FAYETTEVILLE - The Summersville Dam was built for flood control in 1966, but it is the dam's much sexier and economically fortuitous purpose - initiated 20 years later - that is celebrated for 22 days every fall during "Gauley Season," when the dam unleashes the "Beast of the East" and the best whitewater rafting in the world.
Situated in a region known as the National Parks of Southern West Virginia, the area is rich in natural beauty and cultural significance. Beginning in the 1960s, a handful of adventurers also discovered that in addition to the region's natural beauty, its New and Gauley Rivers were prime for whitewater rafting, at the time a burgeoning industry.
River guide and founder of Mountain River Tours, Paul Breuer is credited with first making the Gauley River viable to commercial rafting in the 1970s. By 1986, a group of commercial rafters and several private paddlers who had been passionately promoting the expanding industry on the Gauley and New Rivers envisioned a secondary use for the massive Summersville Dam. By initiating a series of calculated water releases during fall weekends, they could create a rafting experience with the biggest and baddest rapids in the world and bring tourism dollars to a region largely dependent on coal mining.
All it would take was an Act of Congress to do it.
An Act of Congress
Whitewater rafting leaders who recognized the potential of the dam successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation permitting the Army Corps of Engineers to schedule the release of lake water on September and October weekends to specifically benefit the rafting industry. The group demonstrated that such a move would put hundreds of people to work and generate millions of tourism dollars annually. Among those visionaries were Breuer and Dave Arnold, co-founder of Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG) and founder of a whitewater rafting company called Class VI.
"The whitewater rafting industry is normally dependent on the whims of Mother Nature, but the Gauley Season is a happy and decidedly predictable exception," said Arnold, whose Class VI whitewater rafting company merged with Breuer's Mountain River Tours and an outfitter called Rivermen nine years ago to create Adventures on the Gorge, a full-service adventure resort situated on the New River Gorge. "Since the huge rapids of the Gauley are created by a calculated, precisely timed, human-controlled release of water into the river, rafting enthusiasts can bank on an exciting ride that will test their skills and feed their adventurous spirits."
The Beast of the East - what to know
This year, the Beast of the East - the oft-used label for the river during Gauley Season - will be unleashed beginning Friday, Sept. 9, and the season continues every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday through Sunday, Oct. 16 (with the exception of Friday, Oct. 14).
For more information, call 1-855-379-8738 or visit adventuresonthegorge.com.