Article by: Keith Doherty
Gauley Season is right around the corner, so we can expect to count on certain things in the coming weeks: big whitewater rapids, fall colors, beautiful scenery, tall tales around the campfire, and Tug Chamberlin’s booming voice floating across the river, matched only by his infectious smile.
This year marks Tug’s 31st rafting season as a whitewater professional.
It was happenstance that Chamberlin began guiding at all.
In 1990, he was walking across his college campus in Virginia when he noticed a summer job board.
“There was a picture of a raft going through Surprise Rapid on the New River with people flying out of the boat, and it said Be a Whitewater Raft Guide,” said Tug. “So, I used the 1990’s version of text and filled out a 3” by 5” card and mailed it in, and they called me two weeks later.”
When pressed on his previous river experience, Tug added with a smile, “Well, I guess if you consider floating the James River with an inner tube tied to another inner tube holding a cooler, whitewater experience, then yeah, I had a little bit.”
And it’s that humor and wit that has had Tug’s guests coming back year after year to ride in his boat.
Jeff Fischgrund is a spine surgeon, originally from New York, who lives and works in a hospital near Detroit, Michigan. He’s been rafting and coming with Tug for twenty-three years now.
“The guy is just so genuine and multifaceted,” said Jeff. “You just sense his passion, not only for the river, but you sense it for his family. You sense it for his job. You sense it just for doing the right thing. We have three or four guides that we've used for the past twenty years that are like that. Tug for obvious reason stands tall above them because he's kind of a big guy. But just to hear his perspective on life, and what things are important to him. It's not what you would think of a typical raft guide.”
Joni Snodgrass is an ultrasound technologist from Bowling Green, Kentucky. She’s rafted the Gauley River for ten years now and is a regular in Tug’s boat.
Joni exclaimed, “Tug is one of the best guides and best guys on the planet. He is incredibly knowledgeable in all things pertaining to the river: the rapids, the flora and fauna, the ecology, and the history. You ask a question, you can be sure he will know the answer. He will tone down the ride a bit for newcomers, but if you’ve been down the river a time or two, you’d better be ready to get wet. He truly does give his guests the best ride on the river based on their abilities.”
Miki Dunn, a Registered Nurse from Greensboro, Maryland, agreed, “He is down to earth in explaining what is about to happen, and he is going to give you the best ride of YOUR abilities. If he knows you can handle extreme, he will take you extreme.”
And getting the best ride is what it’s all about when it comes to creating whitewater rafting junkies. For a lot of guests, one time down the river is enough. They cross it off their bucket list and move on to the next activity. But the New River, and especially the Gauley River, have a way of creating what the raft guides call professional paddlers. Year after year, they come back, often booking multiple trips in the same season.
“The Gauley was my husband Brian’s first rafting trip twenty years ago. He fell out at Six Pack Rock, drank the water, and has been hooked ever since,” said Miki. “I first went on the Gauley in 2006, after getting some experience on the New River first. We go on the Gauley every Bridge Day Weekend and will be back again this year. For us, going to West Virginia is like a second home because of our friends and the ties we have. My father is from Welch, and Brian’s grandfather put in parts of Route 60, and his uncle was born in Ansted.”
Jeff added, “There’s a core group of us, probably 10 to 15, that go back every year. So, I have at least a dozen people that have been going there for over 10 years. And through the years, I've probably had about 150, maybe 200 people, come through either once or twice. They either love it once or twice, or they're hooked, and they stay forever.
“We started off staying at a bunkhouse, and we would get more elaborate each year, bringing camping equipment, decorations, and having big campfires. We would basically just park there for about five days. Now that we're getting a little bit older, we're not roughing it quite as much. We've upgraded to something a bit more civilized. But we still have that same core of people doing this once a year. This is not something we do normally during the rest of the year.”
“I started out only coming for one weekend during Gauley Season,” said Joni. “Over the years, I have expanded my trips to include a summer trip and an additional fall weekend or two, and I typically take multiple trips down the river each time I visit. It is a seven-hour drive from where I live, so I tend to make the most out of each visit. I have made it a tradition to do a Gauley Marathon on the last day of Gauley Season. The marathon gets you down the entire 26-mile river in a single day!”
And when you have guests going that often, they truly get a glimpse into what their guide experiences.
“I was really fortunate when I started working at ACE in ’90. The next season Fred Blocklinger came over from another company to develop our Summer Gauley Program,” Tug said. “There's always water in the Gauley in the summertime, so the owners wanted to expand their options. As a young guide, I started working those trips in that program's infancy. So, not only have I worked, thirty plus years of the Fall Gauley season, but I've also worked thirty years of low-water Upper Gauley trips, and high-water Upper Gauley trips. We’ve gone well above the 5000 cubic feet per second cutoff because sometimes you get out there, and it goes up on you, and you're stuck. I've seen the Lower Gauley at stupid high water, like 20,000 cubic feet per second, which is hands down some of the biggest whitewater I've ever commercially run. I mean bigger than rapids I saw in Grand Canyon when we did the Colorado River. So, I've been very fortunate to see the Gauley and do literally thousands of trips at different water levels.”
It’s a simple matter of fact that the Gauley River is a special place, and the more time you spend there, the more you will feel it. And it’s not just the whitewater. It’s not just the beauty. It reveals itself in moments.
“One of my favorite things about the Gauley is the fog,” said Tug. “Because there are some days when you are on the Upper Gauley, and you're on that first trip in the morning, and the fog is so thick out there that you can't see twenty feet in front of your boat, and you're getting ready to drop into this massive rapid, and you can't see any of it. Man, it's awesome. I love it.”
