Gauley Fest

On September 24th, 1983, eight hundred boaters gathered by the Gauley River.

They came from across the country, representing twenty-five states. There was music. Boats and gear were raffled. There was even a slalom held at the put-in rapid. You might have mistaken it for the Gauley Fest of today.

But they weren’t gathered to raise money for American Whitewater, or to find deals on gear as outfitters sold off their inventory. Instead, they were gathered to witness a turning point. Over a decade’s worth of work was about to pay off, and the river they had fought so hard to protect was on the verge of becoming boating institution.

Jackson Wright, Sweet’s Falls, 1968

Fighting the Dam

There was a rush to commercialize the river.

Jim Stuart realized the danger on his first trip in 1968. Dancing between the boulders and waves at 1200cfs, the group of six completed the whole twenty-four mile run in a single day. Jim recalls being “pounded in the chest with big waves until we were exhausted,” a feeling probably aided by the fact that he hadn’t brought along food or water for the adventure. A single orange and a candy bar split six ways passed as lunch. After the run, Jim headed to a small grocery store in Swiss to pick up supplies for the evening’s much needed dinner. It was there he heard about the plan to build the dam.

Charleston Daily Mail July 9, 1969

The High Swiss Dam came from a survey of the Kanawha River basin.

Summersville Dam was to be completed in 1966, and the study revealed further proposals to dam the river. In the initial survey, dams at Carnifex and Swiss would combine to generate 240,000kW of power. But then the group proposed a second option. Why build two smaller dams when you can build one giant dam? Towering eight hundred and seventy-five feet above the riverbed, the newly proposed High Swiss Dam would flood the entire Gauley gorge; the slack waters of the lake backing all the way up to the Summersville Dam. It would also flood most of the creeks that flow into the Gauley, including a significant stretch of the Meadow River. It was to be the largest dam in the United States, surpassing the previous record by a full hundred feet.

***This is a recreation based on the Corps plans from the Kanawha Basin study.

Jim was “mortified at the concept.” He started a letter writing campaign from his Appalachian Outfitters store. By October of 1970, he decided the best plan of action was to commercialize the river. The stakes would be higher if building a dam meant losing a local industry, and the more popular the river was, the more people that could send letters. Jon Dragan of Wildwater Unlimited supplied the rafts, and Jim gathered eight brave souls who became the first paying customers to raft the Gauley. For $100, they got a two-day experience in the gorge. The trip was such a success that Jon added the Gauley to his list of commercial trips.

By 1972, the Gauley was becoming more popular. Groups like the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy had joined the cause and West Virginia boaters were spearheading the effort. They had thousands of signatures opposing the proposed dam. In October of that year, a group of nearly one hundred boaters descended on the dam. Charlie Walbridge recounted the adventure in the American Whitewater Journal, weaving tales of carnage and success from the weekend. He ended the article with a note on what would come the following year:

The weekend of Sept. 22–23, 1973, we will celebrate the existence of this unique natural treasure. The Corps will give us 2500cfs of water, and the guides will be on hand to take “first timers” down the river…On Monday, we will run a downriver race on the Peter’s Creek section of the river.”

Ten years before Gauley Fest even started, boaters found it natural to gather at the river on a September weekend.

Jim Stuart at Pillow Rapid, 1969, photo by Gorman Young
Bill Friend scouting Iron Ring, 1969, photo by Gorman Young

The Long Tunnel

The plan for the dam at Swiss fell apart in 1978.

It turns out the engineers were using decades old topographic maps, and a dam so tall would stand nearly two hundred feet above the canyon walls. Rather then spend the money to redesign the dam, the entire project was scrapped.

For the Corps of Engineers, this was a minor setback. A few years later, they turned their energy to a different project.

The Long Tunnel would have de-watered the river through Pillow Rock. 200cfs would keep the river viable as a trout stream, but three miles of classic whitewater would be reduced to a trickle. Moreover, the project was illegal. The Gauley was being studied for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic river system. During that time no new plans could be formulated. But logic and legality are rarely obstacles to dam builders.

Citizens for the Gauley River was incorporated in 1982. The West Virginia Wild Water Association, the Canoe Cruisers, and a host of others formed the group that would spend countless hours sending letters and lobbying congressman opposing the tunnel project. Perception Kayaks raffled off a boat to help raise early money for the group.

By 1983, the Gauley was national attraction.

Boaters coming from across the country were bringing much needed money into a West Virginia economy that was seeing the slow death of coal.

Steve Taylor receiving an award from Perception for his work.

Tourism was the future, and Friends of the Gauley River estimated that Gauley season was worth between $10 and $16 million to the state. A week after boaters gathered in September of ‘83, the Long Tunnel plan was dropped. The Corps cited an “embarrassing lack of proponents for the project.” The Gauley had become an undeniable commercial force.

Three years later, on October 17th, 1986, Gauley Season became law. Twenty days of annual releases were a required part of the dam’s license. It was likely the first hydroelectric plant to ever include whitewater recreation in its permit. Citizens for the Gauley River had completed their mission, and Gauley Fest was turned over to American Whitewater.

In 1988, after another contentious fight with the Corps, the Gauley became a National Recreation Area. Twenty years after Jim’s first trip, the river was forever protected by the National Park Service.

Few rivers are such obvious success stories.

Today, 60,000 people enjoy Gauley Season, bringing the state over $30 million in revenue in a six week period. Gauley Fest itself sees crowds that are five-fold as large as the earliest festival.

It’s a far cry from the six hungry boaters at a grocery store in Swiss, learning that their first descent of the river might be their last.

Further Reading on the Gauley River

Gauley Season – The First Ten Years by Charlie Walbridge

Iron Ring, 1970 by Jamie McEwan, from Site Zed

Golly, That’s Falling Water by Charlie Walbridge, American Whitewater Journal, 1973

Jim Stuart’s history of early Gauley trips (1968, ‘69, ‘70)

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