinnamon Surge nicotine gum. Thanks again, Phil.

I’ve savored the mile or so of river we’ve travelled since Iron Ring. There’s a feeling of being more connected with the river and my boat than before the swim, and striating this feeling are currents of confidence and respect. I watch Phil, I watch the river, glance a few times at the sky, the rain soft, diffuse.

Now we can see downstream the cliffs that signal the approach to Sweet’s Falls, the last of the big five and, to me and many others, the simplest and most dramatic. I could describe this rapid in my river rat turned English teacher way, but I like the description from the ACE Adventure Resort website very much – while it’s informational, no-nonsense, and accurate, it’s also delightfully hopped up with river guide’s tangy voice and lingo. I mean, it goes down like a good beer. Try it:

“The last of the Upper Gauley ‘s Big Five Class V Rapids is located about ten miles below the dam. The fourteen foot falls were named after John Sweet for his first descent of them in 1968. The broken ledge system that forms this powerful rapid provides some options regarding different lines and also numerous hazards.

The main entrance is on the right side just off of the shore where you will punch through a couple of foamy waves. From there, the current quickly carries you toward the horizon line. Stay away from the shelfy right bank. It is undercut from the entrance of the rapid all the way to the edge of the falls, and the water that washes over the right channel pours onto jagged rocks and sieves through the massive boulders at the bottom. Upon approaching the falls, you will first want to notice the rooster tail spouting mist on the left side of the drop at the bottom of the crease in the horizon line. The roostertail is formed by a rock projecting from the ledge about half way down the drop. It promises to bring a serious attitude adjustment to all who find it, so be wary and remember that the water pushes from right to left as it approaches the ledge.

To the right of the crease, the current builds up onto and over the ledge that forms the falls. At the bottom of this vertical drop is a powerful and shallow recirculating hydraulic. At higher flows (4000+ cfs.), this turns into a terrible pour-over as a great portion of the river water pounds over the ledge instead of pillowing off of it and left into the crease.

The water going over the main part of the drop generally falls from right to left as it pillows off of the higher section of the ledge on the right and into the crease. For the picture perfect line over the falls, you will be searching for the coveted green hump at the top right of the crease from where you will slide down the sloping green tongue and slam into the frothy aerated water at the bottom of the drop. There is a fifteen foot margin of error that separates a successful line from fireworks and flying bodies, so know thy line and execute. Good luck.

The ride’s not over at the base of the falls as you’ll immediately have to take some evasive action to avoid the large boulder blocking the left side of the river. The main current rushes directly towards it. It is aptly named Postage Due, because on a busy day it is not uncommon to see rafts stamped onto its upstream face. Those who wash to the left of Postage Due will find themselves in the Box Canyon.”

Punch, carry, project, spout, push, turn, go, search, slide, slope, slam, know, rush, wash, be – the verbs in this passage have pop, gradient. “Know thy line” and “coveted green hump” are surprising in mouth and mind too. Some might claim the writer neglects a few factoids, such as:
1. The rock that forms the roostertail is called Dildo Rock from the time a raft pinned on it, wrapping the rock like a condom.
2. There are massive rock walls beginning over a hundred yards above the drop in the approach and these cliffs continue beyond the drop.
3. During Gauley season, from these cliffs and from boulders just downstream of the base of the falls, spectators drinking beer and eating barbeque eagerly await your entertainment.
4. Carnage is the best entertainment.

Phil is talking Sweet’s as well, shouting, really, so I can hear him over the wave noise. We’re eddied under the cliffs on river right well above another eddy we’ll catch, the final one before we drop the falls. He’s patiently answering my question, which was a big one, requiring the kind of knowledge that among the open canoe wizards that I know only the Furtrapper can provide. I asked him this: Why does this rapid look so different from the others? Why the coliseum feel to it?

It’s a bedrock rapid instead of a boulder garden, Phil says. I nod. He goes on. Sweets, as we see it today – and I’m theorizing here — is in many ways a young and very dynamic rapid within the Upper Gauley reach. I nod again. He notices, keeps on. See, all these Gauley rapids are a product of downcutting within the entire New/Kanawha system, and this downcutting is spreading upstream from the Ohio River. The downcutting occurs in waves which sweep upstream through channels. Bedrock rapids indicate the position of such a wave, and — I think, anyway — boulder rapids indicate areas through which a wave has recently passed, steepening the slopes to induce landslides into the river.

Phil smiles a little when he talks. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but his grin – the near grimace of someone focusing, finding a home in his focus — makes me listen more intently as though I might catch a few sparks, learn what he’s saying through my body, some fire there, as well as through the words.

That make any sense? he asks.

A lot of it, I say, makes sense. But those waves you mention, we’re riding one now, right, a long one?

Yes sir, Phil says, smiling full on now. A real long wave, eons long. Now keep in mind, he says, that Sweet’s itself isn’t the only expression of this wave of downcutting. We’ve seen it through the general gradient increase from Lost Paddle down, where more and more bedrock has been present in the streambed until now. Sweet’s is a ledge with cliffs, a few boulders, for sure, but it’s not a boulder pile like Pillow and Iron Ring and the others. These coliseum walls have only recently been cut back and steepened. They’ve yet to have time to collapse fully and make a big boulder pile.

