Categories
Kayaking Sports Photography Whitewater

Freestyle Whitewater Kayaking the New River Dries

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Josh Collins performs an Air Screw: @contsquashua

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Corey Lilly @clillyvisuals performs an Aerial Blunt

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Rains Make Waves

Heavy rains along the East Coast of the United States in the first week of August, 2018 brought a surprise spike to the rivers and a special treat to the freestyle whitewater kayaking boaters of Fayetteville, West Virginia. Typically these volumes of water are reserved for the heavy rains of the late Winter and early Spring but heavy rains storms thought otherwise. Normally this section of river is dry, which is why it is called “The Dries.” It is my personal belief that climate change is the reason storms are becoming more sporadic, unseasonable and intense.

The New River is the largest watershed East of the Mississippi. It begins in North Carolina and flows North through Virginia and West Virginia, merging with the Gauley to form the Kanawha, into the Ohio river and eventually the Mississippi. As it travels through West Virginia, elevation drops created by centuries of mountain growth and erosion form large, standing waves which are ideal for whitewater surfing.

Freestyle Whitewater Kayaking is probably the least understood of all the “extreme sports.” Most people without a background in whitewater have no idea what those kayakers are doing in those little, tiny boats. They’re bobbing and bouncing and flipping around and diving down into the water. A person on their very first whitewater rafting trip will gasp “are they in trouble?” The answer is no, they are not in trouble. Quite the opposite in fact, that person is having the time of their life.

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Shane Groves performs an Aerial Blunt: @shanegrooves

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Kayaking Evolution

Whitewater kayaking has evolved immensely from its recreational birth in the mid 1970s. I find it refreshing to know that some of those kayakers are still paddling the New and Gauley rivers of West Virginia, today in 2018. However, most of them are not out on the enormous waves of the New River Dries in today’s lighter, smaller and more agile freestyle kayaks. Most of the freestyle kayakers are the young guns of today’s whitewater generation. They are taking whitewater kayaking to the next level.

When I started kayaking in 1997, freestyle kayaking was just about to explode. People were discovering acrobatic moves that could be performed in a whitewater kayak. Vertical rotations, known as cartwheels, were the hottest moves of the day. Kayaks evolved in design at a staggering pace. Designers and manufacturers discovered knew ways of making advanced moves easier and more impressive.

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Paul Griffin performs an Aerial Blunt

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Video Boaters at Play

At that time I was a full-time video kayaker and my goals in life were to see how many cartwheels I could link together in one ride. Lines formed at the surf spots and could be in excess of 20 people long. There were 18 rafting companies and almost all of them employed 3-7 full-time video kayakers. People went back to the river after they worked on the river just to go to the local play spot and “throw ends.” (Kayaker jargon for doing cartwheels.”

There are noticeably less and less freestyle kayakers on the river today. Fewer and fewer people are coming rafting every year and therefore fewer and fewer people are developing an interest in whitewater kayaking. As there are fewer and fewer kayakers, the ability levels of these kayakers continues to grow to unprecedented levels. There may only be 5 or 6 kayakers at the wave, but these boaters are making big moves. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see these kayakers performing vertical aerial moves on the wave. Moves like the “air screw,” “aerial blunt” and “space Godzillas” (I don’t even know what a Space Godzilla is) are the hot ticket items of today.

I must say I’m proud to be friends with the pioneer kayakers of the 1970’s, the Gen-X video boaters of the early 2000’s as well as the young guns boaters of today. The world of kayaking is a small world after all.

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Michael Buechler performs an Air Screw: @littlemike304

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Categories
Kayaking Landscapes Whitewater

Autumn Leaves River Photography

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Lost Paddle Rapid

October 22, 2017. Kayaking buddies enter the 4th drop of Lost Paddle of the Gauley River the last day of Gauley Season, 2017. It was a warm, 80* day and the leaves were just beginning to change. This is also a little bit North of the New River Gorge and it seems like the colors start to change a little earlier up there.

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Dawn of Autumn

The sun rises over the New River Dries on October 24, 2017. An unseasonably warm start to Autumn and a lack of rain had us waiting a little longer for the changing of the colors in the New River Gorge, WV. I was on my way to school but I just had to pull over and grab this image. I was late for my World Religions class at West Virginia State University, but I still got an A for the class.

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Piece of Cake Rapid

Lower New River. November 3, 2017. Autumn Leaves Journal: The leaves have started to peak. It was a little late this year with the unseasonably warm temperatures and the lack of rain. On October 31 the temperature finally dropped and it rained quite a bit. The leaves changed, practically overnight. On this day I went kayaking with my neighbors, Tennyson, Josh and Nick. That’s what we do in West Virginia. We go out and play in the New River Gorge.

