We hadn’t been on the road for long after heading towards home from West Virginia, when I was skimming through the last magazine on the stash that I had brought along for our road trip. Along with Todd and myself, two other couples had made plans for a vacation to white water raft in West Virginia while spending plenty of time along the Craft Bourbon Trail. While we completed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail last summer, we wanted to revisit a couple of those stops and hit some new ones. The magazine article was on happiness. I had just spent 4 days with some of my favorite people in this world, but spent a lot of money and missed my kiddos to make it happen. But this article told me that “the number one predictor of happiness is the amount of time we spend with people who care about us, and social media and the internet increasingly take us away from that… having 1,000 Facebook friends is still no substitute for one really good friend who’s there for you.” Ahhhhh! It was proof that this vacation really did make my life happy, because being surrounded by these people who care about me and will pull me out of white water rapids make that happiness a reality.
The first order of business after hitting the road was to lay the ground rules of vacation, since we had 2 newbies with us. No socks, no shaving faces (women were asked to keep on shaving their extremities), no eating at a chain restaurant, and no mentioning the names of people who would induce stress just by a simple mention of their durn name. We had a new activity where each traveler prepared a 5-song playlist to present to the group. There was an attempt at a scoring system which basically amounted to nothing, so no one “won” but we did make a lot of progress on the road with the distraction… until we hit stopped traffic just outside of Louisville. That was a terrible distraction. After dealing with some rain to walk to lunch (who lets it rain on vacation???), we headed to the Mega Caverns which is listed as a top tourist destination.
I think Lindsey was enthralled!
An example of a man next to the cavern wall.
The tram, pulled by a Jeep.
The Mega Caverns are a man-made cavern that is part of 17 miles of corridors located beneath the city of Louisville. They were mined from the 1930’s until the early 1970’s and remain an average of 58-degrees inside (not welcomed because it certainly wasn’t over 70 degrees outside, and I was freezing!). While parts of the tour were interesting, it really wasn’t thrilling. Maybe because they didn’t serve bourbon on the tram? After the Mega Caverns, we hit the outlet mall. At the time, I thought it was so kind of the men on the trip to allow time to shop. Later on in the trip, I realized that what I saw as kindness was really just their justification for nearly killing us on the river a couple days later.
Joe may have had the most fun at the outlet mall!
That evening, we went to dinner at Doc Crow’s on Whiskey Row. We had considered it for lunch, and found that it had been closed down due to a massive fire on Whiskey Row the previous afternoon. When we found out it was to reopen for dinner, we couldn’t wait to check it out. The Louisville Fire Department was still on-scene, working to secure the area. Who knew we’d get such awesome entertainment right outside our window during dinner?
Fire on Whiskey Row
Dinner at Doc Crow’s
For the record, Jerod ate a cow, pig, and a chicken for dinner that night. And didn’t live it down for the remainder of the trip.
A half-pound hamburger, mound of pulled pork, and an egg. On a bun.
On the second day, we packed up from Louisville to head through Bourbon Country. Our trip advisor (Joe), had chosen Willett Distillery in Bardstown as our first stop. We visited Willett the previous summer but had missed out on a formal tour, so we were excited to go back and “pop the cherry” of distilleries for Jerod and Lindsey.
Willett Bourbon is easy to pick out of a lineup, because of its iconic bottle.
The group on the tour, checking out a step of the fermentation process.
Lindsey & Jerod pose in front of the copper pot still.
This stencil is used to ink the Willett information onto their new, oak barrels. To be classified as bourbon, it must be placed in a NEW oak barrel that is charred inside.
A few of their 8 warehouses.
It looks beautiful, and smells like heaven!
These are hams that will hang for a total of 2 years. If it turns out that the Angel’s Share permeates them into the best ham ever made on earth, more will likely be hung in between barrels of bourbon in the warehouses.
The ladies having a taste.
Best Friends Forever
The group, at the entrance to the distillery grounds.
