When most people think of river trips, the classic Western rivers come to mind - the Colorado, Rogue, Russian, Snake, Salmon, Tuolumne and Green. But you can get the same thrills, excitement and pleasure from a river trip in the East.
Western trips generally are longer - three days to three weeks. Nearly all of the Eastern trips are one-day floats, but you'll find as many if not more big rapids: There are 21 major rapids on West Virginia's New River and 56 on the Gauley farther north. Actually, the action is more concentrated than on most Western rivers.
Another major difference is the way you go downriver. In the East, everyone is involved in powering the raft. In the West, the passengers generally sit and watch the guides do the work because of the amount of gear being carried.
Most Eastern trips are on four rivers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania: the New, Gauley, Cheat and Youghiogheny.
Rafting doesn't end in the East after spring. Most years you can raft the New and the Youghiogheny into the middle of October. The best time for rafting the Gauley is from mid-September through the end of October, when the Army Engineers release water from the Summersville Reservoir to lower the level for the winter.
Most rafters and paddlers rate rapids on a one-to-six scale. A Class 1 rapids is a little ripple that your grandmother could handle in an inner tube. A Class 3 is more intricate, with large waves common and clear, narrow channels. A Class 5 is defined as being long and violent, having unavoidable powerful waves and dangerous rocks. A Class 6 is extremely difficult - runnable, but with possible risk to life and limb; experts only. NEW RIVER
Once called the River of Death by the Indians, the New is big, powerful water. The calm stretches at the beginning of the trip are the deceptive admission price to the bigger rapids to come. Depending on water levels, 25-foot waves erupt in some of the Class 5 rapids along the 14-mile trip.
There are two kinds of trips offered by outfitters on the New. Most use rafts 16 to 24 feet long with at least one guide in each raft. Everyone paddles. Several outfitters have a guide who sits on a wooden platform at the rear of the raft, using two 10-foot oars for steering and maneuvering while the eight customers paddle.
Nearly all the trips begin near Thurmond, a colorful town nicknamed the Dodge City of the East at the turn of the century. The town's population swelled on weekends from 500 to 5,000 as coal miners from camps and towns along the river descended on Thurmond for rest and relaxation.
The first few miles of the raft trips are mostly Class 1 and Class 2 rapids, giving the guides time to fill you in on the local history and folklore. There's Nelseenie Fields who lives like a hermit in the ramshackle remains of a mansion built by one of the coal-mine operators. You float past deserted coal camps, tipples and coke ovens that once flourished. You may see fishermen, but only a handful because the few access roads into the 900-foot deep gorge can be negotiated only by four wheel-drive vehicles.
The first major rapids encountered on the New is Surprise, a Class 3 or 4 rapids, where you must pick a path between a 10-foot hole and a 6-foot hole. A "hole" is a wave that runs continually upstream in a circular motion in much the same way that water does below a dam. Large holes or hydraulics can flip rafts; they are dangerous and must be avoided. You can get through smaller holes by gathering enough forward power.
Farther downstream you encounter Upper Trestle, a bouncy Class 3 rapids, and Lower Trestle, a Class 4 rapids featuring an eight-foot drop into a violent, V-shaped tunnel of water. Here the canyon begins to pinch the river to a quarter its size. A short set of rapids, called the Warmups, leed into the Keeneys, one Class 4 and two Class 5 torrents that drop 34 feet in less than a quarter of a mile with waves 10 to 15 feet and monstrous holes. Next is find Dudley's Dip, a deceptively treacherous Class 4 rapids with an eight-foot drop that holds the record for bouncing people out of rafts.
You hear the next big rapids, Double Z, before you see it. The name describes the route you follow through the quarter-mile where the river drops 26 feet in 350 yards. It is another Class 5. It is followed by Upper and Lower Kaymoor, Class 2 and 4 rapids. There are still two more rapids with big, rolling waves: Miller's Folly and Fayette Station.
The New drops more than 500 feet in 16 miles between Thurmond and Hawk's Nest State Park, with 21 major rapids (Class 3 and above). GAULEY RIVER
West Virginia's Gauley, with its thousand-foot sandstone cliffs, is variously described as powerful, awesome, demanding and the most challenging whitewater in the East.
To a large degree, the river, in the south-central part of the state, is an artificial river, that can be rafted and paddled only in the spring and fall, when the Army releases water from Summersville Reservoir and the 26 miles from the earthen dam to the hamlet of Swiss are outstanding.
There are about 56 rapids in the Class 3-or-over range, including three that are, depending on the water level, legitimate Class 6 rapids: Pillow, Lost Paddle and Iron Ring. The river drops about 27 feet a mile. The Gauley is complex, requiring a great deal of maneuvering, and powerful.
In their book "Wild Water West Virginia," authors Paul Davidson and Bob Burrell say:
"Pull out all stops on the superlatives to describe this unique wild water river. It is the absolute swirling, pounding, crashing end . . . The Gauley has become the East's qualifying cruise for the title of expert paddler. It is big, it is long, it is inaccessible, it is tough, it is dangerous, it is intoxicating. The Gauley canyon is alternating rapids-and-pool river. The rapids are complex beyond description."
Most of the rapids on the Gauley may be smaller than those on the nearby New, but they've far more powerful and complex. They also come one after another, especially in the 12-mile section immediately below Summersville Reservior.
On the upper Gauley, three rapids stand out: Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle and Iron Ring. Just behind are Insignificant, Sweet Falls and Woods Ferry.
