ADVENTURES IN DIRTBAGGIN’ ~ The Healing Power of the Upper Yough, Lower Gauley, and Volunteering at Gauley Fest! by Tanya Ann Dias.

National Falls, Upper Yough. Photo- DBP Admin Dan Bowers

Plans change. They never go exactly the way you hope they would, and the majority of the time it’s much better than you could have ever planned. Planning my trip to Gauley Fest was set days before I would leave and half up in the air as to whether or not I was driving myself or if I’d have someone to travel with me. To me, traveling on your own for over 5 hours isn’t my cup of tea; especially when you’re just going with the flow and nothing is set in stone. I have now found that in many ways it’s the best way to travel, just start driving, have an idea of where you’re going, and just go.

No reason to be upset or angry that your initial plan faded out because you can make the adventure even greater; I did.

I made sure my car was ready for a trip: four new tires and an oil change, and I was ready. I got in my car on the Tuesday before Gauley Fest with all my gear, NRS orders for my fellow river guides, and my boat tied down, headed towards my first destination just outside of York, PA to pick up an OC1 from a friend to help get it delivered to the fest grounds. 
Next, I was on my way to meet up with another friend, Grink Ashman, at Piney Mountain, just minutes down the road from the Upper Youghiogheny (UY) put-in. I had never been there, nor did I have any clue where at Piney Mountain Grink would be, but I headed there knowing all were welcomed to show up and camp. It was after dark, nearing 10pm as I pulled up to the camp areas, slowly driving down the road hoping I’d see Grink’s kayak on top of a car and easily finding my destination. That of course did not happen. After driving down the road a ways, I turned around and drove back to the first site I saw with kayaks on the cars. I got out of my car and started asking people if they knew Grink; it was a small group and no one had heard of him, but they did know a big party was going on at the next site over and that there were a ton of people there. I thanked them and wished them a great night and headed on to the next site. (Side note: Me a year ago would have never driven by myself nor would I have just hopped out of my car and talked to people I didn’t know. Sadly, anxiety and depression keep you from being the adventurous and social butterfly you want to be). 

DBP Admins Michael Potter, Chicago Mike Toughill, and Grink Ashman.  From the Dirt AG Paddlers Instagram feed @dbp_4_life

I got to the next site – Holy Galore the amount of cars before me! I parked at the gate and started asking random people if they knew Grink; there must have been at least 30 people there, how in the world was I going to find him let alone even figure out if this is where he is camping? I walked for a bit and as I turned around to walk the other way, BAM! there was Grink’s car with his green Burn on top! Yes, I found Grink, well… his car! I yelled out his name and I’ve never seen Grink move so fast – hopping out of his car to walk towards me with the biggest embrace ever! The feeling when friends are stoked to see you..ahh! We talked for a few minutes, got my car and talked some more until he said, “oh you need to meet Chicago Mike and the Dirt Bag Paddlers!” 
So we walked over to the main fire pit of the night, and I was introduced to none other than the founder of DBP himself and some other gentlemen he was talking to, which included more guys named Mike. Standing there talking about the river and the array of other conversations guys talk about, I felt right at home. It was great to hear Kentucky native Mike Potter talk about who has inspired him, and the man himself, Chris Baer standing right there in front of him. Maybe it was the ‘shine talking, but the ‘shine speaks of truth and all goodness. Eventually we all dispersed after some time and sleep was in the cards for me, even through all the hootin’ and hollerin’.

Wednesday morning came sooner than expected but came with excitement. I met some more people as the day was being figured out. I was hoping I could find a raft to possibly jump in and see the Upper Yough for my first time; Grink made it happen; and then Chicago Mike, Wes (Associate Editor Wes Breitenbach) and Nick Meier from Milwaukee really made it all happen. I texted my friend/boss back home and told her I was going to be rafting the Upper Yough with some guys I just met and the response I got was “Sweet! Have fun…stay in the raft!” I replied to her “Ohhh I will.”

Upper Yough. From the Dirt AG Paddlers Instagram feed @dbp_4_life

Needless to say, I did stay in the raft- except for my torso and one leg; I don’t recommend getting your foot stuck under the thwart. Thank you Wes for pushing me back into the raft. Thank you to Mike for letting me latch onto your knee through some rapids and keeping me in the raft. And thank you Nick for the extra strong strokes on our side when we needed them. Thank to Shredder Mike Patrick for showing us the lines and keep us in check. And to everyone for having a good time, some great laughs and showing me one of the most beautiful runs so that I now understand why my friends go down to do UY bomber runs frequently.

I’d for sure paddle with any of you any day of the years to come!

It’s moments like that which define “just being in the moment itself”; for example, getting out at National Falls and just hanging out on the rocks with an array of people, enjoying the show and being the show; such a great opportunity to be there like many of my friends before. The hootin’ and hollerin’ only continued, with so many more smiles… That day on the UY is one I will never forget and one that will keep reminding me what this whitewater community is all about and much more! And even with a bummed leg from my half Wallace (thankfully not the ankle!) I had a really great crew to share my first UY experience with.

The goodness continued as I waited for shuttle to come back for me; meeting even more people and embracing the kick ass people at the take-out, I felt honored in some kind of way. Yes, it probably sounds cheesy, but to see so many kick ass women and men who just paddled the Upper Yough is quite inspiring to me. 

