Guests of Adventures on the Gorge float down the lower New River. Along with the Gauley River, the New River is one of the top destinations for white water rafting in West Virginia. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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 couch and living your life. Don’t watch this go by.”
This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water.
Larry Spisak shoots a Flintlock rifle. He has been making rifles for over 40 years. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia’s Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season began January 9, two weeks after most hunting seasons have closed. It is the second year since its conception, and most notably, it is limited to primitive weapons – like flintlock muzzle loader rifles.
The season is meant to memorialize the state’s settlers, using similar hunting techniques and weapons.
Muzzle loader rifles are long guns, easily four feet. Hunters load black powder into the muzzle — the end of the gun — to fire. It takes an experienced person just under a minute to reload. That means that for hunting, you typically have one shot to kill an animal.
“Literally these are not high tech. These are primitive weapons. There’s nothing high tech about them,” Gene Wotring, a Morgantown-based rifle maker, said.
A New Generation
As of last spring, Gene started making the WVU Mountaineer rifle — the signature piece for WVU’s Mountaineer mascot. His father, Marvin Wotring, made the rifle for over 40 years prior to that. Marvin made 949 muzzle loaders in his life, and Gene is on number nine. It takes him about 80 hours to make one rifle.
Inside Gene’s shop in Morgantown, five rifles were mounted in front of a rugged, cotton American flag. The rest of the shop was in a bit of disarray — Gene is still going through all of his father’s tools, which he inherited. But the rifles on display stand out. He made them all this year.
“A lot of frustrating hours in that gun and I had to put it up for a little bit. So then I built this one and made out of completely scraps from his shop,” Gene said.
They all have a glossy wooden shine to them. Two have a hand-carved gold emblem in the shape of W.Va. Another is made out of Birdseye Maple, which gives it a distinct, patterned look and is decorated with a metal bear paw.
Building It For The Challenge…
Gene said the knowledge of how to build muzzle loaders, and even how to shoot them, is dwindling. He said it is easier to hunt with modern rifles because they are easier to load, can shoot a longer range and can shoot multiple times within a matter of seconds.
But, he said, black powder hunting is almost a sport of its own.
“There’s a challenge to it. At some point, honestly it’s pretty easy to kill an animal with a modern rifle, you want to make it a little more challenging.”
And that is a big reason the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources advocated for the Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season. In a 2018 DNR survey of hunters, data showed that almost half of West Virginian hunters intended to take part in the season.
And Gene is one of those people. He made his first muzzle loader at 11 years old, but he had stopped building the rifles in adulthood.
…And The Legacy
When Marvin passed away unexpectedly, Gene felt like he needed take over his father’s legacy. WVU needed a new rifle right away, and Marvin had a list of other customers orders dating back to 2010. Gene said as Marvin got older, he could not keep up with the demand.
Gene was left with a stack of worn papers, big and small, that Marvin liberally scribbled names and phone numbers on.
“There’s 98, plus all the ones on the side, plus the ones on the top. He ran out of room. But some people are finding me,” Gene said.
For as long as Gene can remember his dad was making muzzle loaders, so Gene said he did not realize how special of a craft it is.
“I’ve heard comments where my work is just as good as dad’s, but when I look at it I think it doesn’t even match up – completely different category,” he said.
Building It For The History
Larry Spisak is another West Virginian who builds muzzle loaders.
His shop is down a windy turnpike outside Morgantown. It sits on several acres of forested land that he hunts on. Larry is retired and devotes much of his time to studying and interpreting the practices of our Appalachian ancestors.
“The ability of dressing in period clothing, firing period weapons, hunting and experiencing the woods as our ancestors did 200 years ago, even with today’s modern technology, for me and many others, that’s the closest as you can come to time travel,” he said.
Over 40 years he has made dozens of rifles. Larry prefers to make flintlock rifles, which are a type of muzzle loader, and are one of the oldest firearm technologies dating back to the 1500s.
“Ready To Fire”
With a flintlock, one pulls the trigger, and a piece of steel hits the flint, which is just a very hard rock. It creates a spark and ignites the black powder.
“First thing I do is take my powder horn and I’ve got my powder measure right here and that’s from a wild turkey leg bone,” Larry said.
All of his supplies are handmade. A friend made the turkey powder measure and Larry made the leather bag carrying the rifle and round lead ball, which serves as the bullet.
Larry wrapped the ball in a small piece of fabric, or a patch, before putting it into the barrel of the gun.
“The patch acts as a seal and it also allows the rifling to grip the ball better and put that spin on the ball,” Larry said. “Alright now we draw the ram rod and drive it home.”
He used the ram rod to push the black powder and bullet into the bottom of the gun, back by the flintlock.
“Alright it’s on the charge. Ready to fire. Put it on full cock and we’ll go,” he said.
The gun made a bellowing sound through the woods.
The rifle is a large part of Appalachian history, Larry said. Early settlers had to hunt for food, and muzzle loaders were the way they did it, Larry added that West Virginians today still embody their ancestors.
“A large percentage of the population lives in the mountains, and maybe not realizing it, they are, in their everyday activities in their farming and hunting, they are living a bit of the life that was commonplace 200 years ago,” he said.