Pillow Rock is awesome and intimidating. Paddlers must punch through several holes before encountering a gigantic wall of water curling off a boulder on the left edge of the river. At first glance, it looks as if the river's going to carry you right into the rock, but the water bouncing off the rock actually pushes you away at the last instant.
Lost Paddle is half a mile of big waves, small chutes, big hydraulics and holes, and lots of dangerous undercut rocks. Farther downstream, Iron Ring probably is the most dangerous. It was the site of massive log jams in the early 1900s. The ring after which the rapids got its name is an artifact from the loggers' blasting the log jams free with dynamite. The river narrows to the right, drops into a hole, splits around a rocky pinancle, then drops into another three-foot hole. There is a little margin for error.
The names of some of Gauley's other rapids further describe it: Upper Mash, Pure Screaming Hell, Heaven Help Us. They are superior rapids and very demanding, but they tend to get lost in the shadow of the Class 6 rapids upstream. On almost any other river, they'd stand out on their own.
The wilderness along the Gauley is incredible, too. Aside from an old railroad line, there are few signs of civilization. In the fall, the changing colors of the leaves and the smell of oak are outstanding. It's just you, the river and the wilderness. YOUGHIOGHENY RIVER
About 75 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the Youghiogheny enchants about 100,000 paddlers a year. In fact, one of the major drawbacks is too many people and too many rafts and boats on the river, especially on weekends.
It's a great introductory river for first-time rafters: It's fun, and it's nearly impossible to injure yourself or to get in serious trouble. The rapids are mostly bouncy, Class 2 and 3, rock-strewn chutes and holes.
You use smaller, 12-foot rafts with room for four paddlers.The outfitters generally provide three or four guides, two of whom paddle kayaks, to take a group of 50 customers down the river. At each major rapids, the group pulls over to shore where the guides explain how to do the run.
Then it's up to you. That adds to the excitement and confusion, especially at first, as the rafts careen off sandstone boulders and splash through waves and holes. But the guides keep a pretty tight watch.
The trip begins at Ohiopyle State Park, where the river tumbles over a 40-foot ledge, then rumbles and tumbles over ledges and between rocks to drop about a hundred feet in the next mile through a series of rapids - Entrance, Cucumber and Railroad - a stretch known collectively as the Loop, where the river makes a giant horseshoe.
Entrance features a long, tortuous course through a network of ledges and giant boulders in which the rafts use a follow-the-leader system. Cucumber, a Class 3 or 4 rapids (depending on the water level), is a straight shot through a series of four-foot drops. The key to running it successfully is to hit the chute and avoid the rocks onboth sides of the channel. At Railroad, the rafts drop through a chute and then dodge rocks at the bottom. Running the Loop takes experts about 15 minutes, but for first-time rafters it may take an hour or longer, depending on how much trouble they get into along the way.
The river then levels out a bit, although it continues to drop off about 13 feet a mile for the rest of the trip. Most of the outfitters offer a 7 1/2-mile trip from Ohiopyle to Stewarton, although several now offer an 11-mile trip to South Connellsville instead.
Along the way, rafters and paddlers will meet Dimple Rapids. The river narrows where a sandbar extends into the channel from the right bank. That forces most of the water in the river to the far channel, where it piles up against Dimple Rock before dropping off to the right. The goal is to ride the current up the surface of the rock, but more than a few people are likely to flip or fall out. But that's okay, because you're then heading into Swimmers Rapid where you can jump into the water and bob through the rapids in your lifejacket.
Farther downstream, you paddle through Double Hydraulic, where you encounter two ledges stretching across the river. At River's End Rapid, it looks at first as if the river really does end. You have to make a 90-degree turn to the left as the river piles up against a giant boulder. You then lurch over a five-foot drop.
The scenery along the Youghiogheny is spectacular. The river winds through a valley surrounded by hardwood trees, hemlock, mountain laurel, dogwood and rhododendron, and the Laurel Mountains loom 1,300 feet above.
he Youghiogheny, which George Washington explored 200 years ago while looking for a water route to what is now Pittsburgh, got its name fromthe Delaware, Shawnee and Iroquois Indians who hunted in the area. It means "river following a roundabout course." Ohiopyle came from the Indians, too - "water whitened with froth," an apt description. CHEAT RIVER
The Cheat in northern West Virginia is a fun river - just a little bigger and a little more difficult than the nearby Youghiogheny. The scenery in its 800-foot canyon is just a bit more impressive, too.
The major problem with the Cheat is not enough water. It can be rafted and paddled only in the spring, and even then there's no guarantee that there will be enough water. It can be a long and rocky 13-mile headache. At high water, however, the stretch between Albright, about an hour southeast of Morgantown, and Jenkinsburg Bridge is very impressive, especially in 12-and 14-foot rafts. As on the Youghiogheny, you're pretty much on your own for getting the rafts through the rapids.
Most of the Cheat's rapids are Class 3 and 4, although at high water several come close to being Class 5s. The chutes are narrow, the waves can be large, and boulders are everywhere. At high water, the river covers the boulders, creating holes. At low water, you have to pick your routes through the mazes and boulder gardens.
The first big rapids you run into is called Big Nasty. It's only about 50 yards long, spilling over boulders and crashing into waves. A couple of rapids downstream is Even Nastier, a long rapids with a difficult wave that has been known to upset rafts and flip paddlers.
One problem on the Cheat is that its rapids are difficult to "read". It's hard to look at the water and figure out what you want to do and where you want to go.
It's that kind of river - unconquered. All natural runoff from the East's largest wilderness areas in northern West Virginia, the Cheat also flow through an area rich in history and folklore. The best times to try the Cheat is between March and late May, or even early June in rainy years.