Phil pauses to look over his shoulder now. Another guy in a kayak has drifted in our vicinity. He’s been eavesdropping and staring at Phil’s bizarrely accessorized helmet, but now he peels out of the eddy and enters the first waves of the approach rapid. We watch him, those fluid negotiations, until with sudden velocity (simultaneous with some cave collapsing in my stomach), he disappears over the lip of the drop.

Phil looks at me. Is the light blinking? he asks, hand moving from helmet-mounted camera back to his paddle.

It takes a moment to see the light blink. Yes, I tell him.

He nods, starts a stroke. That was probably more than you wanted to know, Phil says as he carves out of the eddy.

It was right on, I tell him, and then I turn and, following, take one last look at the whole rapid, the good line from right to left through the waves, that sweet spot at the lip of the drop, the places in the runout to be avoided.

We’re in the current now, the velocity impressive, cliffs nearly cinematic as we buck and splash past them. Let’s see, I think. Let’s see what the river has to say about all this.

Our runs are entertaining, but not so much. There’s no carnage. Phil punches the diagonal hole and graces into the left eddy at the bottom of the falls. I flip at the base but roll up fast, grateful, exhilarated, and then grimace through the next moves. I’m fatigued. Things feel strange, suddenly, very populated. In boats, out of boats, there are people everywhere. The boulders appear decorated as if with patchwork quilts of synthetic colors, spilled Skittles, all the boats pulled up, parked, along with paddles, helmets, lifejackets — the gear-clad revelers, reverencers. Plastic, rubber, nylon, neoprene. People hoot and holler, talk. Smells of grilling meat. Smells of marijuana, beer, water breaking against boulders, against more water. My bum shoulder stings a bit, but I finagle around Box Canyon and Postage Due, that rectangular boulder in the river’s gut, and stroke into an eddy with a view. Here I drift – Phil, too — watching a procession of rafts and hardboats approach and drop Sweet’s. It’s hypnotic, the whole scene.

I’ve never liked the term adrenaline junkie. It’s cute for a second but quickly does little in the way of honoring its subject. That pop-science terms stunt the imagination is nothing new. Those of us on the Gauley today, we’re not here simply for that vague concept of an endorphin rush, even if some speak of it. We’re here to be challenged, for sure, and to practice the pleasures of expectation, strategy, chance, doubt, wreckage, and fulfillment that go along with any demanding and risky physical activity involving gravity and the elements.

I believe there’s a thing even more squirrely at the heart of our exploring the Gauley today. One might call it the nature of nature, most micro of microeddies, one that’s caught, if ever, sidelong, with a glimpse, a glance that remains, somehow, forever embedded. Best not to call it anything at all, but to take strokes in its general direction. We’re here to see and feel a river, touch and be touched by it, to know this place in ways beneath knowing, beyond knowing. From its bed to its banks to its headwaters, to its history across time, from waves of human settlement back into deep time’s waves, the Gauley, like all rivers and streams, contains worlds, worlds of wild complexity and nuance.

We’re here to be physically reminded of something, something like the soul of a place and the soul of our minds, the oversoul and undersoul and that between, within, shot through by land, blood, time. And by paddling with friends, with strangers, with strangers becoming friends, by spending time watching and studying each other, seeing how we interpret the river through the motions we make in or, rather, with our boats, that interplay of drift and attack, planning and abandon, makes this experience even stronger, more tensile, kind of intersoulular. In word and flesh, Phil has brought me closer to this river, to all running water, and to myself. Though I never met Frankie Hubbard and saw him paddle a canoe only once, I sense that he is with us, too, and has helped us through his design of the boat that both Phil and the river have worn in strange, beautiful ways.

No matter where in the spectrum — tempestuous to slack, flooded to bed-exposed, mountainous to tidal, dam-altered to free-flowing, polluted to pristine, industrial to post-industrial – rivers embody the essential and wondrous paradoxes of being in general: they are submissive and doubtless, fragile and durable, restless and restful, threatened and threatening, dangerous and safe; to be in touch with this invites us to be in touch with existence, and those are currents worth knowing.

There’s a raft approaching Sweet’s Falls now. They are far too far left, headed for, as ACE writer noted, “fireworks and flying bodies.” The spectator noise builds. I don’t want carnage, I’m spent – good tired — and want to see and feel clean lines. With a draw stroke, I spin my boat and head downstream to where Phil has gone. He’s surfing a green-glassy wave near the river-right bank. The rain has stopped. The sky seems lighter. The drive home could be colorful. This is rainbow weather. We have a mile of boulder gardens and pools to explore before the take out, Phil and I, and then a steep and slick climb with shouldered boats up along the rhododendron-flanked waterfalls of Mason’s Branch. We’re going to take our time.


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