Joni said, “The Gauley is my outlet for frustrations, my wild exhilaration, and most importantly my place of peace. There will always be a special place in my soul for the Gauley. The beauty of the river and its surroundings is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The river has the power to move boulders, yet exudes tranquility and peace. When people say, ‘go to your happy place,’ this is where I go.”
Tug added, “It's just really cool water. It's clean water. At low water, when you're working Gauley ducky trips, and you're actually standing in the middle of some of these rapids, and you look down, and there's a freaking rainbow trout swimming around your leg. That's pretty cool. It’s so beautiful.
“I lived in Utah for a while. And really the Gauley River is what brought me back after grad school. And I can remember standing at the confluence of the Meadow River and the Gauley River when I first came back, not a cloud in the sky- Bluebird Day, and I was just looking across the river at the side of the hillside, and I was like ‘Good God, it's green!’ Because it was such a stark contrast from what I've just come from in Utah. It’s a pretty special place.”
And just like the guide, the guests all have their favorite spots and memories too.
“My hands down favorite rapid is Pillow Rock. It is an adrenaline rush to be barreling through rapids right towards a huge rock and make a sharp right turn to just miss the rock, close enough to reach out and touch it,” said Joni. “My second favorite rapid is Sweet’s Falls. It’s a 14-foot waterfall, no further explanation needed.”
“My most memorable experience was the day we took a 12-foot raft with Brian, Dennis (a good friend of ours), and me,” said Miki. “Well, to my surprise, we surfed Fuzzy Box of Kittens, and it’s on video… it was amazing.”
“So, we had been going down the Gauley for a good 15 to 18 years,” said Jeff, “I'm never going to say I got bored. I mean, I fully respect the power that river. But we had seen a couple of independent rafters in Shredders (a two-person raft). And I remember speaking to the owner of ACE saying, ‘What is it going to take to let us go on a Shredder?’ No commercial trips offer that.
“So, what it took eventually, was we would go a couple times a year during low flow, do a little bit on the New River as well, and eventually, we worked our way up to where we could had five of us going on Shredders on the Upper Gauley. And we had five of the best guides, obviously Tug was one of them. And I remember the five of us going down the river with known guides and everybody watching and staring saying, ‘Who are those guys? And how come they get to go on a Shredder?
“We did great, and the fact that we conquered all our fears and moved it up to a level with our West Virginian family. It's just something I will never forget- just five Shredders going down the river. It was even to the point where the photographer didn't even realize we were part of a commercial trip!”
It creates an opportunity for experience where bonds are made, and lasting friendships are formed.
“There’s not many businesses that you're involved with where your clientele or your guests actually become personal friends,” said Tug. “Typically, you keep them on a business level, right? But this industry is a little different, and I like that about it. Because it is a more personal industry. You spend five hours with these people every freaking day. If I keep them coming back, you definitely develop a deeper relationship than just guest and guide.
“You know, I've been to a few weddings of kids that I've literally watched grow up from their parents bringing them in my boat, and then they get married, and they say, ‘Hey man, come to the wedding.’
“Sure, why not?” Tug laughed.
“You wouldn't say a spine surgeon and a rafting guide have a lot in common,” said Jeff. “I think we have a lot in common once you look past the superficialities. Most people would see that. I consider him one of my better friends even though I’ve only seen him once a year for the past four years.”
And it’s not just Tug’s guests that get to experience his vibrance and creativity. Ten years ago, Tug created a Tourism Industries program at the local Vo-Tech, the Fayette Institute of Technology.
“I'd always thought for years that it would be really cool to teach local kids about the outdoors as a whole, and enlighten them that this is a viable industry,” said Tug. “Initially, when I first started the program, I took some of my college classes that I had taken and adapted them to the high school level. The accreditation they receive is basically the equivalent of an associate degree on a high school level. They’re getting experience as a hospitality tourism management professional, as well as taking entrepreneurial, financial, and job-seeking classes. In addition, they’re learning outdoor education with mountain biking, snowshoeing, 3-day backpack trips, Leave No Trace, and trail-building programs to name a few.
“The whitewater industry changed their regulations for guiding the upper section of the New River from 18 to 16 years old as the minimum age for a guide. It’s Class I and II whitewater. I would like to incorporate that guide training into my program. So, when my juniors get out of their first year, they can go straight to work in the industry.”
And the lessons from the outdoors and the classroom extend to the real world.
“A lot of people would have a hard time understanding the value that being a raft guide teaches you,” Tug said. “But when you start thinking about communication skills, teamwork skills, decision-making skills, those are all skills that you have to have as a raft guide. Because those are things that you do every day. You work with other raft guides. You have to work within that team. You have to talk to people every day on the river. It's kind of intimidating to speak to adults when you’re young, but when you're sitting in a boat with them all day long, you're going to have to talk to them. So, it's definitely an enhancer in communication, teamwork, and decision-making.
“If Plan A doesn't work when you're going through a rapid, you’d better figure out what Plan B is real quick.”
You can hear the passion in Tug’s voice when he talks about his Vo-Tech program. And it’s not any different when it comes to the river, which is simply not the norm when it comes to commercially rafting for as long as he has.
“I don't know. I'm lucky. I don't get burned out on it. You know, some guides get burned out on the people. They just can't deal with people anymore. Some guides get burned out on the river because they've run it so many times.
“And I just look at it as, I get to go out here and play on the river every day.”
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