Five lesser-known facts about whitewater rafting the Gauley River

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Rafters with paddle through a rapid on the Gauley River in southern West Virginia.

The Gauley River is one of the world's famous whitewater-rafting rivers. Thousands paddle it each year, guided by one of more than a dozen outfitters, are licensed to guide expeditions.


notably in autumn during "Gauley Season" when its flow is highest.

on the river, which is

Despite its popularity, few know its lore, says Rob Dobson, a long-time raft guide and the owner of .

Dobson says there's a

"I like to make sure my passengers know as much about the cultural and natural history of the gorge as possible," Dobson said.

Did you know that Indians escaped into the Gauley wilds to avoid Europeans? Or that Confederate soldiers escaped across the river at night? West Virginia's Gauley River becomes one of the world's most popular whitewater-rafting streams in autumn when Summersville Lake is drained. During this big-water season thousands of bucket-listers and hardcore paddlers descend on the river, but only a few may know of these five facts.

No one knows what "Gauley" means or how the river was named

The Gauley on an 1838 map joined the Great Kanawha rather than the New River.

What does "Gauley River" mean? No one knows for sure. Some have proposed that the name refers to the Gauls of Iron Age Europe. Others say that it is a corruption of the world "gully"—a water-worn ravine. Some suggest it is a corruption of a surname of western European origin. Dobson says the name is remarkable in that it has little association with anything other than the river. "There is only one river named the Gauley," he said.

Rebel soldiers escaped across Gauley during the night.

Rebel soldiers fought valiantly at Carnifex Ferry before retreating by night across the Gauley.

Imagine crossing a raging river under the cover or darkness. Confederate troops retreated across the Gauley on the night of September 10, 1861, following the battle of . Though the river would not have been as high as it is now, it was no easy task. A gun and caisson fell in; however, no lives were lost.

Historian Roy Bird Cook wrote of the crossing in 1931: "The artillery was moved down to the ferry, a distance of more than a mile, over the most wretched of roads, cliffs on all sides, and in darkness. Pine flares spread a feeble light here and there; commands became separated; horses slipped and fell on the rocks. A log pontoon bridge had previously been constructed, about four feet wide, and across this part of his troops were moved. One gun and a caisson fell into the river. Others moved over in the ferry boat. After the troops had crossed, the 'laughing Gauley' carried away the logs of the bridge; the bottom of the ferry boat was knocked out; and a rear guard took up post at the mouth of Meadow River."

Whitewater rafting has earned the Gauley special protection.

The Gauley River winds through a haunting landscape of national importance.

Perhaps nothing speaks of the value of whitewater rafting on the Gauley more than its designation as a "national recreation area." Only 24 such areas have been federally designated in the U.S. Though other whitewater-rafting rivers are located in national recreation areas, no other river has been designated as a recreational resource of national importance for this reason alone.


A river trip is less intense than it once had been.

Access and improved technology have helped tame the Beast of the East.

The "Beast of the East" has become infamous for its intensity, though bucket-listers determined to make the trip can breathe easier these days. The journey is still high-energy and demanding, but technology and better access have helped tame the river, says Rob Dobson, a veteran outfitter and the owner of . Dobson outfits a two-day expedition that trains novice rafters on the gentler lower Gauley first in preparation for the intense upper run.

Native Americans escaped to the sanctuary of the Gauley.

The hidden grave of the daughter of Running Bear lies somewhere in the lower Gauley region.

Several people of indigenous descent escaped into the wilds of the Gauley to avoid the Trail of Tears. A group of Mingo established a village near the source of the river in the Allegheny Mountains. Seaberry Arms Osborne later escaped into the forests of the lower Gauley and was buried in a hidden grave near its mouth. One prehistoric culture buried its dead in cliffs along the Gauley long before Europeans arrived in the area.

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