Willett Distillery is on the smaller scale, which places them on the Craft Bourbon Tour. While they don’t have as much output as the bigger names, they have many bourbons that put them on the map including Pure Kentucky, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and of course Willett Bourbon in the iconic bottle that mimics a copper pot still. This company was started in 1936 and is still family owned.
A group shot of all 6 of us at Willett Distillery.
So what was our next stop? You would probably think another stellar distillery, but no. The men insisted on stopping at a Haix Boots distribution warehouse. Guess what sort of boots they sell there? Firefighter boots. The ladies were not impressed.
That one might not be your size…
Next was Town Branch Distillery in downtown Lexington. This stop is on the Bourbon Trail and was also visited last time, but was another “miss” on the list of formal tours. This time we toured their brewery (yawn) which makes them big bucks with a product called Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Since the charred, oak barrels used for aging bourbon cannot be reused for bourbon again, companies are finding clever ways to recycle them. In this case, they age their ale in bourbon barrels and apparently it’s a big hit.
Todd & Jerod sample some of the beers offered at Town Branch.
Stop Joe, it’s not time to taste yet!
Joe & Mary… a week past their 9 year anniversary!
Double trouble at the bar. Someone help that poor woman.
Todd & Jess. It’s hard to believe he was just days away from being 30 when this was taken!
Jerod & Lindsey
On the bourbon side, they are especially known for 4 products: Pearse Lyons Reserve, Town Branch Bourbon, Rye Town Branch Bourbon, and a coffee-infused bourbon liquor called Bluegrass Sundown. They have a beautiful and modern building.
Their “Grunt Style” pose.
Our next stop was a small business on the Craft Bourbon Trail called Barrell House Distilling Company, also in Lexington. They are a very small operation which usually makes the tours so much more fun… and that was definitely the case. We got to see one of their few employees hand-labeling the bottles and all the other action. Here, they do other spirits like vodka and rum in addition to bourbon. They age their rum in a retired bourbon barrel for a unique taste.
Bottling bourbon by hand at Barrel House Distilling Company.
Bottling bourbon by hand at Barrel House Distilling Company.
A barrel of rum aging in a retired barrel from Buffalo Trace.
Time for a taste!
At each stop, we got our passports stamped. After we visit all the stops along the Craft Bourbon Trail, we get a prize!
We ended up visiting Huntington, West Virginia for dinner then traveled a little further down the road to Barboursville where we would spend the next 2 nights of our vacation. Time to rest up for white water rafting!
Departure time on July 9, 2015 was 6am for the 2 hour drive to Minden, West Virginia, which is home to ACE Adventure Resort. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. See?
Even though 4 of us had rafted the New River with ACE 5 years ago, nothing really looked familiar while we drove winding, narrow gravel roads nearly the entire time. The New River trip was fun and thrilling, but apparently not quite exciting enough for the two riddled with testosterone. Once we arrived, we checked in and headed to the tent where groups meet to have their debriefing before it’s time to go. There, we met Alisa, a river guide with 28 years of experience who warned us about everything we were signing up for, including but not limited to death and dismemberment. While she listed all the warnings and we signed our lives away on paper, Lindsey and I shot evil glares to Joe while Todd was doing jumps for joy at the thought of almost-but-not-quite-dying. Lindsey and Jerod had never been white water rafting before and were skipping any of the beginners trips! We all filled out the paperwork to rent wet suits, since the water temperature would be somewhere around 53-degrees… something none of us had considered or dressed appropriately for. We were told not to take anything with us, because “if you bring along your keys, the river will take your shorts to get your keys.” Todd, always the one to revolt, decided against buying a strap for his sunglasses (the girls decided to just leave the durn sunglasses in the car and not bother). Guess who lost his sunglasses?
After we were properly warned on all the dangers of the Gauley River, we got fitted into our wet suits and grabbed a helmet, personal flotation device (since we can’t expect it to actually save our life), and a paddle. We then hopped on the short bus with a driver named Hank, 3 guides, and 9 others signed up for the Lower Gauley experience.
