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A History of Whitewater Rafting in West Virginia

By Armand Gruspe


On a drizzly, overcast June afternoon, I set out to challenge the whitewater of the New River for the first time. I had always heard about the thrill of rafting the New River. However, I soon found out the difference between hearing about West Virginia whitewater rafting and experiencing it first hand. As soon as I had arrived at the base camp of Class VI River Runners, I knew that I was going to be in good hands. The rafting company spared no expense at providing first class facilities fully equipped with bathrooms with showers. They also provided first rate equipment in self-bailing rafts, personal floatation devices, helmets, paddles, and rental wet suits. My comfort level about our readiness to face the river was dashed as soon as the New River showed its might in the first rapid appropriately named Surprise ( as if to say, "Surprise! My rapids are more powerful than you can imagine!").

Surprise rapid turned out to be only a prelude to wilder water. Further down the river on a stretch of rapids marked by what is called the Undercut Rock, we were tossed around like rag dolls. We hit a huge wave that knocked my brother Arnold, who was positioned in the front left seat, backwards to the middle of the raft and my friend Andy, who was sitting behind me in the rear right, completely out of the raft. I almost shared Andy's fate but held onto the raft desperately with my left foot lodged tightly underneath the seat in front of me. Andy floated helplessly down the river but miraculously managed to avoid being swept underneath the Undercut Rock. Our guide heroically righted our raft and recovered Andy in time. After that set of rapids, we really were filled with a combination of fear and excitement. By the end of our trip, we felt that we had accomplished a memorable feat.

Whether seeking thrills or family fun, thousands of people gather at the various rafting companies each year throughout the nine month season that runs from April through October. During the 1994 season, "more than 200,000 people rode West Virginia's world-class whitewater, pumping millions of dollars into local economies and bolstering the state's image as a worthwhile destination for outdoor adventure." It is hard to believe that such beauty of nature was once unknown to the world outside West Virginia until about thirty years ago. Whitewater rafting in West Virginia started with a handful of paddlers who rode the New River in canoes. Paul Davidson and Bob Burrell started to canoe mountain rivers in 1965, sacrificing many canoes before the Czechoslovakian slalom canoe came to their attention. (Davidson, 1) Although West Virginia natives thought that they were fools, more paddlers from the East exchanged knowledge and technology to further push the development of the sport. Henri Demarne, John Berry, Dan Sullivan, John Sweet, and Jim Rawleigh put Paul Davidson and Bob Burrell in closed boats and introduced them to the Cheat, Yough, New, and Gauley Rivers. (Davidson, 1) The paddlers of West Virginia soon united to form "the West Virginia Wildwater Association who, since 1965, have been paddling and exploring the creeks, streams, and rivers, in almost every nook and cranny in the state by means of whitewater boats and techniques." (Davidson, 3) Every new stream found by members of the Association has been recorded in guidebooks such as The Southern Streams.

Out of the hobby of whitewater canoeing, the whitewater rafting industry developed in West Virginia. Like the early paddlers, the pioneers of the whitewater rafting industry were made of the same renegade spirit. One needs to have such spirit to take on the New River, "a stream with a fall of 850 feet in eighty five miles>" (Carptenter, 249) Such a steep stream easily produces very difficult to navigate Class IV or V rapids, characterized by long or continuous series of high waves, complex combinations of crosscurrents, holes, eddies, partially submerged boulders, and ledges. (Davidson, 1) These pioneers of the industry also had great foresight in choosing the New River Gorge as the first site in West Virginia for whitewater rafting. Charles Carpenter remarked in The West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia that "as a scenic wonder of its kind, the canyon has no equal in the eastern part of the United States." (Carpenter, 249) The New River Canyon is the "longest and deepest canyon in our country outside the Rocky Mountain region." Bob Burrell aptly named the New River Gorge as the "Grand Canyon of the East" (Carpenter, 249) and happily discovered that such western-like class river "action was obtainable at a place in the East located within a 500-mile radius of 70 percent of the United States population." (Burrell, 63)

