Rafting Extreme Whitewater on the West Virginia Gauley

Ripping Through The Gauley

We went for the adventure and stayed for the party

By Jake Maynard

At first I was skeptical of the very idea of an adventure resort, like those two words couldn’t belong together. But when it was my turn to plan a trip with my college buddies, I thought it was time to try something different from our usual camping or canoeing excursions. Now that we’re scattered across the country and can usually only swing a three-day weekend, we can barely get a camp set up before its time to pack up and leave. I wanted to get to the good stuff—the rivers, campfires and late nights with old friends—without handling all of the logistics. So I took a chance and booked a weekend with ACE Adventure Resort in West Virginia. We picked mid-September for one reason: the roaring Gauley River, one of the most extreme whitewater trips in the country.

ACE Adventure Resort - Gauley River

ACE is an ace

I’d been worried that ACE would feel too much like a glossy, corporate resort, but when we arrived at the family owned resort on Thursday night, I knew things were going to work out fine.

The welcome center, bar/restaurant and outfitters are all log buildings situated around a large lake. There were people around our age (20- to 40-something) milling about everywhere. Most of the cars in the parking lot were tattooed with stickers of whitewater companies or national parks. About every other car had a scratched-up kayak or mountain bike mounted to the top. Most of the activity was on the lake: people gliding down the zip line into the water and bouncing off the oversized pool toys in the Wonderland Waterpark. All of them tanned or a shade of pink, looking like they spent as much time outside as I’d like to. Other folks were sitting on the patio, sipping on sweaty beers, enjoying the sun. These were my kind of people.

Ace Raft Wonderland Waterpark

After getting the lay of the land, I went back to the welcome center and found that Marc and Danny had already finished checking us in, but Ty was MIA. We found him at the bar, already ordering a round for us and another group of graduate students (all girls) that just got off the river. We hung around at the bar a while, telling tall tales, before calling it a night. Ty stuck around at the bar a while longer, working that big cheesy smile of his.

That night before bed, I asked Danny what he thought of the place so far. 

“We had a plan all ready,” he said. “If this place ended up being like Disneyland we were going to duct-tape you to a tree and leave you there. But you are safe—for now” 

No time to stop

The next day, the weather was cool and dry, almost perfect. We split up and each found our own adventures. Marc and I rented some bikes and hit the mountain biking trails. Ty, always the ladies man, met up with the girls from last night and went climbing. Danny stayed around the cabin, nursing a hangover. The highlight of the day came at night.

Ace Raft Night Sky Zip Line Tours

As the sun went down, we decided to try ACE’s glow-in-the-dark zip line course. Our guide fitted us with helmets and headlights and led us up a mountain. From there we were harnessed and sent zipping down the mountain in the dark. As we flew through the woods, Marc started to howl and next thing I know, we’re all yipping like a pack of wolves. I felt like a kid again.

After the zip line, we all bellied up to the bar at The Lost Paddle—the restaurant at ACE—and ordered enough pizzas to feed a little league team. The Lost Paddle serves good upscale pub food but I was most excited about the brick oven pizza. We washed them down with local craft brews that our bartender helped us pick out. My favorite pizza was “The Ace,” topped with brisket and hot peppers. There was also a live band on the deck and a full dance floor. There’s not enough beer in West Virginia to make me dance, but Ty got out there, proving he is literally incapable of being embarrassed.

Raft guides and guests hung around the patios, the beach and even the parking lot, swapping stories. There were plenty of stories to go around, so it was great that The Lost Paddle slings beers and cocktails well into the night. Somehow, we managed to stay down there until closing time two nights in a row. With no work in the morning, no emails, no worry about driving home—why not?

The Gauley

On Saturday morning we were all moving a little slow, balancing the late night with some serious excitement about the trip. For 22 days each September and October, when water is released from a dam upriver, the Gauley becomes one of the wildest, most extreme whitewater trips in the country.

We met our guides, guzzled free coffee and headed to the river in a converted school bus. People come from across the globe to raft The Gauley; I met paddlers from Texas, Hawaii and even Germany.  On the commute, our guide, Derek, told us all about the river. He’s been boating it for 12 years, which put my stomach at ease.

I’ve been paddling dozens of times before, so I thought I knew what to expect. But then I saw the Gauley: a steep, frothing, monster of a river. We hopped into an eight-person raft and were in whitewater within minutes. We slammed the first rapid so hard it launched Marc into the middle of the raft and sent a wave of water straight into my face. I was daunted, but also giddy and alive. If the coffee hadn’t woken me up, this had. We kept on, one rapid after the next after the next, the boat thrown this way and that, all of us soaked to the skin, cracking up, adrenaline coursing, the sun keeping us warm. It was relentless and exhilarating.

Gauley Extreme Whitewater Trip

After lunch (we ate barbecue sandwiches), we switched positions in the raft—I was now right up front—and headed out for the biggest rapids on the river. As we approached a huge gurgling chute, Derek said, “Well, guys. We can go around the chute or right into the heart of it,” he grinned. “It’s a safe swim if you fall in, but we’ll all be laughing at you.”

We all looked at each other, unsure of what to say next. To be honest, part of me wanted to skip the chute. But how could I tell anybody I did the Gauley if I didn’t stand nose-to-nose with its biggest waves? The other guys weren’t about to stand down either, so we let out a Tarzan-worthy yell and went straight into the monster wave train. We paddled hard, punching through waves until we lit the last white-capped swell. Derek barked orders at us like a drill sergeant: Left back! All forward! All forward hard! We crushed the last wave, dead center. The nose of the boat reared up, like we were trying a wheelie, and we all cheered. I tried to paddle but my paddle just found air. Then the river jumped up and punched me straight in the face. Now, I was in the water.

My first thought, weirdly, was that I probably lost my sunglasses. Then it hit me: I’m swimming in the Gauley. The fall Gauley season isn’t exactly like you’re in the kiddie pool. Waves toss you around and the water is around 58 degrees. But I didn’t think about it, because before I knew it, my friends heaved me back into the boat. I spit a little river water and laughed. Ty handed me back my paddle, “Didn’t know you were on the swim team.” That was the moment that I really knew I was an adrenaline junkie.

ACE Rafting Adventures - The Gauley River

The rest of the river passed in a blur. But, I do remember that there was nothing like it—the rush. At the take-out, while we drank complimentary beers, the guys reenacted my swim. They decided that my new nickname was “Big Fish.” As they goofed off, I noticed the sun was high and the leaves were starting to turn. I wouldn’t usually notice that stuff. It’s funny how sometimes we have to go fast to remember how to go slow; how we have to rip down a whitewater river to appreciate the leaves at the bottom. The river also didn’t look so big anymore. Big Fish—that’s a nickname I could live with as long as I had a beer in hand. Luckily, Derek made sure I did.

On the bus ride back, my best friends and I started making plans to come back next year. I didn’t want to be the only one to earn a nickname.

Book your Gauley adventure now with one of our great fall packages.