And it just kept going – getting to know more people as we found our way to the campfire; just shortly after others dispersed and headed towards the Gauley. Stories continued and more laughter as back massages were given…yes, Ryan I still owe you one for doctoring up my leg! Thank you! I’ll find myself back on the circuit and get that back massage to you. What a great night to conclude a great day!

The next morning I awoke, greeting new friends, finding out what was on their agenda. Soon thereafter, I was headed to Gauley Fest, on to the next adventure to volunteer, seeing friends new and old and just feeling good about the day.

I found my Whitewater Challengers family and set up camp; as we tried to figure out how to save space for the array of people heading in that day and the next. (We tried our best). We sat back, welcoming more family who were just was arriving and ate some good venison chili (Thank you Frank!) while catching up with what’s going on with peoples after their season at work ended. Night arrived sooner than we realized, as it seemed to do just about every day; I guess when you’re having a good time, there is no such thing as time.

Ashlu behind the wheel log the LiquidLogicmobile. “LET’S GO PAT!” Photo- Mike Toughill

That night after settling in, I met up with Graham, a dear friend of mine who happened to be chatting it up with a friend of his, the one and only Pat Keller with his pup Ashlu. It’s in these moments when meeting someone unexpectedly who you look up to in this paddling community – not only for their skill but more so for their bursting positivity – that I realized I just had Kentucky Mike’s moment of “Wow! Hey dude nice to meet you, it’s an honor.” The night continued on with some good conversation and even a bit of inspiration.

Friday morning came fast. I woke up and headed on up to the gate to do some volunteering with AW and help set up. After two hours or so of helping out, I headed back out to the grounds and found some new friends from the UY hanging out and relaxing with DJ Terrence  Young.

I met back up with that dear friend of mine from the night before, hearing of a sweet day that included so much laughing and playboating on the Upper Gauley. I went off to do some more volunteering with a little extra oomph in my step from hearing so much good positivity and warmth in my heart – ya know, that feel good moment. I went back to the booth, helping people sign up and renew with AW, enjoying my time talking with the ladies running the show and seeing a little youngster excited to sit in his parents’ new kayak that they’d just purchased from the array of boats against the fence. It was these two hours that made me feel like I was part of something much bigger than this festival. Especially the moment one of the regular volunteers, Carla, asked me what I was studying and mentioned to me that the gentleman I had met earlier, Tom, has a lot of his time and life put into conservation of our rivers. In particular when I mentioned what had inspired me – the taking down of the Elwha Dam – she suggested I speak with him. 

I took that opportunity the moment he was around and asked him about it, and in returned learned in more depth of the Elwha Dam removal and its history, and more of what is in the works and being focused on now. It not only screams inspiration but also much respect for people like Tom and others who are so passionate about our rivers and ecosystems. Thank you Tom for taking the few minutes of your time and discussing the Elwha and the generations of people it took to make it happen as well as the kind of salmon and what they need to survive and breed; as well as some of the projects you are working on now.


Gauley Fest from the DBP Party featuring DJ TERRENCE YOUNG

Off to the fest grounds for the next two nights; enjoying some music, checking out the vendors, catching up with good friends I hadn’t seen in some time; just being the social butterfly and eating some good grub. So many great and funny moments would follow, from people walking up to me inside vendor tents: “are you in charge?” to fitting myself inside a Fuse 35 and Pyranha Rebel (which actually felt comfortable) to hearing more stories, giving more back massages and listening to more raving music. We had two great days with my Whitewater Challengers river family, with great lines on the Lower Gauley and the New; so many laughs: “Oh captain, my captain”, “Is this Pure Screaming Hell?” – through every rapid. Ha ha ha. Oh did I mentioned puppies! Yes, puppies! So many adorable little pups and big ones too.

Tanya on the Lower Gauley

Overall, Gauley Fest was a new experience for me; definitely different than Cheat Fest. Along with the new experience of adventuring down to these destinations on my own, seeing the Upper Yough for my first time, to actually having my own tent for the first time – feeling like I have myself together for the first time in a while! Like I said, the “me” a year ago probably wouldn’t have found herself in any of these situations; let alone driving in a car by myself so far away. I’m so grateful for the river family I’m honored to be a part of, one that just keeps growing! In the end we are not just a community but a family, always looking out for each other, watching each others’ backs, enjoying life to its fullest and sharing the experiences with the new and old. The saying ” My friends are my heroes” represents something other than whitewater, but when it comes to this family, it rings true. I am forever blessed and so happy to be back home on the river and most importantly, to be healthy!
SO… now I’m home, back in good ole Pennsylvania, sitting here at the Guide House reminiscing with my friend Trey about the weekend; the raft lines we took, the fun and the “oh shit“ moments… It gets me every time I hear Trey tell a story of what happened through such and such rapid and the raft bouncing here, going sideways; how he was seated in the raft, everything becoming a blur and still making it out of the rapid unscathed. The attitude and literally acting out every part of the story has me in giggles and smiles. It’s a great way to end the season for us co-workers. But definitely not the end of the season for us paddlers.

See you all on the river brothers and sisters – this gal needs to get working on her skills!

By Chicago Mike

Editor-in-Chief "Chicago" Mike Toughill is co-founder of Dirt Bag Paddlers and former Peshtigo River Manager at Kosir's Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. He's been Wallacing since 2003.

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