On the long bus ride, Alisa went in-depth on all we need to know for our trip. If you “go swimming” (which sounds so much better than saying if you “fall in” or “get thrown over”), form into a ball to avoid getting your feet trapped in rocks and to allow your life vest to pull you to the top, then swim like hell. Listen to the commands to know whether you need to swim left, right, or to the middle. Avoid rocks. She also explained how the Gauley River is controlled. A massive dam, called the Summersville Dam, is the second-largest rock-filled dam in the Eastern US and it controls the Summersville Lake, which is the largest lake in West Virginia. The dam controls flooding in the watershed of the Gauley and Kanawha Rivers. The Gauley River is fed through the outlet of the dam, which opens and closes depending on the water level of the lake. During the summer, the release of the dam into the Gauley will vary but in July, will average approximately 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). There was at one point a federal mandate put into place where every September and October, the Corps of Engineers would open the dam to a rate of 2,800 cfs for 22 days which would create world-class white water rafting rapids, drawing thousands of people from around the world to experience the Gauley River, which has several nicknames such as “The Beast of the East” and “The Grand Canyon of the East.” Because of the endless rain we have all experienced this summer, Alisa warned that the water levels of the Gauley would be significantly up, creating a different experience than is typical for July. Since even the guides didn’t know what the water level would end up being until we got there, we would have to wait to find out. We did know that the water level on the Lower Gauley wouldn’t exceed the cut-off for allowing us to continue on the trip; the water level on the Upper Gauley couldn’t be commercially rafted over 5,000 cps so those trips couldn’t be offered today (although I’m sure some of these guides have done it all!).
Once Hank made it to our starting point, we got ourselves appropriately dressed while the guides outfitted the rafts. Three rafts would be in our group along with one guide in a kayak, who would buzz ahead of us to catch footage on his camera of our trip. Our 14-foot raft would be made of up the 6 of us and Alisa. She went over how to paddle while we sat on shore, and discussed the meaning of the phrases she would be using on the river (I mostly remember “DIG! DIG! DIG!” maybe because we heard it so much). We were told then that we were having a 1 in a million experience with the river levels, which made the men giddy and made me pee my pants a little. After we were successfully on the river, we did some practice paddling while our first rapid gushed just ahead of us.
Lower Gauley River
Before each rapid, Alisa told us the name of it and any history behind it. We were told where the dangers lie and, if we went “swimming”, which direction we needed to swim (or avoid) for each particular rapid. She also described how different the water was that day; one rock peaking above the water was actually 2 stories tall, and when she guides trips on a “normal” day and says that she has seen it with water gushing over it, no one believes her. We stopped for lunch along some flat rocks, a spot she was afraid might have been under water but we lucked out (and got to eat!). For the first time on our entire trip, the sun shone during that lunch. Both Lindsey and I both wanted to ask how much longer we had to raft but neither wanted to be the wimpy one who was ready to be done, but at that breaking point we had already seen some amazing and terrifying rapids.
It was during our lunch break that our guide was able to use certain rocks as points of reference and determine that on this day, rather than the 2,800 cps to make the river exhilarating in the fall, we were experiencing the Gauley at 10,000 cps. Whoa.
At some points, our guide explained certain directions of the river that couldn’t be traveled so we would instead “stay to the left of center” for example. After crashing through the rapid, she would have us look back to see what exactly we had avoided and I would pee my pants some more. The boys took turns at who the 2 were at the very front of the raft, since those were the positions that got to see exactly what we were going into (and a position I most definitely did not want). I went over each rapid staring at the person in front of me, trying to match their paddle stroke, and praying. After some of the more intense rapids, we would cheer and clap our paddles above us in the middle of the raft. Alisa told some jokes, such as:
- What’s the difference between Sasquatch and a female river guide? One is hairy, smelly, and has huge feet. The other is a myth.
