A light fog slides its way in and out of the river’s gorge, drifting through the trees and then down to the water’s surface. We push off from the rocky bank and drift as well, our path almost as unknown as that of the fog around us. There is over 100 years of collective whitewater rafting and river running experience in this raft, but as we move further downstream, the six of us are not relying on our familiarity with the rapids. Instead we are continually looking downstream, reading the water and paying close attention to what it is telling us. The river often seems to disappear into a garden of car and house sized boulders. It is a maze with different chutes and channels of water, some offering a runnable line over a steep drop and passage onto the next set of rapids. Others simply lead to a dead end, allowing your raft to find itself atop shallow rocks where the water is no more, and now considerations must be made as to how to get back to try a different channel.
Aside from finding ourselves stuck in one of the previously mentioned channels, being out here on the New River “Dries” is quite the treat. The riverbed itself is gorgeous. Though the six of us have each paddled this section of whitewater many times before, no one had ever seen it at this low of a flow. As we move through boulders standing 10 and 15 feet overhead, we reminisce and trade stories about times we had paddled this section when those same rocks we completely submerged, creating huge waves and hydraulics. We joke about how we had never noticed the beauty of the cliffs, the waterfalls, and the natural arch like we were today, largely because at high flows we were white-knuckle paddling for our lives through a rapid aptly named Mile Long.
Not only is it a treat to simply experience this rarely paddled section of whitewater, but today we are also getting to be a part of what could be the next step for the whitewater industry in the area. For many years now, this part of West Virginia has been famous for its commercial whitewater runs on the New and Gauley Rivers. But now, with the Hawks Nest Dam approaching its relicensing date, there is an opportunity to establish a new stretch of whitewater for commercial rafting. Though still in its early stages, this trip down the “Dries” marks the beginning of a feasibility study which will help determine what flows are viable for whitewater rafting. The ultimate idea is that if we can determine what our necessary flows are for boating, and then during the relicensing process those flows can be factored into scheduled releases, similar to the scheduled releases we enjoy on the Gauley River. In the not too distant future, a whole new stretch of world class whitewater could be available to take people rafting down, giving us even more opportunities to share the beauty and the thrill of paddling these special places.