Jay Young, 45, a Maryland native, felt it was time to write a history of the whitewater rafting industry of the New and Gauley Rivers. The avid rock climber and outdoorsman moved here in 2005 and immediately fell in love with the river traditions.
His book is titled “Whitewater Rafting on West Virginia’s New and Gauley Rivers” and a subtitle is “Come on in, the water’s weird.”
What kind of book is it? “It’s an objective history of the whitewater industry,” Young explains of his work. It includes personal memories of the people who built the industry. About 80 percent of the text is research. I just enjoyed meeting people and hearing the stories about what it was like in the beginning.”
One day soon, Young plans to transfer his interviews to a CD and make it available to the New River Gorge National River and the National Park Service.
What motivated him to write a book on whitewater rafting? “I’ve been writing professionally since the mid-1990s,” he says, “and when I heard that the History Press in Charleston, SC, was looking for an author, I was happy to oblige. Two weeks later I had a contract.”
What is it about the New and Gauley Rivers that attracts people year after year?
“Part of that attraction has to do with the quality of recreation that’s available here, the whitewater, the hiking, the mountain biking and the rock climbing,” Young says. “It’s all right here in this one area. Fayetteville is a great little town and a recreational Mecca for the outside world. Around the hub of Fayetteville, there’s anything you could want in recreation; plus, it has a charm and a personality all its very own.”
Young worked as a guide on the rivers from 2007 until 2009. Then a back injury caused him to give up the strenuous whitewater activity and settle down to writing and working as a digital marketing manager for Adventures on the Gorge.
“I couldn’t push those big boats around any longer, but I still get on the river occasionally. I still get a kick out of the rafting experience. It lets me know how much I miss and love being a whitewater guide.”
What is the most difficult thing about being a guide on the New and Gauley Rivers? “Nothing is really difficult,” Young explains with a laugh. “I really miss and love it; it’s an ego trip when you have a boatload of folks, and you get to talk to them all day long and bark orders and play on the river and meet all kinds of pretty and nice people.
“I guess that physically it was difficult, guiding the boat and all, but I never once had the feeling of waking up and not wanting to go to work. I never had that feeling.”
How long did it take Young to master the art of guiding a raft on the treacherous waterways? “I still don’t feel that I ever did really master that art,” he says. “Some guys are true masters of the trade, but I was never one of them. I was a climbing guide for 22 years, and I had a much better handle on that: I was always learning by watching the veteran guides on the river, asking questions; my education never stopped the three years I was guiding on the rivers.”
What advice would he give to someone who is interested in becoming a guide on the rivers? “First I would do a couple of trips with a company and bug those people around January and say train me, I want to be a river guide.”
What was the toughest part about writing a book about whitewater rafting? “Overcoming my fears,” Young says emphatically. “I was a newcomer to the industry and here I was writing a book on the history of the subject. I thought what if I get things wrong. That’s what pushed me forward and I just didn’t want to mess things up.”
What surprises were in store for Young once he began the project? “Best surprise was how excited people were about the project, especially the pioneers of the industry and the Park Service. They wanted something done on it before some of it got gone. The support that I received was huge. It was energizing…”
What is the most interesting thing about his former job as a whitewater rafting guide? “A lot of these guides are lowest paid professional athletes in the world,” Young explains earnestly. “Every year on river somebody dies. It’s a horrible thing. Raft guides are dealing with the possibility 100 percent of the time. I never felt in mortal danger myself, but I always felt responsible for other people’s lives. That’s a heady tonic—sobering and intoxicating all at the same time.”
Does Young have fears about running the rapids? “I always felt pretty secure on the water,” he says. “I was more concerned with the safety of the people who were with me than I ever was about myself, but rock climbing, that’s what really scares me…”
Top o’ the morning!