The Evolving Culture of W.Va. River Guides

Jul 25, 2019

Just about any search on Google for “best white water rafting” includes West Virginia. Around 150,000 people commercially raft a West Virginia river each year, mostly on the New River and Gauley River, which are near Fayetteville, West Virginia. At one point there were just less than 30 rafting companies in the area. Today, they have consolidated into six adventure businesses. 

Taking many of the people down the river is a raft guide – someone who is professionally trained to know water, but also to know people. The concept of a river guide in West Virginia started to form in the late 1960s, creating an entire guiding community culture. It is one that has been passed down for decades and is developing more each year.

Every guided raft trip provides guests with a taste of the culture. Especially with experienced guides like Ray Ray, a senior river guide for Adventures on the Gorge – a river guiding outfit in Fayetteville.

It Is In Your Blood, Or It Is Not

On this day, Ray Ray guides eight guests down the lower New River. The water is warm. The canyon surrounding them is tall and covered in thick green trees. Birds are chirping, there is a slight rain drizzle. The arch of the New River Gorge Bridge glimmers in the distance. 

Ray Ray paddles a raft down the lower New River. He has been guiding since 1992.
Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s the best job in the world. I actually have two college degrees I’ve never used a day in my life,” Ray Ray says.

Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, says all the guides have a deep love for the outdoors. 

“There’s something that happens when that first wave hits you. White Water rafting is either in your blood or it’s not. And when that first wave hit me, I was addicted,” Roger says.

He says guiding is not for everyone, as there is a large social aspect. One must be able to read people just as well as one reads the water.

Dave Bassage, who has been guiding since 1984, says there is a close, mutual respect between him and the customer.

“I really love the dynamic of having a crew of different people every day and introducing them to what I think of as the dance with moving water,” Dave says. “We’re just one of its partners, and we’ve got all these other partners in the raft.”

Roger Wilson (left) and Dave Bassage in front of the main Adventures on the Gorge building. Roger started guiding in 1975 and he took Dave on his first raft trip - Dave later started guiding in 1984.
Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Being a river guide can be a nomadic lifestyle, as the season goes from March until October. Jay Young, media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says many of the river guides work at ski resorts in the winter or they continue guiding in South America. 

“Those people everything they own fits in the back of their truck or car and they’re off to the next destination to whatever’s in season,” Jay says.

"Ya'll Ready?"

The guide leading the boat on this day has made a career out of the industry. Ray Ray has guided in West Virginia since 1992, and he has worked on dozens of other rivers across the world. 

On this trip, there are four other rafts with guides in the group, but Ray Ray is the trip leader. He consistently checks in with the other guides.

“Ya’ll ready? You ready Caveman?” he asks.  

All the river guides have nicknames. One man with shoulder length blonde hair goes by ‘Caveman.’ He got the name because of where he lived for about eight months -- the span of a full rafting season.

“I was looking around through the woods one day and found this cool little rock house overhang and just made it into a house,” Caveman says. “I actually had an endangered species of salamander living with me - it was pretty neat.”

And Ray Ray’s nickname is a bit of a mystery, but Jay has a theory. 

“Ray Ray is Ray Ray, because he’s twice the fun,” Jay says.

Ray Ray gives the raft paddling commands. 

“Forward and back, forward and back, don’t use your arms,” he says.

Rafts floating down the lower New River. Today, guides are in almost every commercial raft; however, in the 60s, 70s and 80s that was not as common.
Credit Caitlin Tan / WVPB

There are long stretches of calm, scenic floating. Ray Ray explains the history of the area, and he tells stories, like how different rapids and obstacles in the river got their names. There is Greyhound, Flea Flicker, Meat Grinder, Old Nasty and Miller’s Foley. 

“A kayaker named Miller got stuffed up underneath that rock over there. He was trying to run a real gnarly line, but he swam out alive, which was a million to one shot,” Ray Ray says. “He needed to go buy himself a lottery ticket.”

Ray Ray’s skin seems to be permanently tan. The fine lines on his face are of a person who has worked outside all of their life. When he sits on the back of the raft, paddle in hand, he is in his element. 

Mostly he jokes in a playful voice with the guests… 

“Remember I told you if I don’t bring you back they’re gonna dock my pay. So, you better make your swim,” he says.

But in serious moments, Ray Ray exudes confidence. His voice booms, his commands are clear. 

