I have seen fear, and it is wet, swift and rocky

Published: December 23rd 2011
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View from the Hawk's NestView from the Hawk's NestView from the Hawk's Nest

This is one of the most famous views in West Virginia
This day, I awoke before dawn, almost 10 hours after I had gone to sleep the night before.

The sky was clear and so cold there was frost on my tent.

The landscape was illuminated by an eerie light.

The moon was in the part of its orbit where it is closest to Earth, so the moonlight was unusually bright.

It was so bright that objects cast clear shadows.

It was not bright enough to activate the eye's color receptors, though, so everything was black and white.

I can see well in low-light conditions, so this light was bright enough that I could see perfectly well without a flashlight anywhere except heavy forest cover.

I spent a few minutes just walking around in this unusual light trying to fully wake up.

Finally, I got in my car and headed for the Wildwater base.

Rafting the Upper Gauley

Today, I planned to raft the upper Gauley River .

It is considered one of the ten most difficult whitewater runs in the United States, and is the second most popular.

Previous experience is an absolute necessity to handle the Gauley,

Hawks NestHawks NestHawks Nest

Another glorious view from the Hawks Nest
I recommend someone should swim a class III+ rapid at least once before doing the Gauley, because a wrong move during a Gauley swim can kill.

The Gauley has one hazard that is found here more than almost anywhere else.

It is the second most deadly hazard a whitewater rafter can encounter, after a fallen tree in the river.

It’s called the undercut rock.

The rocks found near the Gauley are mostly made of sandstone.

Sandstone is relatively soft, so the river erodes away the base of the rocks.

This creates a water filled cave at the base of the rock, called an undercut.

The problem with undercuts is that the current passes through them just fine, but anything caught in the current (such as a swimming rafter) will get jammed underwater against the rock.

Any rafter that gets caught in an undercut will almost certainly drown,

Avoiding them requires swimming hard against the current.

Keep in mind that during a rapid swim, simply finding places to breathe is usually difficult enough.

When swimming in a rapid with undercut rocks, one needs to swim like
The Legendary Mystery HoleThe Legendary Mystery HoleThe Legendary Mystery Hole

A roadside kitsch masterpiece
their life depends on it (because it literally does) and the wrong decision is deadly.

I feared the undercut rocks more than anything else on my Gauley trip.

The Gauley is the most intense raft trip I've ever been on.

It is quite likely the most intense raft trip I can tolerate.

I really enjoyed it, but won’t do something like it again if I have something important soon afterward.

The Gauley is filled with rapids in quick succession.

Many of them feature sharp drops and large holes that provide a thrilling roller-coaster ride.

Some of them are extra famous.

Pillow Rock

The first of these is called Pillow Rock.

It consists of a rock the size of small house that juts into the river in a section where it drops steeply.

The current briefly stops at the rock, creating a feature known as a pillow.

When running the rapid, the raft needs to turn next to the rock at just the right moment.

Too late and the raft will hit the rock head on and flip.
The Legendary Mystery HoleThe Legendary Mystery HoleThe Legendary Mystery Hole

Prepare to have your jaw drop!

Too early and the upstream current will push the raft sideways into the rock and it will flip.

This happens in a regular basis, for even the most experienced guides.

Thankfully, our raft got through fine.


Video of an afternoon at Pillow Rock.

And now from a rafter's perspective!

Lost Paddle

The second extra famous rapid is Lost Paddle, which for me is the scariest rapid on the entire river.

It consists of four separate rapids joined together to create a mile-long monster.

Every one of the four is a rock filled steep drop.

The truly scary part is that both river banks are lined with undercut rocks for the entire length.

Anyone who falls out needs to stay in the middle of the river for the remaining length of the rapid, which can be up to a mile.

The second drop is known as Hawaii Five O.

It contains a big hole that when hit right creates a huge wave that crests over the entire boat.

I was sitting in the rear of the raft, and this wave was so big it hit me in the head.

On the third drop, the current pushed us directly toward a submerged rock.

The guide took it head on because otherwise the boat would have flipped.

As it was, the impact knocked two people from the raft.

I've rarely seen a guide react so fast, calling out swim directions so loud the entire canyon could hear.

