River-loving hippies established New River Gorge adventure resort

River-loving hippies established New River Gorge adventure resort

Paul Breuer (standing) was among the first paddlers to guide through the New River Gorge. (Photo courtesy AOTG)

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va.—One of the world’s first and largest outdoor-adventure resorts, can trace its roots back 50 years to the earliest days of whitewater rafting in the New River Gorge. The story is one of imagination, youthful determination, excellent timing, and a whole lot of luck.

Paul Breuer was then a cash-strapped college grad and self-described hippie from Ohio who had been working at Cincinnati’s Morgan’s Canoe Livery, a family-owned company that had pioneered paddling in southwestern Ohio.

The Adventures on the Gorge resort overlooks the New River, 800 feet below in the New River Gorge.
The Adventures on the Gorge resort overlooks the New River, 800 feet below in the New River Gorge. (Photo: AOTG)

In spring 1969, he and some friends put those skills to the test by attempting to raft the New when the water was especially wild from spring rains.

They traveled from Cincinnati to the gorge with two inner tubes, some maps, and other essential supplies. They lashed the tubes together, topped them with a wood rowing frame, and named their creation “Turkey” after a crew member found a turkey feather at the put-in site.

Turkey worked until it didn’t. After a harrowing flip that dumped the five-man crew, three rafters swam to safety while Breuer and another mounted one of the tubes, ditched the frame, and paddled by hand to shore.

Over the next four years, Breuer returned again and again to gain rafting experience on the New and Gauley Rivers. By 1973, he had acquired enough experience and equipment to launch Mountain River Tours. The company was among the first to offer rafting trips on the New River and nearby Gauley River.

Although Breuer and like-minded adventurers had not set out to popularize a new sport deep in the mountains of southern West Virginia, that is precisely what happened.

Whitewater rafting grows, but not in a straight trajectory

Other outfitters quickly joined the growing club. Steve Campbell and his family started Rivermen. Dave Arnold, Kevin Whelan, and brothers Jeff and Doug Proctor launched Class VI.

The New River Gorge Bridge and Fayette Station Bridge cross the New River near Fayetteville, West Virginia
The New River Gorge Bridge and Fayette Station Bridge cross the New River near Fayetteville, West Virginia

Every spring, these friendly competitors would set up operations in trailers, tents, and picnic tables, offering guided trips on the New and Gauley rivers. Every year, their operations became a little more sophisticated. They added overnight rafting trips. Facilities were upgraded. Cabins were built to lodge the rafters.

The outfitters became West Virginia ambassadors, cooperatively marketing and promoting their operations to state leaders and tourism organizations. And the number of rafting guests increased annually.

Thanks mainly to Breuer, the Gauley River became a paddling destination as well. In 1985, the rafting industry received a huge boost when Congress added whitewater paddling to the list of official purposes of the Summersville Dam, a 20-year-old dam operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that had been built to control flooding downstream near Charleston.

The change meant that water would be released from Summersville Lake into the Gauley River during certain established days, essentially guaranteeing exciting paddling conditions. That was the year that “Gauley Season” was launched, and Mountain River Tours and other outfitters added Gauley Season paddling to their trip offerings.

Rafters rafting with Adventures on the Gorge prepare for an adventure on the Gauley River.
Rafters prepare for a whitewater adventure on the Gauley River in West Virginia. (Photo: )

In 1988, the National Park Service designated the Gauley River National Recreation Area three years later, adding further protection to the region.

The industry garnered the support of state-level legislators as well. When rafting enthusiasm slowed in the early ‘80s, mainly due to the deep national recession, the outfitters launched Whitewater Wednesday, an annual river trip for legislators to experience and support the adventure of rafting.

Gov. Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Nick Rahall were among the politicians to attend. It was partly due to Rockefeller’s enthusiasm and persuasiveness that resulted in the coordinated water release for Gauley Season.

More recently, in December 2020, a bipartisan push by Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito was primarily responsible for upgrading the New River National River, established in 1978, to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The national park strengthened protections for more than 53 miles of river from the Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake as well as 70,000 acres of land.

Hollywood also helped popularize the sport. Released in 1972, “Deliverance” was a harrowing thriller starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty, playing a group of friends who encountered horrific challenges during a canoe trip in Georgia. This award-winning movie, with its compelling music and spectacular scenery, prompted near-immediate interest in river sports.

By the early 1990s, rafting enthusiasm had waned. Then came a 1994 Hollywood blockbuster, “The River Wild,” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. Though the thriller was filmed on rivers in Oregon and Montana, rafting outfitters worldwide benefited from the spike in popularity among river adventure-smitten movie viewers.

Over the next 30 years, the industry grew, and the sport became increasingly popular. While paddling the New River was the bread-and-butter for most outfitters, the raging Gauley River in autumn, when it was known as the “Beast of the East,” became the bucket-list U.S. paddling destination for many experienced rafters.

With the sport’s increasing popularity, these hippies-turned-businessmen began to acquire land and build cabins, campgrounds, and other accommodations for their guests, and they added more adventures.

Ziplines had begun to pop up around the country. Rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking were also popular outdoor adventures. And the New River Gorge, with its mountains, forests, and wilderness areas, was a perfect place for travelers to experience these adventures.

The Next Logical Step: Adventures on the Gorge

In 2007, a group of investors with a passion for whitewater rafting and a vision for expanding tourism in the New River region brought together three of the region’s top outfitters—Class VI, The Rivermen, and Mountain River Tours. The investors also acquired the outfitters’ assets, including rafting equipment, cabins, retail facilities, and restaurants.

The Adventures on the Gorge Resort overlooks the New River Gorge National Park near Fayetteville, W.Va.
The Adventures on the Gorge Resort overlooks the New River Gorge National Park near Fayetteville (in the distance).

The result was Adventures on the Gorge, one of the world’s first resorts built for an array of guided outdoor adventures. The central concept was to offer a line-up of adventures that could be experienced by everyone, not just the fittest and most athletic of travelers.

The resort is situated on 250 acres overlooking the New River Gorge and adjacent to what is now the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve after the national park service upgraded the destination to national park status in December 2020.

In 2009, the resort’s Treetops Zipline Canopy Tour was constructed in its hemlock forest. In 2011, resort officials incorporated the assets of a fourth outfitter, Songer Whitewater.

Next came Timbertrek Aerial Adventure Park and Canyon Falls Swimming Pool in 2012. Four years later, officials opened the Lookout Post, a small-group conference center.

In 2017, the resort opened Kaymoor Cabins and Suites, bringing the number of cabins at the resort to 128. And in 2021, the resort added a guest welcome center, the Sunset Pavilion perched on the edge of the gorge, and a favorite space for outdoor dining and events, a campground with RV sites, glamping tents, tent platforms, and a bathhouse. In 2022, Adventures on the Gorge purchased an adjacent nine-acre property with two multi-bedroom vacation homes for larger groups.

Although a handful of other resorts dedicated to adventure have been built in the U.S., few offer as diverse and extensive a lineup of adventures as Adventures on the Gorge. Rafting trips on the New and Gauley remain the most popular of all of its offerings. Other adventures include two ziplines, an aerial obstacle course, fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and guided hiking.

Today, remains a pioneering force in the development of adventure on the New River and beyond.

The following video, narrated by Breuer, documents that legendary early paddling trip through the raging hydraulics and pools of the New River in the spring.

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