- How do you tell a male river guide at night? It isn’t hard. (Get it, it isn’t hard?)
- How do you tell a female river guide at night? It’s easy.
When I saw this picture after Googling “Fall Gauley Images”, I asked Todd if that’s what it really looked like. He said yeah and I peed my pants a little.
There came a point where we entered a rapid, and Mary and I “went swimming.” I remember thinking “Oh shit”, feeling my tightly-strapped water shoes be sucked off my feet, and somehow remembering to curl into a ball. Once I emerged, I saw the huge rock that the current was pushing me to that we were told to avoid and swim to the right of. We swam like hell to the right, and our raft caught up with us and pulled us back on-board. Another raft in our group was able to reclaim our paddles (there was no way in hell I could remember to hang onto that).
This was the point where, if I had the option, I probably would’ve opted to stop the trip and head back to base. But out on the river, that isn’t an option. No matter if you fell out, broke your nose, or knocked out your own teeth, your only option is to suck it up. You have to get back in the raft, go through all the rapids still ahead of you, and finish the trip. Mary wants a picture hung in her office of our raft on the river with the words “Suck it Up, Buttercup” because really, doesn’t that mentality fit into a lot of parts of life? I guess at this point, we all started thinking very deeply.
Luckily, we had a handful of giant rapids and one more Class 5 while it rained, and we were done. I say luckily, but I’m sure “the men” were disappointed to hear we’d reached the point where we would paddle to the shore and get out. But I was getting physically tired of hanging into the boat with my legs and “DIG!”-ging with my arms and shoulders, and mentally tired of the what-ifs. It was an amazing experience that I’m thankful for, and bonded me closer with my friends. A true friend will know when it’s time to joke and when it’s not (Joe figured out that after I got back in the raft was NOT yet time to joke) and tell you how well you did exactly what you’d been told to do in that crappy situation. We made incredible, amazing, breathtaking memories!
The bus ride back to ACE felt like forever but the warm shower when we got there was great (poor Lindsey got stuck with a
cool cold shower). We returned our gear, decided not to wait an hour to see what footage the guide in the kayak had gotten, I popped a bottle of a little bourbon-flavored medicine for any leftover anxiety, and back towards the hotel we went.
It was also at this point that I forgot my waterproof, disposable camera on the freaking bus. If it ever gets returned, I will be happy to share the real pictures, although I’m sure they’re much less quality than what Google shared with me!
Before we retired for the night, we shared some shots from Joe’s recent purchase of Johnny Drum and relaxed in the hot tub. That’s where the best quote of the entire trip popped up from a giddy Joe, when he exclaimed “I made that river my bitch!” Why yes, you did!
On the last day, we loaded up the Enclave, enjoyed breakfast, and hit the road back through the Kentucky. This time, we traveled on the north edge towards Cincinnati and ended up visiting Old Pogue along the way, another distillery on the Craft Bourbon Trail. Old Pogue is in Maysville, Kentucky and has a beautiful view of the Ohio River. They’re known for small batch bourbon and a rye whisky. There is a historic home next to their distillery that is full of memorabilia that the family has kept for decades. Their recipe is said to be dated back to the Civil War.
The Men, on the porch of the historic Pogue home, overlooking the Ohio River.
The Ladies, relaxing on the porch.
Old Pogue Distillery
Jerod & Lindsey
Joe & Mary
From here, we continued towards Cincinnati where we stopped long enough at a Craft Bourbon Trail stop named Newiff to have our passports stamped. Unfortunately, due to construction, we would’ve had to wait over 4 hours to be included on a tour and tasting there. Instead, we had lunch and made the rest of the road trip towards home a priority.
“Happy people live longer and are healthier than not-so-happy people. They deal with stress better and have better relationships and marriages.” Cheers to my friends who make my life happy! I will spend the money and find the babysitters to keep friendships strong, and can’t wait for all the memories to come!
But those memories won’t likely be back on the Gauley River.