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New River Gorge Bridge Autumn Leaves

November 3rd, 2017 and the leaves in the New River Gorge are just beginning to change. It was unseasonably warm and dry for a long time, then we started getting rain on October 28 and the temperature dropped considerably.e earlier up there.

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Upper Railroad with Train

Autumn Leaves Journal 2017: On November 5th the leaves were in full peak. When it rained on Halloween and the temperature dropped, the colors came out. On this one particular day, it was the perfect photography day. Stormy clouds were passing overhead throughout the day. There were patches of sunlight in between. Fortunately, I had my truck at the takeout and could spend the whole day photographing the New River Gorge. It was the peak day for this year’s leaf season.

I was digging this view of Upper Railroad Rapid from river left. I’ve never been at this particular spot and while I was there a train drove across the bridge.

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Frog Rock

Autumn Leaves Journal 2017: The series continues, with almost all of my best pictures from Autumn coming from November 5th. The pattern of the leaves weren’t anything like the website predicted. This particular day was filled with so much color. Not just the leaves, but the sky was changing constantly throughout the day. We had stormy clouds and light whispy clouds, just as in this picture. This was the third rapid I got out to photograph and there would be two more. Golden Hour arrives a little early in The Gorge because it sits 800 feet below the mountains.

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Hook 99 Rapid

Looking Upstream from Hook 99, a rapid on the New River Gorge. On this day, Golden Hour hit around 6pm. The light shining through the clouds was just what I wanted. I was approaching Hook 99 rapid when I turned to look upstream and I just had to get out of my boat and make a record of such a beautiful sight.

I stayed at this spot for almost 45 minutes and shot 64 images. This is a composite of 7 of my favorites. There’s a lot of debate online these days about photographers wanting other photographers to be up front about their claims as to whether an image is a composite or a single frame. Maybe you’ve seen the debate about Peter Lik’s image. What a bunch of crap. Who cares? Art is art. An image is an image. Yes, this is a composite. I make composites because my camera’s sensor does not have a range to record all of the colors of nature and compositing is the closest I can get. There, take that pixel-peepers! Lol

To be clear, Hook 99 Rapid is not where Mark Harmon died. I’m sick of raft guides telling that to their guests. Mark Harmon was one of the pioneers of canoeing the New River. He flipped his canoe, which had the number 66 on it, and wrapped it around a rock in this rapid. While the canoe was upside down it looked like a 99. Hence, Hook 99.

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Twilight on Autumn Leaves in the New River Gorge

My final picture from the Autumn Leaves 2017 series. November 5th was the epic, quintessential photography day for me this year. Every time I thought the light was going to disappear, it got better. Just as the sun began to set beyond the rim of the New River Gorge, the light became absolutely surreal. It was one of those times where everything just glowed. All of the colors were brighter and more vivid. Every leaf in the gorge looked like it had electricity flowing through it.

I was in between Upper and Lower Kaymoor rapids and I just had to pull over immediately to get some documentation. This was one of those surreal moments that just begged me to use my fisheye lens. I have this 15mm fisheye lens that I bought in 2009. I hardly ever use it. It definitely calls for a special occasion. Interestingly enough, I hardly ever bring it out on the river because space in my dry bag is at a premium. For some reason I had it on this day and it truly fit the bill. This was the picture that really capped off an unusual fall.

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Epic Photography Days of Autumn

November 5th was the epic Autumn Leaves photography day for me in the New River Gorge. This year I decided I wanted to record the weather patterns and temperatures from my perspective. Not very scientific, but simple.

In fall of 2016 I was on my way to the Gauley River to go kayaking. It was after Gauley Season, the first week in November. About the same time as this in 2017. The weather patterns were very similar. I’m driving to the takeout to run shuttle and listening to the radio station. The DJ says “with a high of only 70.” Only 70?! In the first week of November? Are you for real?

I remember as a kid that if Halloween came and we didn’t have to wear a jacket, it was amazing. It was the luckiest day of the year. 70 degrees would have been unheard of.

I don’t know if climate change is a real thing or if we are just in the midst of a cycle that is bigger than our manmade instruments can measure. Either way, it’s worth documenting. Thanks for reading.

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Categories
Kayaking Sports Photography Whitewater

Bridge Day 2017

Bridge Day 2017

Bridge Day is a celebration of the New River Gorge Bridge. The bridge was completed in October of 1977. Every year, on the third Saturday in October, they close down the bridge to vehicular traffic and for one day it is legal to BASE jump from the bridge.

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A Bridge Day jumper guides his deployed parachute from the New River Gorge Bridge

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons. First, the completion of the bridge meant that traffic no longer had to go down the steep, winding roads into the New River Gorge, across the “Tunny Hunsaker Bridge” and then back up the other side. That journey can take up to 30 minutes or longer. Bridging the enormous gap reduced that commute to 30 seconds.

Building the bridge now made route 19 a major throughway for shipping and travel between I-79 North (heading to New York and Canada) and I-77 South, heading to Myrtle Beach and Florida and I-64 East: Washington D.C. and I-64 West: St. Louis Missouri. This has brought a lot more traffic to our area and also boosted tourism, West Virginia’s greenest economic resource. Coal produces the most money but we won’t talk about that right now.

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Most BASE jumpers land on river left in the New River Gorge after they jump from the bridge

Second, BASE jumping is legal for one day. BASE is an acronym for Building, Aerial (as in antennas), Span (bridges) and Earth (like cliffs.) Ordinarily, it is illegal. Gee, can’t figure out why? But for one day, it IS LEGAL. This is celebrated by many BASE jumpers who travel great distances to be here. Many skydivers make their first BASE jump off the bridge because of the controlled environment. It helps prevent accidents.

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Some BASE jumpers touch down in the New River after their jump from the New River Gorge Bridge

In my opinion, BASE jumping is like drugs. People are going to do it regardless, so you might as well make it legal and save the police some work.

Bridge Day brings hundreds of thousands of people to our small little town of Fayetteville, which is largely dependent upon the tourist dollar in a seasonal area. It’s a nice little booster shot in the pocket book right before the winter break.

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River rescue crews, who are raft guides on the New River Gorge collect wet BASE jumpers

Bridge Day is also the unofficial end of the commercial rafting season here. Temperatures are starting to drop and the kids are back in school. People just aren’t coming down here for a winter wonderland whitewater adventure.

To me, Bridge Day is a fun day to reflect upon this season, but also seasons past. I think about all of my fun memories. I’m always going to see friends out on the river. That’s a fun time too.

bridge day 2017 chad foreman photography
Me, hanging on my favorite Bridge Day rock, checking out the jumpers, enjoying a frosty beverage

This year I hung out on my Bridge Day rock. It will be my 3rd year in a row on this particular rock. It’s a great vantage point to watch the action.

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Kayaking with my friend, Mariah on Bridge Day in the New River Gorge.
Categories
Kayaking Whitewater

Gauley Season

For a kayaker in West Virginia, Gauley Season is a special time of the year. Those who have never touched whitewater are unaware of the significance. However, in the whitewater world, everyone knows about Gauley Season. From the Kennebec and Dead Rivers in Maine to the Arkansas River in Colorado to the banks of the Kern and the American Rivers in California, people are singing Gauley praises and spreading the lore of Gauley Seasons past.

Most rivers in America, and the world for that matter, are getting low this time of year due to seasonal lack of rains. Yet, the Gauley River is fed by Summersville Lake, a manmade lake. In the Summer, the lake is for recreation but after Labor Day the lake needs to be lowered to the winter pool in preparation for winter rains. The dam was built by the Army Corps of Engineers from 1960 to 1966. When it was completed, an agreement was made that the whitewater industry would be guaranteed releases every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday for a 6-week period beginning the Friday after Labor Day. This 6-week period is known as Gauley Season.

What makes the Gauley River so special?

The Gauley features 5 big, bold, class V rapids: Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweet’s Falls. Rapids are rated by degree of difficulty from class I to class V. Many other rivers have class V rapids, but one thing that makes the Gauely’s class V rapids so good is that they are just challenging enough to be difficult, yet not too overpoweringly intimidating to scare people away.

Sweets Falls Gauley River
Rafters drop Sweet’s Falls, class V rapid on the Gauley River in West Virginia.

