September 24, 2001 -- Summersville, WV
The Gauley River has been ranked among the top twenty rivers in the
world, and with good reason. With twenty-seven miles of world-class
whitewater and over one hundred named rapids, there is plenty of
action for top-level paddlers.
Every September for the past nine years, local event organizer Donnie Hudspeth has hosted the
"Animal" Upper Gauley Race, considered one of the most challenging
downriver events in the world.
Andrew McEwan scrapes by Pillow Rock on his victorious run. Minutes later he was $1000 wealthier.
||The "Animal" takes place over the top nine miles of the Gauley,
including the river's five most difficult rapids: Insignificant,
Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweet's Falls--all of
which are rated class IV-V at a boat-crushing 3000 cubic feet
per second release from the imposing Summersville Dam just upstream.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of action in between the river's
larger drops to thwart even the most seasoned elite racers.
This year, the "Animal" was run in conjunction with the World Rafting
Championships and was also being recorded for broadcast on the
Outdoor Life Network (check with your local cable or satellite
operator for times). As a result, major sponsors had jumped on board
with an unprecedented $8000 cash prize purse and lots of gear.
With so much at stake this year, USA Wildwater racers Andrew McEwan,
Jess Whittemore, Chara O'Brian, Steve Kauffman
and Chris Hipgrave all made the pilgrimage to battle the
river for money and record race times.
As reigning champion, Andrew went off first. Because he had not been practicing
on location during the "Gauley season" weekends
leading up to the race, and the rest of us had learned some
pretty fast and sneaky lines, we hoped that one of us could
beat Andrew for the first time. Next off was Steve, then Jess
at a breakneck pace, myself, and Chara--followed by the other
100 or so competitors, any of whom could potentially challenge us for the cash.
Andrew had a clean run through to the finish line, save at Sweets Falls
where he bent the bow of this composite Wildwater boat ninety degrees
to the right, still posting a very fast time of 45:03, just short
of his record.
Chara O'Brien takes Pillow Rock--and the women's title--with grace.
Upstream, Jess managed to overtake Steve about halfway
down the run when he became mixed up in raft traffic and ended up
underneath one of these mobile undercuts.
Steve managed to stay in his boat, but lost valuable time dealing with
the raft and throwing a few select epithets at an oblivious guide.
Steve trailed Jess over the finish line, though not before Jess
had also damaged his boat.
Jess, along with the Snyder Brothers, is an acknowledged "father
of squirt boating" who gave us a sample of his deep water skills
at the finish line. Having snapped his front wall in the maelstrom
of Sweet's Falls, the water pressure flattened his bow to just a
few inches wide, throwing him into a towering bow squirt that he
rode out all the way to the finish--a very impressive stunt in a
4.5 meter Wildwater boat!
Just upstream, Chris and Chara had clean, uneventful runs with little
or no interference and looked strong over the finish line.
While we dug into our 5th or 6th plates of food at the awards ceremony,
the results where posted. In the men's division, Andrew McEwan maintained
his reign convincingly and walked away $1000 wealthier. Chris Hipgrave
came in second place, just 28 seconds back, with Whittemore and
Steve Kauffman close behind. All in all, this was a very close race
for the men. In the women's event, Chara cleaned up, besting the
other women competitors by a huge margin and beating every other
person (male and female) in her class, no doubt sweetening her $1000
Will Andrew ever be defeated on the Gauley? Who knows, but you can sure
bet that we will all be back next year to try again. For complete
results and for the dates on next years "Animal" Upper Gauley Race,
The Animal was a first-class race, with excellent T-shirts, extensive
safety, video and photographers at all major rapids, and a smorgasbord
of food and beverages right at the finish line. During this incredible
riverside meal is a prize giving (and there are plenty of prizes!).
I hope to see you there next year.
Editor's note: This is one hellacious run. After a flawless
run through Pillow, on the weekend before the race, I became pinned
in an unnamed rapid, and crushed the deck of my poor wildwater
C-1 during the rescue. After a duct tape field repair I was back
in my sick, oil-canning boat, destined for two more enervating
swims at Lost Padde and Sweet's Falls. But I'll be back next year,
even if my boat will not! 8>).--MB
Chris Hipgrave is a US Wildwater Team K-1 racer training in Bryson City,North Carolina. Reach him at