HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — While most folks think of a trip to the New River Gorge as a summer getaway to float the majestic New River, it's just a commute to an open-air office for Huntington resident Shannon Highlander.
Highlander, who lives in Huntington with his wife, Erin, has spent the past 20 years as one of the whitewater rafting guides for Class VI River Runners in Lansing.
When the world turns to wintry white, Highlander is off to Park City, Utah, where he has been a ski instructor for the past 15 seasons from Thanksgiving through April.
Highlander, who spends midweeks in Huntington before rolling back down to the Gorge for the Friday through Monday Gauley River releases, said it has been an excellent year for whitewater as steady rains gave the New River a great flow all summer long.
Now, guides are in the maw of the world-famous Gauley River fall release, packed with 32 days of rafting this year instead of the usual 23 because of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' regular 10-year inspection that calls for the Summersville Dam to be lowered further, thus creating midweek flows on the Gauley, whose nickname is "the Beast of the East."
"In the 20 years I have been raft guiding, it is by far the best season we have had, and I have heard the best season they have ever had for water being consistently good and just staying there," Highlander said. "We have had medium to high water all season, and we really didn't have anything below two feet until last weekend. I don't think it got below four feet in July. There for the longest time it was five or six feet every day ...
"I remember one day going down through the Gorge from Cunard about 10 miles in 40 minutes, at 12 feet, with rocks that are 20 feet out of water at normal flow underwater and producing massive holes."
That kind of wild rumpus of a summer Lower New season has segued into the Gauley season, which is a favorite among guides, Highlander, included, since the remote Gauley gorge has breathtaking scenery at such spots as Canyon Doors. The river also features some of the biggest commercially run rapids like Pillow Rock and Sweet's Falls, a 13-foot-waterfall, helping to give the Gauley its reputation as one of the best two-day rafting trips in the country.
Guiding that ever-changing whitewater roller coaster has been something Highlander, whose river-guide nickname is Squirt, has been doing since 1993 when he was fresh out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Shane, who was then a whitewater guide at Class VI.
Highlander, who guided while he was in college at WVU as well, started teaching skiing at Winterplace at Ghent in 1992.
After graduating from WVU, Highlander soon set up what has become his normal work routine — running the rivers of the New and Gauley from April to early November, and heading out to Park City, Utah, by Thanksgiving. Highlander is entering his 15th year as a ski instructor in Utah this November.
His skills have also guided him on adventures around the world, both working and playing. He taught skiing in New Zealand for three winters, worked for AVA in Colorado where he guided eight different western rivers, and worked twice in 2001 and 2004 in Livingston, Zambia, on the Zambezi River.
It was in Utah where he reconnected with fellow Southern West Virginian Erin Highlander, who was out on a ski trip, and whom he dated for 3 1/2 years before marrying the Huntington resident a year ago.
"Erin and I both knew each other as kids and from Winterplace skiing, and she was coming out to Salt Lake for a ski trip and contacted me, and we were both coming out of other relationships and started hanging out again. That is how that got started again," Highlander said. "It is very tough lifestyle. A lot of guys have struggled with that over the years and have gotten divorced. It is a tough lifestyle going back and forth to different places and not always seeing your family as much as you'd want."
Dave Arnold, one of the founders of Class VI, said Highlander is one of the best, both in skiing and on the river where customers always rate Squirt highly.
"Squirt has that personality profile of all great guides and it's that combination of being fun and gregarious, out there to show people a good time, and really great technically," Arnold said. "It's like race car drivers. Some people are better than others and technically he hits those lines within an inch every time and everybody that knows Squirt knows he is as good a boater as anyone out there."
Although he never figured he would still be plying the rivers, Highlander said he loves nothing better than a day on the river and loves sharing his passion for the river with guests.
"I think for me it is just the freedom of being out on the water and in a sense kind of being your own boss and making decisions, and the adrenaline rush of the water, the scenery and the people — and not just the people you take down, but the people you work with, it's like a family," Highlander said. "There's not too many jobs where you put your lives on the line every day with each other, whether people know it or not, and so you get those bonds that last forever."
Highlander said in his 20 years he's taken just about every kind of person down the river, and he loves getting folks out of their element to help them enjoy a unique outdoors experience.
"I have seen some of the Hell's Angels go down with the Antioch Baptist Church before and get along just fine. Sometimes you have to watch it with group dynamics, but the joke I always make to them is that the commands are really simple — it's not rocket science. And then you have the guy who says, 'Yeah, well, I'm a rocket scientist,'" Highlander said, laughing. "So you never know who is going to be in the boat with you."
For the most part, no one is lukewarm about whitewater rafting — they either love it or hate it, Highlander said.
"Rafting for me is more of a lifestyle than a job, I do it for money, but no one does it just for the money. They love being out there and showing people something they enjoy in their lives and just going out and making sure people have a good time," Highlander said.
Highlander said a guide has to endure rigorous river and first-aid training before they ever take the first guest down.
"To be a guide you have to be 18, know basic CPR and first aid, and you usually have to take about 40 or 50 runs before you can take anyone down the river," Highlander said. "You spend a lot of time in cold water and a lot of long, cold days without being paid."
Highlander said the expansion of outdoors offerings has been a great way for people to come explore their way down in the Gorge, which is also home to The Summit, the new permanent site of the Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree.
"I think we are starting to see more West Virginia people coming down the river and not necessarily just going down the river but they are coming to Fayetteville and mountain biking or climbing and hiking around," Highlander said. "It is a little bit different down there than in other parts of the state.
"There is a huge recreational area that is free to the public. A lot of parks you have to pay to use, but the New River, you can go and just camp on the river and fish and do whatever you are into down there. I think for us, for our company, it used to be that people came and went rafting and stayed for a night of camping. Nowadays with the ziplines and all the other stuff they are offering, ... people are coming and get what his name implies — that West Virginia experience."
Highlander said he takes pride in trying to give folks that experience of the best of West Virginia outdoors and its people.
"A lot of people think it is just about guiding skills and a lot of is, but a lot of it is also being an entertainer and having people really take a great experience back out of West Virginia," Highlander said. "We want them to go back to Chicago or Cleveland and go back to the cities and say, 'You know what I had a great time down there this weekend and would recommend it to anyone.' "
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com