Danger Lurks 

In the rapid sections of the river, the raft pushes itself through the raging white water. Everyone gets soaked, but Ray Ray guides the entire time.

“Forward go – go! Keep going guys,” he says.

Some of the guests scream from a mix of fear and excitement.

After the rapids, Ray Ray pauses to check on the other rafts in the group.

We’re approaching an obstacle called ‘Meat Grinder.’ 

“It’s a collection of undercut rocks where water goes under and through it,” Ray Ray says. “We say water goes through and bodies do not.”

Some people are thrown out of their raft in the rapid above Meat Grinder. They are not part of Ray Ray’s group, but he immediately springs into action. The possibility of something catastrophic happening is low, but ‘Meat Grinder’ is one of the more dangerous areas on the river.

The guides react quickly, and Ray Ray shouts to the people bobbing in the white water, trying to save their raft.

“Leave the boat. Swim – swim!”

Everybody is fine, but it is because Ray Ray and the other guides on the trip are experts on reading the water and reading each other. Something Jay Young, the media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says is just part of being a professional guide.

“If you were to hang out at the guide camp or even a bar on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t think these guys are the professionals that they are,” Jay says. “But when the poo hits the fan on a river, there’s nobody else I'd want out with me, because they rush into action; they all know exactly what to do, and it gets done fast.”

Passing the Paddle Down

Guides have always had their own language, whether it is hand signals on the river, or talking about water depth or names of rapids. Ray Ray says it has evolved over time. 

“We’re gonna be running one down here called ‘Flea Flicker' that a lot of old timers used to call ‘Last Kick in the Pants,’” he says. “For the most part over time, it’s evolved and it’s just a way for us to communicate, it’s our language. It’s like speaking river guide or speaking hippy.”

Guests that were a part of Ray Ray's group. There are typically eight people to a raft.
Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

And it is the senior guides, like Ray Ray, that teach this new language to the up and coming guides. People who might not have prior rafting experience but are brought together through their love of the outdoors. 

Claire Hemme, a former Inside Appalachia intern, is a first year river guide. She took the job, because she wanted to be paid to work outside.

“It’s just this wonderful eclectic mix of everyone from everywhere who just want to be outside,” she says.

The Glory Days

River guides have always been adventure seeking people, says Roger Wilson, the Adventures on the Gorge CEO. He started guiding in 1975, and he says the concept of the commercial rafting industry was still new.

“Every rock wasn’t named, every route wasn’t ran. There was still that point of discovery,” Roger says. “We were developing an industry – developing something new that no one had ever done before.”

Today, safety is a top priority. Before getting on the river, everyone signs a waiver, and guides ask each person about specific health issues.

But that was not always the case. Charlie Walbridge guided on the Cheat River in northern West Virginia from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. He says there was not a guide in every raft, people did not sign a waiver and guests were often treated like friends rather than a paying customer.

“If somebody fell out of the boat, we’d certainly go help them, but we’d laugh at them,” Charlie says. “There were all kinds of slang. When I first started the guests were turkeys, and then carp and then geeks.”

Charlie Walbridge with his kayak at his home in Bruecton Mills, WV. After trying out for the U.S. whitewater rafting team in 1975, Charlie started guiding on the Cheat River.
Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

These days, guides are almost always in every raft, and there is more respect between the guide and customer. Roger says guiding has become a way to share the love of the sport. 

“It evolves to watching these new guests hit these rapids for the first time and watching the smile on their face,” Roger says.

Don't Watch Life Go By 

Back on the New River, in the raft with Ray Ray, the trip is almost over.  

For most of the guests in the boat, it is their first time down the rapids, but Ray Ray has done it thousands of times. He will be out again the next day, likely guiding more guests down the same rapids, but he still has a big grin and excitement for the river. 

Guests on the bus after four hours of rafting. Buses transport guides and guests to and from the river.
Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Thanks ya’ll very much,” he says. “Ya’ll played super hard today. I told you that was going to be a fun ride today - that was a rowdy ride.”

On shore, all the rafts are deflated and loaded on a trailer.

All 32 people in the group load up on a bus, where cold beer and soft drinks are waiting. Ray Ray has one last message.

“Guys, keep getting off your coach and living your life. Don’t watch this go by.”

This story is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water. Click here to listen.