It worked, because the swimmers safely made it to the rescue boat at the bottom.

The rest of us began a frantic weight shift within the boat to get us off the rock without falling out ourselves.

As soon as the boat was free, we had to quickly move right back to our regular positions so we could move the boat through the rest of the rapid


See this rapid from a helmet camera:

Sweet's Falls

The most infamous rapid on the river is Sweet's Falls.

It’s so notorious that every rafting company stops there for lunch so rafters can watch the show for themselves.

The show in this case consists of rafts wiping out in obnoxious ways, often called “carnage”.

Sweet's Falls has several features that make this a common occurrence.

The rapid itself is a six foot waterfall.

It needs to be run directly down the middle.

On the right side is a steep drop that ends in whirlpool.

Rafts caught here have been stuck for days,

On the left side is a hidden rock officially called the Ejector Rock.

Any raft that comes close to this rock will have everyone in it (Including the guide) thrown out.

Most raft guides have another name for this rock, which I can’t repeat in polite company.

Once the waterfall current catches the boat, the guide has almost no ability to maneuver it.

This means that the raft must be precisely positioned in a short period of time above the waterfall.

Doing this is very difficult for even experienced guides, which makes disaster a frequent occurrence.

Even when the raft is lined up perfectly for the run, there are still more hazards.

The first is that the raft will hit the bottom pool pretty hard.

People can be thrown out from the impact.

In rare cases, the guide will be ejected from their seat at the back of the raft and land on the front, which can knock them unconscious.

After surviving that, a raft crew must deal with the large rock at the far end of the pool, Postage Due.

Hit this rock right, and the raft is shot into a narrow crevice called the Box Canyon.

Some guides attempt to do this deliberately.

Hit this rock wrong, and the raft flips.

All of these hazards combine to create a rapid where people falling in the river are a frequent occurrence.

Personally, I saw two Ejector Rock hits, three Box Canyon trips, and a flip on Postage Due during the half-hour it took to each lunch.

Then it was our turn.

As the guide put it: "The commands are going to be really quick. If I say something, do it immediately, even if you haven't finished doing what I just said before that. If people on shore say something, ignore it because they want us to crash."

We got through clean, and deprived the spectators of a bit of their show,


Youtube videos of Sweets Falls. Future Gauley rafters should probably skip over these 😊

Classic Ejector Rock hit. Note the sideline cheering right before it happens:

What rafters often see:

Fun in the Box Canyon:

Unlike the day before, I had some energy left after my raft trip.

I decided to use it to explore the New River Gorge area.

Downstream from the bridge lies a state park called the Hawk's Nest .

It is a cliff that overlooks the Gorge, giving a dramatic view.

This is one of most famous vistas in West Virginia.

Mystery Hole

After the Hawk's Nest, I went to the Mystery Hole .

Calling this attraction strange and cheesy is a compliment.

The Mystery Hole is a throwback to the golden age of roadside attractions.

Until the development of the Interstate Highway System, every major road in the US had places like this.

The carnival huckster spirit even extends to the promotional brochures!

As such, it is an utterly unmissable slice of vintage Americana.

So, what happens in the Mystery Hole, you ask?

If I revealed that, it wouldn't be a mystery, now would it?

You'll need to go and witness its power for yourself.


3rd March 2012

My whitewater rafting no way compares!
Hi Ezra Two years ago Steve and I rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I thought we were going through Class V rapids but learned, after reading you post yesterday and doing a bit of research, that they classify their rapids on a 1-10 system, not a I-VI system. Our typical white water was a 6--probably comparable to your III. I can't imagine doing a trip that was mostly Vs. .
4th March 2012

Grand Canyon vs. Gauley
Thanks for the comments! I did some reading about the Grand Canyon and its unique rapid rating system at one point. The toughest rapid in the Canyon (Lava Falls) is around a class IV. The Gauley is filled with those. I did a number of practice trips on the West Branch Penobscot in Maine (the blog won't let me post a link) before doing the Gauley. I needed them.

Tot: 0.699s; Tpl: 0.081s; cc: 23; qc: 105; dbt: 0.0702s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 3; ; mem: 1.6mb