Avoiding Collisions on the Gauley River

posted September 21, 2010
by Charlie Walbridge

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Decades ago river outfitters and American Whitewater joined together to protect the Gauley River from hydro development. The success of these business enterprises were one of the key reasons that the river was protected as a National Recreation Area. But with success has come new challenges. Professional guides find the number of kayakers on the Upper Gauley overwhelming at times and kayakers also find the number of rafts intimidating. There can be problems in the larger rapids and miscalculations are inevitable. Regardless of any "right of way", it's everyone's job to avoid crashes! Here's what you can do to avoid collisions with commercial rafts.

Some hard boaters don't respect commercial trips. They cut in front of guided rafts entering Pillow Rock or Iron Ring,places where concentration and freedom of movement is vital.They might pass a trip that's leaving the eddy above Sweets Falls then float casually along just in front of the rafts as they approach the drop. These actions endanger boatloads of guests. One veteran guide told me that he pretty much runs his line and expects the more maneuverable hard boaters to take care of themselves. He won't intentionally put a boater in danger, but a lot of times it's like the rabbit that runs out in front of your car. He'll try to avoid it, but he won't run off the road!

Hard boaters should never cut off a raft when entering a rapid. This puts both guided rafts and kayakers at risk. Rafts are bigger and heavier than kayaks and canoes and can't stop or change direction at the last second. Guides will tell their guests to "keep paddling" not out of malice, but because they need speed to maintain control in a drop. Rafters and kayakers should both wait their turn, which requires patience on busy days.

The message to everyone on the river is to look around! Be aware of what rafts and hard boats are doing nearby. This is especially important in rapids like Pillow Rock, where kayakers and rafters use different lines that converge in the middle of the drop. Upstream boats always have the right of way, so look upstream before you leave an eddy. Sometimes a group enters an eddy, discusses the line, and looks upstream only when the lead boater leaves the eddy. Those waiting their turn should be sure to look upstream before their run.

One guide manager asks private paddlers to think of raft "trips" rather than single boats. Stay completely in front of or behind a trip if possible, passing only in the pools. Don't float between rafts. If you eddy out in a rapid, wait until all boats go past. When you pass a trip, stay ahead! Don't paddle in front of a trip, wait in an eddy in Lost Paddle, then try to pass the trip again before they enter Tumblehome.

Rafters usually want to stay in the current and keep moving. They only eddy out at the bottom of big rapids. Keep your eyes open in those big eddies at the bottom of drops and give them room. If you're drifting slowly in a pool and a raft is coming up behind you, move aside and let them pass.

Remember - regardless of any "right of way", it's everyone's job to avoid collisions!

Most collisions are honest miscalculations without malice on anyone's part. If you feel differently, try to talk with the raft guide or the trip leader on the river. If that's not possible, commercial rafts have the name of the company and a number painted on them. If you can't get the boat number, remember the time and location of the incident. Call the outfitter directly and ask to speak to an owner, general manager, or guide manager. Company management won't put up with reckless boat handling and will use photos and videos to track down the guide.

Remember: not all rafts with commercial lettering are licensed Gauley outfitters. Many guides from out-of-state companies run the river on their days off. Get their company name and number; their boss who loaned them the raft won't be happy! Use the web to find where they're from, and then follow up with a phone call.

Thanks to Randy Underwood (Class VI Mountain River) and Dave Bassage (North American River Runners) for their observations.
Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV