On the first Friday of May, a kaleidoscope of some 100 boaters will once again line bow-to-bow behind the bridge pylons on the Cheat River downstream from Albright for the start of the Cheat River Massacre-ence. Unofficially considered the largest mass-start downriver race in the country, the Massacre-ence marks the beginning of the spring paddling season for many in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s an annual tradition that has taken place in some form or fashion since 1996, the first year a motley crew of off-the-clock raft guides raced each other in hard boats through the 10.6-mile-long class III-IV Cheat Canyon.
That a downriver race in rural West Virginia should not only survive but thrive for 26 years speaks to the region’s legacy of canoe and kayak racing. Just up the road in Friendsville, Maryland, the Upper Yough Race has been taking place every summer since 1981. Though popular among local paddlers and top-level wildwater racers, it wasn’t until whitewater slalom returned to the Summer Olympics in 1992 that regional fervor for whitewater racing truly exploded. In the spring of 1992, the U.S. Olympic Team Trials were held not far from the Cheat on the Savage River in western Maryland. A year later in the fall of 1993, the Upper Gauley in southern West Virginia hosted the Animal, its very first downriver race. It was only natural, then, that a few years later, the Cheat would host a river race of its own.
Yet from the very beginning, it was clear that the race on the Cheat was different from those on the Upper Yough and Upper Gauley. Unlike the Youghiogheny and Gauley rivers, the Cheat is free-flowing for all 162 meandering miles of its length from the town of Parsons to Cheat Lake outside of Morgantown. That fact makes the Cheat not only wild in feel but also wildly inconsistent in flows.
“The Cheat can go from 1.5 feet to 6 feet overnight,” says Rob Vorhees, organizer of the Cheat River Massacre-ence from 1996-1999. “There are five different tributaries that provide the Cheat with all of the water it needs to flow. Before the internet, you had to rely on telephone gauges and if you didn’t know the local Albright-ians Jimmy and Jeff Snyder and couldn’t pick their brains, you just didn’t know what levels you were getting.”
Between 2.5 and 3.5 feet on the Albright river gauge, what many consider optimum race levels, the Cheat’s big waves and boulder-studded rapids are hardly technical, especially compared to those on the Upper Yough. But if it rained upstream across any of the Five Forks of the Cheat—the Black, Dry, Glady, Laurel, and Shavers forks— the Cheat’s playful nature could quickly turn monstrous. In 1985, the Cheat famously rose from 2.5 feet to 30 feet in 24 hours, unleashing a flood that effectively wiped Albright and many other Preston County towns in its watershed off the map.
Early racer and present-day Cheat River Massacre-ence race organizer Heather Rau has experienced the power of a surging Cheat firsthand. The year was 2002 and race-day levels had crested five feet on the Albright gauge. Though Rau was a strong kayaker who paddled the Cheat often, she had never seen the river that big.
Other than Colleen Laffey, the three-time women’s champion who was filming instead of racing that day, Rau was the only woman on the water. When then-race organizer Rick Gusic sounded the starting horn at 5:30 p.m., Rau could feel her heart hammering in her chest. “I was committed to doing it, but I was scared to death,” says Rau. “I remember getting to [the Colosseum rapid] and looking downstream and it just looked like a thunderous ocean. There was not one rock exposed.”
A treacherous hole surfed Rau till she swam out of her kayak, but with the help of other racers, she recovered her gear and paddled safely to the finish at Jenkinsburg Bridge. Another racer in a wildwater boat—a long (14 ft, 9 in) and narrow (23.6 in) racing kayak—was not so lucky and was forced to walk the 2.5 miles back to Albright from the Big Nasty rapid after a massive hole munched his boat and broke it into pieces.
Yet even when water levels are low or perfect, racing the Cheat is always turbulent. Unique to the race is its mass start, a format Vorhees borrowed from his motorcycle racing days. Imagine over 100 different kayaks and rafts—and nearly double that number in paddle blades—charging downstream, all vying for position as they head toward Decision, the first rapid of the Cheat Canyon section.
“You’re just trying to survive the wake,” says Scott Stough, a veteran Cheat River racer who has competed in the Massacre-ence nearly every year since its inception. “The surge is just crazy. You’re getting washed all over the place.”
Some years, Stough has witnessed the mayhem from afar. Other years, he’s been in the heart of it. At the start, Stough once nearly knocked a guy’s teeth out with his paddle blade. During a low-water year in the middle of the High Falls rapid, he saw local paddler Chara Whittemore piton bow-first into a rock so hard she broke her seat. Stough himself has broken boats and paddles numerous times while racing. He once had to swim at Decision after his paddle blade snapped off mid-stroke.
Racing the Cheat is decidedly full-contact. Stough has been hit by other racers’ boats more times than he can count. Once, his boat cracked from the impact and took on water the rest of the race. Another time he was literally “speared” in the spine by a pointy boat, which not only knocked the wind out of him but also flipped his boat and made him swim. Stough, now 62, knows the Cheat better than most racers, but if there’s anything his 20-plus years of racing the Cheat has taught him, it’s that anything can happen during the Massacre-ence.
“It’s kinda chaotic,” says seven-time overall champion Geoff Calhoun. “It’s an experience worth having if you’re a paddler, even if you’re not a competitive paddler. It’s a race for everyone.”
Part of that inclusion is by design. There’s a class for every type of watercraft imaginable, from wildwater race boats to rafts and tandem kayaks. The river itself, when it’s not flooding, is welcoming, too. Though it is a remote canyon that requires solid class III-IV paddling skills, it’s drop-pool in nature, meaning the larger rapids are broken up by long flatwater pools.
Three-time women’s champion Chara Whittemore says the race is special in that it meets boaters at every stage of their paddling. The Massacre-ence attracts paddlers of all kinds, from members of the U.S. Wildwater Team to 15-year-old playboaters and everyone in between. She herself has both raced to win but also to enjoy the experience of racing alongside her teenage daughter. “There’s always such a fun sense of rivalry,” she says. “The Cheat allows for a little more variety in who can race.”
More than the unique race format or the region’s legacy of world-class paddlers, what has made the Cheat River Massacre-ence such a success for so many years is no doubt a reflection of the race’s longtime organizer Rick Gusick. A talented boater who deeply loved the Cheat River, Gusick was beloved for his quirky paddling videos and fun-first ethos. The race’s moniker “massacre-ence” was Gusick’s own play on the “mass occurrence” of chaos and kayaks that took place on the Cheat each spring. After a quiet battle with cancer, Rick Gusick passed away in 2019.
“He looked at things differently than a lot of other people on the river,” Stough remembers of Gusick. “He was always trying to find a laugh and that’s probably the thing I miss about him the most.”
This year’s Massacre-ence will be dedicated to the quick-witted, hard-paddling, river-loving man who organized the race for 20 years. Join us in honoring Gusick’s legacy with a weekend of paddling, camaraderie, and good times at this year’s Cheat River Festival, hosted by the Friends of the Cheat in Albright.
Jess Daddio is a Virginia-based multimedia journalist with a big soft spot for West Virginia. Her greatest achievement has been resisting the pandemic urge to make sourdough bread. When she is not neck-deep in a story, she can usually be found actively avoiding adulting in the woods.