Image: whitewater rafters
Jon C. Hancock  /  AP
Rafters from Baltimore, Md., ride West Virginia's lower New River on an express trip from Cunard to Fayette Station.
updated 7/6/2007 2:41:12 PM ET 2007-07-06T18:41:12

Paul Brockett roughed it during one of his final weekends as a single man.

A month before his wedding, Brockett and 10 other high school classmates drove six hours from Baltimore to West Virginia's whitewater country to enjoy a bachelor weekend in the outdoors.

"We knew it was a hot spot for East Coast paddling," said group organizer Alan Baker.

Yet there was much more than water awaiting at the New River Gorge: rock climbing, Frisbee golf, paintball and cooking on the grill. And they hardly had to dash from place to place.

Songer Whitewater had it waiting for them.

It's that kind of thinking that keeps Songer thriving — and tourists spending more time and money — at a time when the state's rafting industry has seen a 22 percent decline in customers during the past dozen years. "As far as the East Coast goes, you have places that would offer similar things," Baker said. "You might have to go up into New Hampshire or Vermont, or out to the Red River Gorge, which is all the way out into Kentucky. So in proximity to the D.C. area, this is really it, I think."

Brockett, an active rock climber, has made two previous trips to the New River Gorge and has hiked elsewhere in West Virginia.

Quiet along the river
Whitewater rafting was new to him.

"Bachelor parties with strippers in downtown Baltimore aren't quite our style," Brockett said. "So this is perfect, being out here for the weekend."

It was even nicer that, after a short bus ride, they practically had the river to themselves.

Hundreds of feet below the perch of rock climbers, the blast of a coal train's horn bounced around the steep, tree-covered valley, temporarily drowning out songbirds and the rapids' roar.

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What was missing was the laughter and playful screams from battalions of boats and kayaks that once consistently lined the river.

It was just the Baltimore boys and a few other rafts in the rain-swollen river.

Mirroring downturns in the travel and leisure industries that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks, rafting companies on the New, Gauley and other West Virginia rivers have struggled to approach the peak season of 1995, when there were 257,446 visitors.

Last year, there were 201,358 visitors, according to a West Virginia University study conducted for the Division of Tourism and state Chamber of Commerce.

There might be more business if not for out-of-state misconceptions.

More than rafting
Focus groups from Cincinnati and Fairfax, Va., who were surveyed by a consultant for the state Tourism Commission, believed the New River Gorge was a longer drive from those cities than it actually is. They also mistakenly believed whitewater rafting was not a family activity and that there were no other activities in the gorge.

Far from it.

Many companies, including Songer, help customers ride horses, mountain bikes, motorcycles and ATVs, and find a bed for the night. Songer recently added six deluxe cabins to its campground and rustic cabins.

"We have really evolved almost into a travel agency or a booking agency that specializes in whitewater," said Songer President Susie Hofstetter, who started packaging whitewater trips in 1984.

Theories on why the whitewater industry hasn't rebounded include high gas prices, competition and Internet-savvy customers.

"In the old days, raft companies would be booked for a month. Now it's last-minute. They watch the weather," said Rick Bayes, an ex-rafting guide who has owned the Cathedral Cafe in tourist-heavy Fayetteville for the past eight years.

Despite whitewater's downturn, "our business keeps increasing," Bayes said. "On the weekends, we'll have an hour line outside the door."

Customers now include rock climbers, hikers and boaters.

In need of a plan
The state has hired a Washington, D.C., consultant — Bill Owens of Economics Research Associates — to come up with a plan for the whitewater industry.

But Ron Taylor, a former lunch caterer to rafting companies and the current owner of Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit, has plenty of ideas already.

He'd like to see a theme park or something similar to the Barefoot Landing shopping and restaurant complex in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a popular destination for West Virginians.

"If you bring your family, you really need to stay more than two to three days. And I think that's the next venue that this industry needs to approach," he said.

Some point to the success of Tennessee's Pigeon River, which has experienced a 78 percent increase in rafting visits since 2001.

The river, which had 107,987 visits last year, is within close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pigeon Forge vacation hotspot, which is also home to Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park.

Taylor said more coordination is also needed to connect outsiders with existing attractions, such as the Outdoor Theater at Grandview and the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, which is closed this summer while undergoing renovations.

"Half of the people who come into my restaurant don't even know about the exhibition coal mine," Taylor said. "It just doesn't seem we have all our resources together to make the visitors aware of what's available."

Whatever is done will no doubt have to deal with environmental concerns and opposition from some of those who have lived here all their lives, folks determined to keep West Virginia the way highway welcome signs long proclaimed it, "Wild and wonderful."

"Some of the older crowd is anti-tourism, without question. The younger ones, their kids are working in the industry. They welcome and want the change," Bayes said. "It's a true quandary for this area."

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