Naming a rapid is an act of defiance.

It assigns permanence to an impermanent thing, and attempts to conquer something that continually proves unconquerable. Even the simplest names, like Railroad or Triple Drop, take for granted that the railroad will linger, or that the rapid will always contain three drops. As adventurers who chart the rise and fall of water, and who note every subtle change to the riverbed, we should think the attempt at permanence a fool’s errand.

The best rapid names, of course, are homages to the daredevils, fools, and whoever lay between when they crossed the horizon line. They can cement a legacy, capture horrific failure, and even foretell their creator’s future. The best names seem to stand out like beacons, conjuring dreams and drawing boaters from far and wide to test their waters. Some fall short of their declaration; others rise from the current like sirens, dashing boaters upon their rocks.

As Jim Stuart and crew entered the river below the Summersville Dam on the Gauley River in October of 1969, they set out to name as many of the river’s rapids as they could. They didn’t believe they were conquering the river that day. In fact, it is hard to imagine they knew the names they created would even stick generations into the future. Instead, their task was more monumental. They were hoping that something as simple as a rapid name was enough to prevent the permanent destruction of the river.

Insignificant

Jim was the only one who had run the river before.

It was on his first trip, a year prior, that he learned of the plans for the Swiss dam. Appalled at the idea of flooding such a pristine valley, he embarked on a plan to popularize and commercialize the river. The Gauley needed to be in every guidebook, and on the menu of every rafting company, and only names and descriptions could expedite that process.

At the dam, Bill Friend, Al Jenkins, Ed Richmond, Barbara Brown, Peter Brown and Gorman Young joined Jim. Their skill sets were a mix, a fact that would become integral to what they would encounter downstream. More integral was the water level; the crew estimates the river was running 2200cfs, nearly double the ~1200cfs Jim had encountered on his run the prior year. At those flows, the Gauley is two entirely different rivers, one a dangerous and technical run with long pools, the other a powerful, dynamic run with long, pushy rapids. Not everyone in the group was adept at handling big water, and after the first few miles, Peter Brown was worried.

As the river made a sharp bend to the right, and the canyon walls rose sharply from the shores, he asked Jim what lay ahead. Jim nonchalantly replied “something insignificant,” as his mind lay downstream on the rapid that really worried him, Pillow Rock. But as the waves grew larger, Jim knew something was off. Cresting a wave partway down the rapid, he could see a large hole in the center of the river. He deftly surfed his way left to avoid the hole, then back right to avoid a second hole. He quickly caught an eddy halfway down the rapid and turned back upstream. It was from there that he surveyed the carnage.

“Three or four upside-down boats with brightly colored helmeted swimmers” were bobbing their way down the rapid. The rest of the group was following closely behind Jim, and not everyone had time to make the hard turns to avoid the offset holes. Peter Brown, one of the few still in his boat, came paddling by, and with an irritated tone in his voice said, “insignificant huh?” Jim pulled the wax pencil from his lifejacket and jotted down the name. Then he headed down to collect the swimmers.

Lost Paddle

“Rolling wasn’t usual.”

As Barb Brown remembers, not everyone in the group had a solid roll. Paddling the Gauley without a roll seems like a sin today, but the 1960’s came with a different mindset. The homemade gear and boat designs, and outfitting that was prone to failure, made rolling a luxury reserved for the best boaters. And if you found yourself out of your boat, it wasn’t a guarantee your paddle would float.

On a July trip down Section IV of the Chattooga, Barb had gotten herself in trouble in one of the rapids and swam. After finding her way to the shore, she discovered her paddle had disappeared. A heavy aluminum shaft and thick blades turned the paddle into an anchor. Jimmy Holcombe waded out and examined the riverbed with his feet, eventually finding the buried paddle.

Passing the mouth of the Meadow River, the group was about to encounter their biggest challenge. Four distinct moves, separated only briefly by fast moving pools, combine to create a rapid that remains the most difficult on the river. As Barb made her way down the second drop, over the wave that is known today as “Hawaii 5–0,” she found herself aimed at a mid-river rock. Upon contact, her boat came to a screeching halt. Jim remembers seeing her helmet “fly forward over her face, and her paddle leap magnificently into the air”. Hovering, half-pinned on the rock for a few seconds, she eventually flipped and swam, finding the shore on river left. An hour-long search for her paddle proved fruitless, and with the late afternoon light fading, the group decided to call it a day. Barb swam across to river right, and the search for a path upstream began.

Barb and Peter had to return to DC, so they made the difficult trek uphill to Carnifex Ferry, boats and gear in tow. The rest of the group followed, making plans to tackle the rest of the river the next day. Jim was perhaps the only member left convinced it was still a good idea. Barb would return a year later, after extensive roll practice, and along with Carrie Ashton become the first women to complete the full Gauley Run. Several years later, Mimi Demaree found Barb’s paddle. The shaft had wear marks in the aluminum, the river still slowly leaving its mark in memory of that day.

Defeating a Dam

Lost Paddle and Insignificant are just two of the many rapids that got named that weekend. They got sent, along with descriptions, to Paul Davidson for inclusion in Wildwater West Virginia. A year later, Jim Stuart spearheaded the first commercial rafting trip with help from the Dragan brothers. In 1973, a mere five years after the first descent, and just four years after Jim’s wax pencil jotted the names down, dozens of boaters gathered in a prelude to what would later become Gauley Fest. In the following decade they defeated the proposed High Swiss dam. The decade after that they saw the river become a National Recreation Area. Today, thousands of people pass through those same rapids, an experience etched in their mind, connected with a name from that October day.

Because in the end, it’s the personal connection that allows a rapid name to linger, even after the river has changed its physical shape. The power behind that connection has the ability to crumble concrete walls, and preserve, forever, the places that we come to call home. Each run is marked by the joy and agony found at each new precipice. The original act of defiance becomes a definition, then an outright declaration of the place. What seemed a fool’s errand proves to be wisdom; legacies and failures cemented, with only the future stories left to tell.