Paddle Battle

Sweets of the East, West Virginia's only home-grown rafting team, is headed for a national competition.


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Photographed by Jo-Beth Stamm; Stonewall Group

Last winter, like every winter, most West Virginians spent their time inside, huddled up next to the fire or in front of a TV. Or maybe, if they were
ambitious, they bundled up and strapped on some skis or snowshoes. Meanwhile, in Fayette County, a group of five women met twice a week to take to the freezing waters of the New and Gauley rivers. Alright—to be fair, they didn’t do this all the time. “We try not to get on the water if it’s less than 25 degrees out,” says Jo-Beth Stamm.

These women are the Sweets of the East, a whitewater rafting team made up of five female raft guides at Adventures on the Gorge. They spent all winter training for the April 2016 United States Rafting Association Nationals on Oregon’s Klamath and Rogue Rivers. Right now, they’re the only competitive whitewater rafting team in the state.

If you’re shaking your head while you read this, thinking, “There are whitewater rafting races?” you’re probably not alone. Generally, when we think of whitewater rafting guides, we think of chill outdoorsy types hanging out in the back of the boat. “Even a lot of raft guides don’t get the racing thing,” Stamm says. “They’re like, ‘Rafting is for fun and you’re taking it and making it competitive.’ But I think they don’t get how much fun the competing part is.”

The national competition consists of four parts. First there’s a timed sprint, with each team racing against the clock. Then there’s a head-to-head race, where two teams start on a short course at the same time, racing to reach the finish line. It gets intense. “Usually they’re heading to a spot on the river where both rafts won’t fit through at the same time,” Stamm says. “They’ll end up colliding and have what they actually call ‘battles.’ You’re not allowed to hit people with your paddles or push their boat away, but there are techniques that you can use, like putting your paddle in front of theirs.” Competitors still occasionally—and accidentally—get hit sometimes.

The third race is a slalom, where teams navigate through metal poles in the river—sometimes by paddling upstream. If you start to make it through and lose momentum, the team loses time. The team also loses time if a rafter hits the gate. “The gates are wider than the rafts,” Stamm says. “But they’re not very wide. The last race is one of endurance. All the boats start at the same time and race to the end of a long course. It’s paddling as hard as you possibly can for a really long time,” she says.

Sweets of the East formed after its members got a taste of competitive rafting at the annual Animal Rage on the Gauley River race. They liked it so much that they wanted to do more competitive rafting, so they formed the team and started training for nationals. Luckily, they have world-class whitewater right at home in Fayetteville. “The New and the Gauley are fantastic training grounds for this,” Stamm says. “You get these big rapids but there are also a big number of small pools. It’s really been perfect.”

To see U.S. Rafting Association race results, visit usaraftassociation.com.

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