Two years ago, I was at a family party where we were playing a game. The premise was that everyone had to write something down on a piece of paper, mix it up in a hat, and one person had to guess who it belonged to. One of the topics during the game was that you had to write down one of your bucket list items. One by one, we went around the room revealing which bucket list item was ours, and that was the moment I found out about my dad’s desire to go white water rafting. I was stunned, and very stoked at the same time. Now my dad is a very fit, and athletic person, but his activities have usually been tamed to endurance sports like running and cycling. So needless to say, I was excited to hear that our bucket lists crossed paths at white water rafting. Over the next year, I half-assed tried to plan a rafting trip in New England, New York, or in Pennsylvania. But the year had come and gone with little action. Rather than just trying to “get-it-over-with”, and go to somewhere nearby in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania; my dad said if he was going to do it, then he wanted to do it for real. Which meant we were going to get into some Class V white water. Needless to say, that got my ass into gear.
Since I knew nothing about white water rafting, I consulted two friends of mine who had spent a lot of time in white water as both a guide and for fun. They told me if I wanted to really experience it, that I would need to go down to the New River Gorge area in Fayetteville, West Virginia. I had never heard of the place, and my perceptions of West Virginia were about as similar as most of everyone’s who hasn’t been there before. Still pretty unsure about what I was doing, I found out that there were two rivers that get run during the rafting seasons, the Upper & Lower New River in the spring & summer, and the Upper & Lower Gauley River in the Fall. Due to the busy schedules of my Dad & I, it looked like we were headed to West Virginia during the last weekends of September, aka Gauley Season.
The Gauley’s rapids are world class and consistent, due to the fact is controlled by dam releases each day during the season. The Upper Gauley attracts people from all across the country and the world to test their skill and wits on a river with primarily Class V rapids. As you could guess, we were in no position to have our first experiences on white water with the Upper Gauley. So we opted for the Lower Gauley, a primarily Class III-IV river with a few Class 5 rapids. Next, I had to decide which guides to choose for this adventure. After a quick google search, I found myself inundated with options. The three major guide companies I narrowed it down to were ACE, Adventures on the Gorge, and New & Gauley River Adventures. From here I tried to understand why the prices for each company were so different. I was under the assumption that they were all equally qualified to get us down the river (safely) and with a great experience, yet why was the price of one $140/person and another company $199/person. So without much deliberation, I went with the most affordable option and thankfully I did! I learned, from our guide once we were on the river, that the other companies cost $50 more than theirs because their price has to include a “resort-tax”. An extra fee because those companies offer mountain bike tours, zip lines, etc. All of which most people have no interest in, but essentially have to pay for it anyway. But now we were all set and ready to go!
From my parents place in New Jersey, it took us 7 hours to make it down to Fayetteville, WV. A cozy town with a small main street and downtown area with people walking about. My dad kept wondering what does everyone do there after noticing very few opportunities other than restaurants and appeasing tourists. That was also answered the following day on the river, and we were right. On our drive in, as we crossed over the largest arch span bridge in the northern hemisphere, I noticed to our left a lookout point in the gorge below that had people standing on it. I did a quick check on Maps.Me and found the lookout that was called Lone Point. We headed down the road after checking into our motel, and started our hike out to the point. The trail that felt more like a sidewalk due to the heavy traffic took us out to a breathtaking view of the New River Gorge Bridge. The vast expanse from one side of the gorge to the other really helps put our impact on this world into perspective. After a quick drone flight (of course), we headed into town for some Cajun food and then capped of the night with football and beers in the motel room. We had a big day ahead of us.
Once all of our group arrived at the outfitter, New & Gauley River Adventures, where our guide introduced himself as Buddha (for obvious reasons). Then we all boarded an old school bus for the hour drive to the put-in that took us from the highway down to bumpy dirt roads that wound through the woods. The put-in for the Lower is also the take-out for the Upper, so there was a crowd of guided groups and weekenders. Our guides prepared us a lunch of deli sandwiches to eat while they set up the raft. Buddha asked for two aggressive paddlers, and after a quick look around to the rest of our group, my Dad and I both volunteered to be in the front (score!). We all took our places in the boat and started making our way down stream, it was only a few minutes before we hit our first rapid, Wood’s Ferry Rapid, a Class III. Buddha gave the “forward” commands as we charged through the first wave. From that moment, I was hooked. And after looking over at the first of many smiles on my dad’s face indicated he was too.
From then on, we “crushed” rapid after rapid and each had a different set of challenges. Some forced us to avoid rocks by back paddling, and others required us to carry momentum through standing waves to avoid getting stuck and flipped. Our first Class V rapid was Koontz Flume, where I felt my stomach sink after hearing the rating of that one. There was just so much white water ahead of us, but I oddly felt calm with Buddha’s confidence at the stern of the boat. We charged through this rapid, knowing the dangers were the undercut rocks on the right of the river that could send you under without any chance to come back. But we nailed it, and our boat’s confidence was at an all-time high. I felt like we could make it through anything on the river after that.
I might have spoken too soon, because we were about to be tested at our class IV & V section, Upper and Lower Mash. Before entering any rapid, the guide makes us aware of all the dangers, hazards, and flow of the rapid, along with the commands he will be shouting. This one required us to paddle hard upon entering the rapid, but quickly back paddle to avoid hitting a rock in the center of the rapid. This rapid started out with a Class IV, held a short break we could eddy out in, and then right into a standing wave Class V. As we entered, I felt confident, but in the excitement of the hard paddling, we all sort of missed a call to back paddle, forcing us to slam into a rock on my side of the boat. My momentum flipped me right out of the boat, and in the process, I turned toward the boat to attempt to grab anything and saw my dad getting tossed out the boat right behind me. I landed with my back on the rock we hit, and my dad landed right on top of me. Being in the water felt normal to me, especially after surfing dangerous breaks earlier this year in Costa Rica. But I knew I had to get back in the boat as soon as possible. I flipped back over, swam as hard as possible to the boat, and my boat mates pulled me back in. I quickly looked for my dad who was now trailing the boat as we moved down river. He swam and swam until he was within reach and I extended my paddle for him to grab. Pulling by his PFD straps, I yanked him into the boat. It was an experience I will never forget.
The rest of the trip, we laughed about our misadventure, and it brought our whole boat closer together. Our guide got a kick out of it too, since he claimed he normally doesn’t have too many swimmers on a trip. Between rapids, Buddha would enlighten us on the history of the river and of West Virginia. It was interesting to hear his take and point of view on how the civil war shaped the region and what exactly does a river guide do during the winters. We were on that river for a good 5 hours, on a perfect sunny day in September. I watched, after each rapid, the smile on my dad’s face grow and grow. The stoke was real, and it was all worth it. By the time we rounded out our trip, I didn’t want it to end. We capped off our night at the Dirty Ernie’s BBQ joint where we added our dollar to the wall of fame. It was a trip that I’ll remember forever, especially since it was something I was able to share with my dad and help check an item off his bucket list.
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.