West Virginia river outfitters report gains in 2017

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Wave-smacking on New River, Adventures on the Gorge
Rafters paddle into a wave on the New River in southern West Virginia. Photo courtesy Adventures on the Gorge.

West Virginia river outfitters in 2017 recovered from two years of low numbers and posted statewide gains of 5,000 river visits, according to a spokesman for Adventures on the Gorge, one of the state’s chief outfitters.

The W.Va. Department of Natural Resources, which compiles a total number of annual river users, primarily rafters and anglers, reported that 136,027 users were counted on all state rivers in 2017, compared to 131,027 in 2016 and 134,082 in 2015.

According to Dave Arnold, a spokesman for Adventures on the Gorge, his company hosted 9,486 rafters on the Gauley River and 35,911 on the New River in 2017.

“This was a positive year on the New and Gauley rivers with people of all ages and from all over the globe demonstrating that the adventurous spirit is alive and well,” Arnold said.

As a veteran of the rafting industry who got his start guiding in the 1970s, Arnold has experienced its explosive growth as well as periodic downturns.

“Whitewater rafting is a relatively young industry that did not get going until after World War II in the West and in the late 1960s here in West Virginia,” he said.

“I remember well when we were starting out when we spent our days on the river and nights in the tent I called home.”

Co-founder and vice president of public relations and strategic partnerships for the company, Arnold helps manage the largest rafting company in the state with a resort complex on the rim of the New River Gorge in southern West Virginia.

The company accounted for approximately half of all trips taken on the famed Gauley River and one-third of those on the New River, Arnold said.

He attributes the industry’s recent stability and modest growth to the following factors:

Consolidation

Many of the original outfitters have merged to create larger companies with loyal customer bases. Adventures on the Gorge was formed in 2008 when Mountain River Tours, Class VI River Runners, and Rivermen joined forces. Songer Whitewater joined the company three years later.

The creation of the “Adventure Resort”

Instead of relying on a single product, Arnold said the consolidated companies expanded their offerings to include cabins, campgrounds, luxury rentals, dining and additional activities like zip-lining, lake sports, mountain biking, disc golf, and live entertainment. In 2016 the resort opened a dedicated conference center to host business meetings and other group events such as weddings and family reunions.

The opening of the Summit Bechtel Reserve

One of four facilities managed by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America and the home of the 2017 National Scout Jamboree as well as the 2019 International Jamboree, the complex attracts a group eager to experience the outdoors. Adventures and other outfitters have hosted many scouts on the New River in the past five years.

Success in attracting families

Arnold says Adventures on the Gorge has introduced families to outdoor activities, and parents have realized that an adventure resort vacation is a great way to get their kids away from their computers and hand-held devices. The resort’s campgrounds and multi-bedroom cabins as well as its family-friendly activities combine to create an atmosphere that appeals to all generations.