A Rebel Without Shoes – West Virginia, USA

A Rebel Without Shoes
West Virginia, USA

“Just have fun with the river,” Jeff said as we paddled into the fast-moving current. “It doesn’t matter if we twist or flip over, as long as we look good doin’ it. On the Gauley, it’s all about lookin’ good.”

These were my rafting guide’s final words of advice before we set off on the Gauley River, a 28-mile-long whitewater course in southern West Virginia. For ten months of the year, the Gauley is a normal mild-mannered river – dueling banjos not included – but during the six weeks after Labor Day when the nearby Summersville Dam releases its surplus for the winter, it transforms into a wild and drenching experience for adventure seekers, both young and old. With rapids up to Class V+, the Gauley hangs with the Colorado and the Zambezi as one of the world’s great whitewater rivers – in fact, it hosted the World Rafting Championships in 2001.

Rafting guides are available through several rafting companies for those up to the challenge. Guides on the Gauley are a peculiar bunch – part hillbilly, part high school pep squad, but all fun. From the put-in point at the base of the dam, they pump up their new clients with West Virginian gusto – all of them but my guide Jeff from Class VI River Runners. A rebel without shoes, he kept a quiet but cool demeanor, smoking a cigarette while leaning on his raft like an Appalachian James Dean.

Outside the river, he was a man of few words, but on the river, he got down to business. “Alright, we’re gonna try and hit this on the left-hand side,” he said as we approached our first major rapid, appropriately named Initiation. “If the right side of the raft dips into that crease in the middle, we’re gonna flip over. So we gotta go left.”

While the rest of us braced for the worst, Jeff remained collected – in fact, he didn’t even bother putting on his helmet. We paddled in sync as he steered us through the foamy, growling chaos. The first wave hit us like a tsunami, picked us up and violently danced us down three drops in a row before releasing us back into calm waters. For me it was a thrilling rollercoaster ride, but for Jeff it was just another day at the office.

In between rapids, we had time to admire the green mountain country that John Denver revered so much. During these interludes, Jeff loosened up and entertained us with tales of his life in the Mountain State. Despite the urban myth that all mountain men are uneducated inbred hicks, we learned that he was a college grad preparing to go for his masters in marine biology. However, that didn’t inhibit him from crass jokes that degraded his brethren.

“You know why West Virginia girls like it doggy-style? Because she likes to watch NASCAR too.”

Surely this wasn’t what John Denver had in mind.

We continued paddling down the Upper Gauley, over 33 rapids ranging in difficulty classes of I to V – “I” being a kiddie wave pool, “V” being a toilet bowl from Hell. At least one person fell out on every rapid, but it was never a catastrophe with everyone helping out each other like fellow soldiers in battle. Jeff reminded us that in the event of falling out, it was important to make sure to look good for the nearby videographer traveling by kayak.

With many kayaks and rafts in the Gauley at once, traffic built up at the river’s bottlenecks. The only thing to do was hang back and wait.

“Alright, I want you guys to go right and paddle into that eddy over there, towards that rock,” Jeff commanded. We followed his orders, not once questioning why the other Class VI rafts were not following. Once in the still water, we realized what was up; Jeff jumped out of raft and pulled out a cigarette. “Thanks guys,” he said. “I really needed a smoke, and company policy says no smokin’ in the boats.” He clenched his bare feet on the small rock like a seagull and retained his Appalachian James Dean cool.

Riding the rapids

Rafting on the Gauley River

The last class V rapid of the day was Sweet’s Falls, a monster rapid with a fifteen-foot drop. “Okay, this is the big one,” Jeff said. We knew he meant business because he actually strapped on his helmet this time.

White water surrounded us and roared like a mythological beast. With our oars, we churned through the relentless flow, trying to escape an area that would trap us in a back current. Our raft floated to the edge of the falls like a log in a cartoon cliché until gravity took its inevitable toll.

Everything happened so fast that it took a while for my brain to register, “Hey, I’m not in the boat right now.” I swam the torrents like a lone sock in a washing machine, keeping my head up for air while avoiding rocks, until another rafting company pulled me into dry safety. I eventually regrouped with my team and learned that Jeff had also fallen out.

But when we all watched the post-trip video over beers in the bar, I saw that Jeff didn’t just “fall out.” He wiped out in a sloppy way, with a look on his face like he was giving birth to a bowling ball. His fellow rafting guides took advantage of this one uncool moment with repeated slow motion replays and paused still frames.

“It’s all about lookin’ good, huh?” we all mocked him.

He blushed bright red with embarrassment, lit a cigarette and laughed along with us.