A phoenix has risen from the fly ashes. A river once rife with extractive industry is alive again thanks to decades of dedicated revivalism by local watershed groups and other stakeholders. The day has finally come where the Cheat Canyon’s scars have become the stuff of legend; stories best told over campfires and drams of whiskey. Water quality has improved so much that all 26 miles of the Cheat mainstem—including the length of the Canyon—are slated for long-awaited removal from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s list of impaired streams.
Before widespread efforts to restore water quality, untreated water discharging from defunct coal mines caused pH readings in the 4–5 range—much too low to sustain aquatic life. Old raft guides share stories of the water “cauterizing” their wounds and stinging their eyes. Now, pH hovers in the 6.5–7 range. Macroinvertabrates and fish have rebounded, solidifying the presence of other charismatic canyon creatures: bald eagles, osprey, beavers, and the iconic hellbender. Protected since a victorious land acquisition in 2015, the Cheat Canyon Wildlife Management Area plays host to the rarest of West Virginia fauna like the Indiana bat the flat-spired three-toothed snail.
That’s exactly what makes this area so great—exploring Mother Earth’s natural protections of steep canyon walls and wild water. The Cheat’s image is morphing from a dilapidated mining region into a destination for outdoor recreation. The methods leading to the phoenix’s first death have ceased—no more coal mines, no more logging in the Canyon. The major metro areas of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington, D. C. are on the doorstep. Come now while it’s still a secret. The prime vehicle for exploring this stretch of wilderness, of course, is the tube of a raft or the cockpit of a kayak.
The Cheat Canyon trip has all the facets of the true West Virginia experience. We begin on the shuttle drive: rough 4WD roads that snake down the walls of the Canyon to the fabled Jenkinsburg Bridge. Present here are other types of fauna endemic to the area: collegiate revelers, local ATV clubs on poker runs, and river rats. It’s not unprecedented for there to be several hundred people lining the rocky river banks, creating an Appalachian spring break scene in one of the region’s truly interesting melting pots.
On to the small town of Albright, home to several put-ins for the Cheat. The Friends of Cheat Festival Grounds is the best river access, located just off Route 26 alongside Muddy Creek and accessed through Teter’s Campground. Bathrooms and a peaceful setting provide a nice backdrop to prep for your trip. We rig to flip, perform mental kayak rolls, wipe sweaty palms, and exhale deep breaths. When the gear is ready, the mind will soon follow.
Slipping out of sight of Albright, life’s anxieties and to-do lists quickly fall out of perspective. Decision Rapid is first: can’t hit that roll, feeling tense in the bowels, nervous to the point of silence, last chance to walk out. The belly of the beast awaits, deep within the Canyon: the Miracle Mile. But wait, Big Nasty is first, better get right before the hole at the end. Don’t forget to get your playboating on at Typewriter Rapid and drink the day’s first beer.
Cruise through Even Nastier, play some more at Cue Ball, drink your second beer, eat the gas station pepperoni roll. Onto Highfalls: soak in the view before you hit the horizon line. Find your line through Maze, the prize for making it through is your place in the Coliseum. Gladiator this thing, miss the bus-sized hole aptly named The Recylotron, keep left, witness the Particle Accelerator and churning power of the Cheat.
It is here where the power of water can be witnessed most forthright. Don’t fall into an existential wormhole yet; Pete Morgan’s is up, the last big rapid. Drop in, keep left angle to miss those rocks on the right. Boom; we made it, alive and exuberant. All smiles and high fives as the last beer is shared by all. We float on and come full circle at Jenkinsburg, the subjects of inquisitive looks from the local fauna.
“Where did you come from? What’s it like up there? Man, you guys smell funny.”
Sound enticing? You should try it sometime. Hire a local guide or go with friends and experience what’s in your backyard. It’s wild in there, quiet and noisy at the same time; a place left to return into its former self. Go see it for yourself—you might love it as much as we do.
Owen Mulkeen is associate director of Friends of the Cheat. You can find him shredding on his mountain bike or paddling somewhere in the Cheat River watershed.