The adrenaline rush and satisfaction from successfully negotiating a Gauley class V rapid is exhilarating. Yet, those rapids are also very forgiving when your line is not as tight as you wanted. Swims and flipped rafts happen a lot out there, but the Gauley is forgiving. She allows you to learn from your mistakes so that you can return a better boater. That’s not to say that she is without her dangers. The dangers are real, but life has inherent danger too.

gauley river swim sweets falls
A rafter takes a swim at the bottom of Sweet’s Falls, a 14 foot, near-vertical waterfall on the Gauley River in West Virginia

The Gauley also has lots of class IV and class III rapids interspersed between the big 5. These rapids maintain the flow and rhythm of an upbeat river trip. They keep things happening and give you plenty of enjoyment in between the biggies. They also provide contrast in a way that is not dissimilar from the slower, quieter parts of a song to emphasize the loud, screaming guitar solos. It’s interesting that the big 5 have a nice spread between them. It’s an ideal pace. There are pools of water in between the rapids but a steady current moves your boats through them at a pace that is just slow enough to give you time to catch your breath, take in the scenery and enjoy a group laugh or chat about the big rapid you just ran.

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Stephen Wright, of Jackson Kayaks, performs a “Loop” at Geek’s Wave on the Gauley River.

Epic Kayak Play

Kayakers flock to the Gauley because of the epic play. “Play,” in kayak terms, refers to river features that are ideal for freestyle moves in a kayak. Most common form of play is “surfing.” The river creates hydraulics that are formed when water fills a hole in a riverbed and then curls back upstream. This upstream force will hold the kayaker in the hydraulic. Add more water, or a differently shaped hole, and that hydraulic turns into a standing wave. Much like a wave on the ocean, a kayaker can surf the wave. The Gauley has some really nice hydraulics and surf waves. What makes them nice is that the features are very distinguished and consistent. This allows you to “get to know” the hole and learn to use it’s features to your advantage.

crystal gustin kayak surf gauley
Crystal Gustin, of Jackson Kayaks, surfs her kayak on “Geek’s Wave” on the Gauley River

In addition to the magic of the Gauley River itself, the season brings it’s own splendor. It’s like a big family reunion. Friends who only come in for Gauley Season are in town. You get a chance to catch up with these friends and enjoy the Gauley together. Many people we don’t know show up to enjoy the Gauley. On Gauley Fest weekend, the banks of the rivers are lined with boaters from all over. That’s just a good reminder of what an amazing place we have here.

animal gauley race
The Animal Upper Gauley Race. The 25th Annual race brings kayakers and rafters from all over.

This picture is from the Animal Upper Gauley Race. That race is special to me. I’ve raced maybe 10 times since 1998. Nowadays I try to go every year. Racing is special all in its own right.

Categories
Kayaking Sports Photography Travels Uncategorized Whitewater

My Path to Totality

Path To Totality

As a photographer, I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to record events. To document them, record them visually, to put them in the archives, to make something that will outlast me, that is a cool feeling.

The Total Solar Eclipse sounded like an event that I needed to document. I may only get one opportunity to see it. I remember a partial eclipse in elementary school. I remember the entire school going out on the playground in the afternoon. It got a little cloudy, so I don’t think we really got to see it. I don’t remember it getting dark. This was maybe 1984 or 1985.

In my typical fashion, I started planning my trip about a week or so before the big event. I messaged my friend, Crystal who lives down in South Carolina and mentioned to her that I was thinking about heading her way for the eclipse. I knew she was close to the path of totality. It turns out she was right in the middle of it. She is also a kayaker and is a team Jackson Kayak paddler. It just so happens that my Jackson Karma Unlimited, the boat I kayaked down the Grand Canyon, I purchased from her. Good opportunity to enjoy some Southern-fried kayaking.

Jackson Team Kayaker Crystal
Jackson Team Kayaker Crystal

The day before the eclipse we went out on the Chattooga River. I’d never paddled that river before so that was fun. Other than the Grand Canyon, I hadn’t kayaked a new river section in years. When you live around America’s Best Whitewater, it’s hard to leave and kayak a new river so I don’t get to kayak new rivers very often.

Long Creek Falls Waterfall
Long Creek Falls Waterfall

Along the Chattooga, this little gem pours in from river-left.

Milky Way Camping
Milky Way Camping

Crystal is friends with a park ranger who hooked us up with the absolute coolest campsite ever. Sorry, I’m not privileged to release information on the location. It must remain top secret because of the 2024 eclipse. It had a splendid view of the Chattooga River Valley.

On the morning of the eclipse, we got up and hit the river early so that we would be back in time to enjoy the 2 minutes and 36 seconds of totality. I got to admit, it was one of the most unique experiences of my life.

Whitewater Kayak Boof
Whitewater Kayak Boof

Crystal gets a great boof in Sockem Dog Rapid on the Chattooga River. This has to be the best name for a rapid. Well, except for Hungry Mother. But it’s definitely my favorite rapid on the Chattooga.