The “Beast of the East” will be unleashed this weekend.

Beautiful weather beckons as the annual Gauley River whitewater rafting season begins Friday at the base of the Summersville Dam, enticing participants from around the world to test some of America’s most daunting rapids.

During a 22-day release in September and October, over 50,000 rafters and another 25,000 private boaters (kayakers, canoeists, etc.) will experience why the river is rated seventh best in the world and second best in North America for whitewater rafting, according to ACE Adventure Center’s Joe Shrewsbery, who’s guided and/or paddled on the Gauley for a quarter of a century.

“These 22 days are the ones we work for the hardest,” says Shrewsbery, who oversees the grounds and maintenance for Minden-based ACE when he’s not battling the rapids. “Not everyone can be a guide on this river and those that are represent the best from many different rivers. Paddlers converge on West Virginia in September and October to guide and renew friendships. The energy is unbelievable.”

The guides are not the only thrill-seekers who return year after year to run the rapidly-churning water, which will course downstream at an average of 3,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) as the result of water released from the dam in conjunction with the draining of Summersville Lake to winter pool levels by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We have a huge percentage of people who are repeat customers,” says Jack Lund, an ACE guide since 1980.

Lund adds that the Gauley experience offers “literally a world event.” “I’ve had people in my boat from probably almost any country you can name,” he said.

Participants will explore two distinct segments — the Upper Gauley and the Lower Gauley — which span over 25 miles from the dam to Swiss in Nicholas County. More than 100 named rapids — ranging from lesser-difficulty Class II and III to the more heart-pounding Class V-plus — comprise the challenge for those who set their vacation course for southern West Virginia.

Len Hanger, vice-president of Songer Whitewater in Hico, says he’s noticed many visitors who want to turn up the intensity this fall.

“Returning rafters seem to want a high-adventure event, such as using four people instead of eight in a boat, or doing the Upper and the Lower (in one day’s time),” said Hanger. “People are looking for more excitement.”

“The whitewater industry and Gauley River products have changed,” says ACE owner Jerry Cook. “Several years ago, you simply did the Upper or Lower Gauley. Today, whitewater paddlers can choose from 30 options such as Double Uppers and Deluxe Gauley River Overnights with riverside camping. The river hasn’t changed but what we can offer our guests has.”

In addition to the traditional fall season, ACE is one of the few outfitters running the Gauley throughout the summer months.

Lund says outfitters utilize different take-out points on their property along the river, and they work to create packages that will appeal to a variety of enthusiasts.

“Overnights on the Gauley are unbelievable,” he said. ACE camps its tourists at Sugar Creek (accessed via Ansted) after doing the Lower the first day, then transports them to Summersville for a strong finish on the Upper the second day.

Lund says the Gauley is an entirely different proposition than the New River, on which local companies transport visitors beginning in the spring.

“The Gauley’s a whole separate animal that stands on its own,” says Lund, who points out that, contrary to the belief in some corners, the water gets warmer as the season progresses. “We’re just counting the hours.

“The excitement level has gone through the roof.”

Hanger, too, says he’s anticipating the coming season.

“(The Corps of Engineers says) There’s plenty of water, so we should get all 22 days,” he said. “The weather is great; this is going to be an awesome weekend.”

Hanger said Songer guest reservations have been “pretty strong” and that “gas prices haven’t created many problems for us. We feel like it will be a nice finish to what has been a good year for Songer.”

Songer visitors can aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, as the firm will donate 50 cents from every T-shirt sold up to $500 to the Fayette-Nicholas chapter of the American Red Cross for hurricane relief. Hanger challenges all outfitters to make similar contributions, as well.

The Gauley River dam release runs every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday beginning this weekend through October 10 and again on October 15 and 16. The last weekend also features the state’s largest one-day festival with the annual Bridge Day™ celebration on the New River, set for October 15.

Sharon Cruikshank, director of the Fayette County Camber of Commerce and chairman of the Bridge Day™ Commission, welcomes the Gauley season.

“You couldn’t ask for more perfect weather,” she said. “We’ve already noticed an increase in traffic here (Oyler Avenue office).

“We challenge all businesses and residents of southern West Virginia to have their hospitality hats on.”

— E-mail: skeenan@fayettetribune.com

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