Surf City WVA (video)
POE, W.Va. -- Although West Virginia has lacked a coastline since it severed ties with Virginia 150 years ago, it has an abundance of waves along its many miles of rapids-packed streams.
For decades, paddlers on the New and Gauley rivers have turned their kayaks upstream at the bases of large, standing waves to experience the sensation of being held in place by hydraulic dynamics while "surfing" the wave left and right, upstream and down.
These days, stand-up paddleboarders are riding the West Virginia surf, reconnecting their sport with its Hawaiian roots and adding river surfing to flat-water and downriver paddling as a venue for SUP, the acronym used for their sport.
On Wednesday, two-dozen stand-up paddleboarders gathered at Perfect Wave, a standing wave stretching most of the way across the Gauley River at the beginning of the Gauley's eight-mile-long middle section of whitewater, to take part in Gauley River Surf Day.
"I started coming down here to play three years ago, and since then, the number of people I've seen river surfing in the area has slowly but steadily been picking up," said Melanie Seiler, an instructor and guide for Adventures on the Gorge's SUP program, and the organizer of Surf Day.
"Kayakers have been surfing here since the '70s, and now it's a great place for stand-up paddleboarders to ride a wave," she said. "It's kind of an intermediate-level, unthreatening place to river surf."
On Wednesday, a larger-than-normal release of 5,300 cubic feet per second was making its way downstream from Summersville Dam, as part of the fall drawdown of Summersville Lake, which creates the fall whitewater season on the Gauley.
"Some people might think that big releases like this make river surfing scarier and harder, but it actually makes it much easier for people to get on and off a wave," Seiler said. "The way the rock shelf is laid out here, there's always a wave, so you can surf year-round. It's just better when the flows are higher."
"If you come from an ocean-surfing background, this may be easier to pick up than going downriver" on a stand-up paddleboard, said Ben Moore of Richmond, Va., who was among those riding Perfect Wave on Wednesday. "This is a fun spot -- the wave is nice and glassy, and there's one steep pocket for trying some more aggressive moves."
Moore, who ocean-surfed before trying his hand at river surfing, said riding a standing wave in a river "is the same idea as riding an ocean wave. It's just that the river wave is always breaking at the same spot, so you're not waiting for the wave to do something. While you can only ride an ocean wave for a few minutes at most, you can ride this for an hour or more, if you keep your balance."
In Richmond, Moore said, a large standing wave in the James River gives urban SUP riders a handy place to surf. "We have a community that meets there at 5 every afternoon," he said.
Stand-up paddleboarding is an activity "that's very accessible to all kinds of people," Moore said.
Most people are able to get on top of a board and start paddling within a few hours after receiving initial instruction. Popular flat-water SUP locales in West Virginia include Summersville Lake, where Seiler gives lessons on the basics of the sport, Hawks Nest Lake, and the pool in the New River between Fayette Station Bridge and Fayette Station Rapids, where a series of SUP races was held on Thursday.
Riding a stand-up paddleboard downriver through rapids gives veteran kayak paddlers a new way to ramp up their adrenalin levels.
"It's one of the fastest-growing sports happening now," said Haley Mills, a Kentucky native and a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team, who tours the world to compete in kayak and SUP events. "You can do SUP on oceans, rivers and lakes. You don't have to travel far to find a place to go, and you don't need a lot of gear."
At Wednesday's event, SUP riders were able to try out demo boards in varying shapes, sizes and performance capabilities.
"I've done this on flat water, but not in a place like this," said former Charleston resident Rachel Kutskill, now of Fayetteville, who was among those checking out demo boards after watching the surfing action on Perfect Wave. "I think I'll be spending a lot of time in the water today," she said with a laugh.
"Since the sport is really new, they're always tweaking board design to see what works best," said Moore. "This gives people the chance to sample what's out there."
"This is the most public attention our secret little spot has had so far," said Seiler. "I'm hoping that, by next year, we'll be able to hold a competition here."
Meanwhile, she said, there are a number of other known standing waves to sample in West Virginia's whitewater country, "and so many others that haven't been discovered."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.