Who were these whitewater founders? Were they businessmen in wetsuits? Amazingly, the early pioneers of the multi-million dollar industry in West Virginia were merely college-aged kids who wanted to just have fun. I was fortunate to interview one of the founders of the West Virginia whitewater industry, Chris Dragan, who now owns Wildwater Expeditions. He was only 15 when his brothers Jon and Tom with Jon's girlfriend, Melanie ( who Jon later married), started to take friends down the New River in 1968. All four river rafters were 24 years old or younger. The whitewater industry around the United States was just as young as these early adventurers. Before the 1960's fewer than 30,000 people had rafted rivers with rafting companies. The Dragans' company in 1968 was only the third of its kind in the entire United States. Because of the lack of communications about rafting during the 1960's, Chris and his crew found the way to start their business on their own without any influence from the other companies in the East and West. They started with Army surplus rafts that they used to maneuver friends down the river. Each person would chip in ten bucks or so for supplies such as food and gas before each trip. The rafting was much different then than now. Because there was no base of knowledge about the river, they would often have to pull over to the side and scout the best possible route. There were no landmarks charted or names given to rapids back then to warn the guides of upcoming waves such as Surprise rapid and Double Z. In fact, as their experience grew, they were the ones who named the rapids according to their character, after some type of geographical location, or some memorable event. For example, Harmon's 99 or Hook 99 was named after Richard Harmon who had an old racing number, 99, on his boat. One day he got his boat stuck underneath a rock which became forever remembered as a reference point on the New River. Once they got the hang of guiding their friends down the many twists and turns, word spread about how much fun rafting was and requests for more rafting trips increased to the point that the idea of a whitewater rafting business became feasible. (Dragan interview)

Like the actual whitewater rafting, the business aspect of starting the first whitewater company in West Virginia was like diving into uncharted water. No laws existed about recreation on the river at the time. The New River Gorge National River was not officially part of the National Park System until Congress passed a law in 1978. (Http: riverwatch) Before that, the area was state- owned property. The state did not know exactly what to do with whitewater recreation. They put the business under the Department of Natural Resources because the river was a natural resource. The state also thought about putting it under the Public Service Commission because they were charging people to ride down the river. The Dragans eventually worked with the state as the years passed in developing a relationship with the Department of Natural Resources for drawing up laws and regulations important for safety. By 1991, a Whitewater Advisory Board composed of whitewater rafting company officials, private paddlers, private citizens and consumers, fishery officials and the National Park Service was created to deal with whitewater issues such as setting the quota or number of commercial passenters that can be allowed on West Virginia Rivers to prevent overcrowding. (Gazette 5-18-91) Overcrowding was a thought that neither the Dragans nor the banks that refused to lend them money to start the business had ever dreamed about. Believing that the idea was too crazy, the banks would not lend the Dragans the $4000 dollars that they needed for rafts and pickup trucks to run the river. Borrowing money from their more understanding, but still skeptical family, the Dragans bought two pickup trucks and two custom made rafts from a company that sold Army surplus rafts. After Chris, Jon, Tom, and Melanie got out of school for the summer at the end of June, they took only thirty to eighty customers down the river the very first year of business. The rafting was simple: two rafts with two guides per raft (one in the front and one in the rear). Base camp was located in Thurmond, strategically located between the upper and lower sections of the New River. The first day they would raft the upper section and then the lower, more challenging, section on the second day. The season was much shorter then due to both the need to return to school and a lack of navigable water levels. As experience, time and equipment improved the seasons grew longer and the business began to thrive. Thus, Wildwater Unlimited, the first whitewater rafting company in West Virginia was born. (Dragan interview)

It was not until 1971 that other companies began to show up in the New River area. Chris showed both delight and amazement as to how far whitewater rafting has advanced throughout the nation. He even admitted to me that he never would have imagined how big an industry that West Virginia whitewater rafting has become today. Other than the New River, rafters now enjoy the Gauley, the Cheat, the Shenandoah, Big Sandy Creek, Tygart, South Branch of the Potomac, Meadow, Bluestone, and Greenbrier Rivers. All of this was started by a band of young students. A truly inspiring story.


Sources

David L. Brown, "Whitewatering, One Fast Growing Sport," Whitewater News, Summer 1985, Volume 1, Issue 1, 1.

Rick Steelhammer, "Whitewater Appeal Is Stronger Than Ever," The Charleston Gazette, February 19, 1995, 16F.

Paul Davidson, Ward Eister, and Dirk Davidson, The Southern Streams, Volume II, Third Edition (Hillsborough, North Carolina: Menasha Ridge Press, 1985), 1.

Charles Carpenter, "The New River Canyon," West Virginia People and Places, The West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia Volume 22 Supplemental Series (Richwood, West Virginia: Jim Comstock, 1974), 249.

Bob Burrell, "Grand Canyon of the East," Field and Stream, March 1974, Volume 78, 63 and 209.

"Seat Quotas On Whitewater Trips Questioned," The Charleston Gazette, May 18, 1991, 13A.

Author's interview with Chris Dragan, October 30, 1997.


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