Pillow Rock Rapid, Gauley River, West Virginia
I remember a few years ago, I told Matt Weldon, one of the guys who taught me to paddle, that I was planning on “topping out” in the world of whitewater with the Upper Yough and Upper Gauley. These are very solid Class IV runs with a few easier V’s thrown in for good measure. That seemed like high and lofty goals at the time, perhaps even a stretch. Matt chuckled, and told me “just you wait–you’ll start paddling the Yough, and soon you’ll be eyeing the Blackwater…”
Well, here I am, and I’ve just finished the most amazing three months of boating in my life. In this time, I’ve gotten on the Upper Yough half a dozen times, and just retuned from my fourth run of the Upper Gauley, including a marathon run of 26 miles from the dam to the Swiss takeout. It’s been amazing; they are wonderful rivers, each amazing for different reasons: the Yough, with it’s technical lines and blind drops, and the Gauley with it’s might and power. I’m very comfortable on these rivers now, and have even had the opportunity to show others the lines on both rivers. Paddling these two jewels of the mid-Atlantic has been pure joy, but it’s also caused me to consider what lies beyond.
Whitewater is a sport that is fraught with risk and the management of risk. I’ve had my own close calls: once, at the beginning of my paddling career, when Matt pulled me off of a log on the Wonalancet, and once on a log on the Cheat River (by doing exactly what Greg told me NOT to do!). These experiences reminded me that I’m all too mortal. Much of the risk in whitewater comes not from the “difficulty” of the water itself (well, up to a point…), but from the unknowns inherent on a river. Is there a tree in the water that I don’t see? Is there a rock sieve that I’m not aware of? Is there a situation I may encounter that I don’t have the experience or skill to deal with safely? These risks exist in all classes of whitewater.
I obviously really, really enjoy paddling whitewater. I enjoy the pure physical challenge, but more than anything, I savor the experience. I love paddling with amazing, interesting people. I love being outside, getting astounding views of beautiful gorges that many people don’t have the opportunity to see. I love the rolling sensation of a wave train and the rush of a good surf. I love the way whitewater forces me to forget the daily pressures of life to focus on something clear and simple: get my friends and myself from point A to point B, while having as much fun as possible.
So given the inherent risks of paddling and my satisfaction with the status quo, why paddle harder water? Why should I go beyond the Upper Gauley and Upper Yough?
For me, there is no pressing, driving need. There’s no reason to make it a goal. I’m no hot shot young gun; I have nothing to prove. I’m perfectly content with the rivers I paddle currently. That said, however, if I feel a river is well within my skill level AND I am confident that I can be safe on it (knowledge of strainers, sieves, and I have a very strong crew that I have confidence in), I feel there is no reason to arbitrarily exclude it. This means that there may be some rivers I’ll never feel comfortable paddling, and others I might. In the future, my paddling decisions will not be goal directed, seeking out harder and harder rivers; they will be fun directed. That means paddling with fun people on “easy” rivers, paddling old favorites, and perhaps, on occasion, taking on a “hard” river. Having fun is what it’s all about, and I plan on keeping at it for many years to come!