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Improvements help, but whitewater rafting on Gauley River still challenging as ever

Sunday, September 12, 1999

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There was no roar of water shooting from three large steel-lined discharge tunnels of the Summersville Dam when whitewater rafters Jean and Sayre Rodman of Oakmont ran the Gauley River in 1961.

There was no dam.

And the first stretch of the river they ran that snow-dusted Memorial Day weekend is now under the lake the dam created.

When they camped that first night, the sight of felled trees and bulldozer work was the first indication that change was coming to one of the best whitewater rivers in the country.

And change is coming again.

Beginning next year, the roar now generated by one of the tunnels will be muted because the water it carries will flow into a $55 million hydro-electric plant now being built about 200 feet downstream.

The outflow from the other two tunnels will still churn the water at the base of the dam, but the turbulence it generates won't challenge rafters they way it used to because the put-in has been moved about 300 feet downstream.

"It's a lot easier to get started," said Summersville Lake Ranger Darryl McCallister.

That's an understatement.

After carrying rafts along a gravel path from the parking lot, guides and customers had to ease them down a series of small brown rock ledges, climb in and brace themselves as the tunnels dumped 21,000 gallons of water a second into the river.

They then had to strain to hear the guide's shouted instructions, paddle into waves three- and four-feet-high and try to catch the main current.

If it wasn't done correctly, the edge of the current, known as an eddy line, spun the raft around in a clockwise direction and the crew had to start all over again.

Two days ago, when the annual 22-day Gauley season began, passengers and guides walked down a large concrete ramp and eased their multi-colored rafts into the river.

That's a lot easier than lugging everything down a hillside the way the Rodmans and four friends did for what is acknowledged as the first whitewater trip on the most challenging section of the Gauley.

How tough was it?

The veteran river runners, who have rowed and paddled dozens of rivers, never did it again. "It wasn't easy to find people who could do it and it was a difficult river to get to," Jean said.

But the memory of that first Gauley trip, one of many rivers the Rodmans were the first to run in their oar-powered rafts, is still fresh.

And they will share those recollections, including a frightening incident at a major rapid now known as Iron Ring, at the midpoint of a special two-day, 27 mile trip on the Gauley on Oct. 1 and 2.

"It will be a historic occasion," said Dave Arnold, president and managing director of Class VI River Runners, one of 18 commercial rafting companies licensed to operate on the Gauley.

Sayre, 77, and Jean, 68, who now prefer to canoe, will recall their precedent-setting adventure at the Class VI campsite about 14 miles downstream from the dam.

They'll talk about attaching an old vacuum cleaner hose to the tailpipe of their car to inflate their 13-foot-long and six-foot-wide "orange-yellow" Air Force surplus rafts, carrying them down the steep and wooded hillside and rigging their makeshift oars into canvas oarlocks.

Joining them were fellow Pittsburghers David Barbour, Ken Hawker and the husband and wife team of Kay Thompson and Ralph Krischbaum. Each person had a raft, most of which were manufactured in 1944.

After donning plastic fisherman waders and coats to shed the chilly water, they pulled on old motorboat life jackets -- Sayre's was green and white, Jean's was blue and white. They stored clothing, dehydrated food, tents and other items for the three-day trip in waterproof bags.

Sayre brought a camera and several rolls of film to record the trip and put them in gallon paint can to keep them dry. He'll bring copies of the color pictures to the campsite.

The Rodmans, who met rock climbing at the Sewickley quarry in 1949, were veteran river runners when they ran the Gauley.

In 1956, they were the first rafters to run the Youghiogheny River from Ohiopyle to Connellsville, a distance of 17 miles. They also were the first rafters to run the Upper Youghiogheny in western Maryland, an exciting 10 mile trip that runs from Sang Run to Friendsville.

But the Gauley would prove to be one of the most challenging and intimidating rivers they've ever run.

Although they were too busy to name any rapids as they rowed, the names those rapids have since earned provide some idea of what they had to deal with:

Insignificant (it can be anything but); Pillow Rock (a boulder the size of a coal truck); Lost Paddle (a rock-choked rapid with big drops, huge waves and not for the paddle-less); Sweet's Falls (a 12-foot waterfall named for John Sweet of Penn State).

Koontz's Flume (Kennywood should be so lucky); MASH (don't fall out of the raft); Canyon Doors (a geologist's delight) and Pure Screaming Hell (it's not that bad).

There are 30 major rapids on what is known as the Upper Gauley and more than 20 more on the Lower Gauley.

One of the most memorable -- and frightening -- experiences the Rodman group had occurred at what is now known as Iron Ring. The rapid got its name from an iron ring bored into a large rock on the left side of the river and believed to be used by old-time lumbermen.

The rock formation forces the river to turn sharply to the right where it drops dramatically and slams into a series of rocks along the right shore before it doglegs to the left. A logger once used dynamite to loosen a log jam at the site and the rocks that were shattered in the blast can be treacherous.

Jean didn't like the sight or the "ominous" sound of the rapid and decided to walk around it. The powerful current had turned Ken around when he ran it but he made it. Dave made it, too.

Kay was next and what happened to her transfixed the group.

"She got too close to an undercut rock on the right side," Jean said. "The current grabbed her raft, stood it up on its side and sucked her straight down under that rock."

"It looked like a trout taking a fly," Sayre said. "She was out of sight for at least 30 seconds."

When Kay and her raft popped to the surface downstream, Sayre and Ralph joined Jean in walkingound the rapid. More than a decade later, when the first commercial rafting companies started running the Gauley, guides and customers walked around Iron Ring.

The experience at Iron Ring prompted the Rodman group to walk around Sweet's Falls.

"We didn't need any more scares," Sayre said. "It also would have torn out the bottoms of our rafts and we were too damn far from civilization."

The group camped out below the falls that night. The rest of the trip was uneventful. The group rowed all the way to Swiss the next day, packed up and headed home.

And that was an adventure, too.

"There were no interstates or four lane roads in West Virginia in those days, Sayre said. "In fact, there were no good roads at all. It was a real big push to make it down there and back."

The Gauley is about 200 miles from Pittsburgh via Interstate 79 to Sutton and Route 19, which locals call the "Four Lane" to Summersville.

The per-person cost of a trip on the Upper or Lower Gauley runs about $100 on Mondays, $115 on Fridays and $130 on Saturdays and Sundays.

To reserve a spot on the Meet-the-Rodmans trip, call 800-252-7784 or log on to the Class VI web site at ... For more information about whitewater rafting in West Virginia, including the names and phone numbers of licensed rafting companies, call 800-225-5982 or 304-558-2200.

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