And that is why Larry still makes and hunts with muzzle loaders. He likes to feel connected to the settlers who paved the way for us in Appalachia.
The 2020 West Virginia Mountaineer Heritage Hunting season is January 9 to January 12.
This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.
This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.
The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.
Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.
“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.
‘One tweet away’
A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.
The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.
“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”
He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.
“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”
Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.
“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.
Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.
In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.
“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.
Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.
West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.
“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.
Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.
“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”
Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.
“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.
Deficits Despite Growth
The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.
“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.
Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.
A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.
“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”
As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.
The Purple Fiddle. Photo: Purple Fiddle Facebook page
The downtown of this town of 600 sat nearly vacant until a music venue and artists began to create a new economic future for the former coal town. A new guide from the National Association of Governors says arts and culture can be part of rebuilding economies in rural communities.
The city of Thomas, West Virginia, like a lot of municipalities in the Mountain State, owes its initial development to coal.
Today, however, the downtown of the small town in eastern West Virginia has redeveloped in response to another economic sector – arts and culture.
“All over West Virginia the arts and culture economy, coupled with outdoor recreation and tourism, are just growing,” said Emily Wilson-Hauger, program director of Woodlands Development Group.
The trend is national, according to a National Governor’s Association “action guide” that describes how rural communities can build on culture and art to renew distressed economies.
In Thomas, the downtown was nearly lifeless before artists started establishing businesses, Wilson-Hauger said. The effort to rebuild picked up in the early 2000s with the launch of a local music venue, The Purple Fiddle, whose founders saw opportunity instead of decline.
“There was the Fiddle, an antique shop and a bar. That’s it. The rest of the buildings were empty,” Wilson-Hauger said.
“Then a few artists started to trickle in after the music scene developed, young artists that were getting priced out of Pittsburgh and D.C. and wherever else,” she said. “A couple of these artists moved in and rented downtown space really cheap, they lived upstairs.”
Wilson-Hauger, whose organization has helped the downtown to plan and find funding, said there’s a new enthusiasm in the town.
“More and more artists started moving in and we ended with the crazy, amazing mix of people in town. Artists and friends of artists. They could rent or buy these buildings really cheaply, and many are still process of fixing them up.”
Thomas isn’t the only town in the region that has improved a local economy with arts and cultural development.
“I’ve seen this happening in other parts of our region (Appalachia) heavily focused on the arts and economic opportunity through the arts and revitalization,” Wilson-Hauger said. “These artists are shaping the communities they’d like to see, really revitalizing community around the arts. And it’s important to say that there was already a great arts tradition, a great music tradition here to build on. This gives it a little boost.”
The sector is a significant economic engine in many rural communities, according to the National Governors Association’s new guide on rural development and the arts. Economically “struggling rural communities have found new life through smart public policies that boost the creative sector,” the guide says.
Among other examples, the guide reports on Montana’s Artrepreneur Program, which includes 10 months of entrepreneurial training for rural visual artists, and southwestern Virginia’s “Crooked Road,” a heritage music trail with venues for traditional gospel, bluegrass and mountain music. The guide says these programs have injected millions of dollars into their state’s rural economies.
In Thomas, local leadership combined with technical assistance and access to capital helped ramp things up, said Wilson-Hauger.
“The artists formed a volunteer non-profit organization focused on downtown revitalization, so we help with their planning efforts, provide technical assistance to the group and still are really helping them implement some of their bigger projects,” Wilson-Hauger said, explaining her organization’s role.
“In more recent years, we’ve been able to provide direct technical assistance to some of those building owners to help with their pre-development costs, architectural services, etc. to get them up over the hump and get the buildings up to par,” she said. “Then we come in with the CDFI (community development financial institutions) and provide lending. We’ve lent to a number of galleries and some of the artists themselves.”
Rural CDFIs provide loans, capital and financial products to rural communities that are underserved by traditional banks. Woodlands Community Lenders (WCL) works in Barbour, Randolph and Tucker counties in North Central West Virginia. Since 2012, the nonprofit lender has provided more than $1.4 million in loans to the region, helping to launch 20 news businesses and provide working capital for 50 established entrepreneurs.
“We found our spot in this mix in a very organic way, and that’s with lending, technical assistance and planning help,” Wilson-Hauger said.
Though the organization got involved through affordable housing development, Wilson-Hauger said that Woodlands Development Group decided to help support the arts because of the sector’s role in leading downtown revitalization. “We’ve focused on a three-county area and kept our organization small on purpose. We have good and effective local relationships with county governments, city governments, volunteer groups, non-profit groups and other institutions.”
The local efforts have also been spurred with funding from U. S. Department of Treasury’s CDFI Fund, Housing and Urban Development money, Trans-federal Highway Administration money that comes through the West Virginia Division of Highways for trail building, EPA money for brownfields projects that clean-up vacant lots for parks with a lot of arts components, Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs, the Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Recreational infrastructure is also part of the plan. The decommissioned railroad that runs past downtown Thomas has been converted into a biking and walking trail.
This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.