In the spring of 1968 Youghiogheny River outfitter Mountain Streams and Trails (MS&T) brought guided rafting to the Cheat Canyon. It’s owner, Ralph McCarty, hoped that the Cheat would build up his spring business, when his home river ran too high. At the Albright Ball Field (now Cheat Canyon Campground) his crew needed machetes to cut through a wall of rhododendron to reach the river. From this start Cheat rafting grew explosively, and by the time I arrived in the mid-70’s it was bigger than fall Gauley Season. MS&T ran eight trips a day Friday through Monday from Easter through Memorial Day. There were eventually 14 other outfitters; our strongest competitors were Appalachian Wildwaters (now part of Wilderness Voyageurs) and Cheat River Outfitters, both based in Albright.
As a rafting river, the Cheat is West Virginia’s best-kept secret. Commercial rafting numbers may be down, but when the water is up it’s every bit as good as the New or Gauley!
The Cheat Canyon before the ’85 flood was a lot like the Yough, only slightly harder and twice as long. It was “guide assisted”: we put you in rafts, told you where to go, and rescued you if you got into trouble. The rapids, except for Coliseum, were pretty straightforward. At the bottom of Decision Rapid guests were warned that if they didn’t like what they saw, they should walk out. Some did, especially on cold spring days. Beech Run had a big pourover halfway down at high levels. Big Nasty was a big, frisky wave train without the monster hole that’s there today. Even Nastier featured a pourover rock just upstream of a bad pinning rock. A badly paddled raft could drop into this slot like toast in a toaster! A guide always stood on this rock to warn people off and push them away with their feet if necessary. Our lunch spot was just below here.
After a long class III stretch known as “the Doldrums” the river picks up fast. After “Cue Ball” “Green’s Hole” and “Teardrop” we arrived at “High Falls”, a long sloping ledge with big holes that’s exciting at any level. After Maze Rapid,”Coliseum” waited below. It was long and complicated: after going through the “Upper and Lower Box”, a series of tight chutes, the rafters had to skirt “The Devil’s Trap” and “Coliseum Rock”. We were always happy to get through here with no problems!
The last big rapid, “Lower Coliseum”, is now called “Pete Morgan” after man who ran a gas station in Albright. Before the days of the internet and dial-up gauge reports we phoned Pete for water level readings. At high levels Upper and Lower Coliseum ran together. We always seemed to be about one guide short here, and people sometimes took nasty swims. But our guests were pretty tough in the 70’s. Most were young men in their 20’s who were hikers, bikers, skiers, or some other type of outdoor athlete. They were looking for rugged adventure, and they got it. I don’t remember any really close calls.
The Cheat Canyon is a wild ride at high water, way too nasty for guide assisted trips. When the water was higher than our cut-off off, four feet at the Albright Bridge, we moved the trips upstream to the Narrows. Normally a Class III run with one easy Class IV drop, at eight or nine feet it gets big and rowdy, with huge waves. Keeping track of a bunch of self-guided rafts, let alone rescuing someone, was pretty challenging. The run was over very quickly, but some guests felt it was quite long enough.
I once overheard someone tell a guest on the phone: “Now sir, I appreciate you position, but please remember – I have your money, and you have my sympathy!”
The 1985 flood brought the river up to 28 feet, carrying away half the town of Albright and changing many rapids forever. When the water fell, the devastation remained. Company headquarters and there trucks and buses were washed away. In the Canyon, the banks were scoured twenty-five feet above the normal high water mark, carrying away thick growths of rhododendron and mountain laurel. Huge rocks were rolled and many of the Cheat Canyon’s rapids were changed forever. Big Nasty and Coliseum Rapids were completely remade, and became much harder, forcing today’s outfitters to put a skilled guide in every raft. As a boater and a guide, it was amazing to see how this massive flood changed a river I knew so well. Many of us mourn the destruction of “the old Cheat”, but I have come to enjoy its successor just as much.
The Cheat River, while beautiful, was badly polluted with mine drainage. In 1992, after a mine blowout sent millions of gallons of filthy water downriver, local residents banded together to form Friends of the Cheat. This organization has worked closely with the West Virginia DEP and the EPA to clean up the river. It’s been a big success. The water is now clean enough that fish and fish eating birds have returned. And in 2014, thanks to the work of the Nature Conservancy and many other groups, the entire canyon was preserved by the State of West Virginia.
As a rafting river, the Cheat is West Virginia’s best-kept secret. Commercial rafting numbers may be way down, but when the water is up it’s every bit as good as the New or Gauley! Challenging at all levels, it remains wild and unpredictable.
Come in March, when the hillsides are often streaked with snow and ice! Come in April, and see the Redbud and Serviceberry brighten the dark brown hillsides. Come in May, and watch as the delicate green leaves of spring become the thick growth of summer. Then in June, after heavy rains, the river roars past sandbars covered with colorful wildflowers and thick stands of blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. For kayakers, there’s plenty of big, uncrowded water and challenging play spots in a beautiful canyon! Don’t miss it! – Charlie Walbridge
Charlie Walbridge is a veteran paddler, swift water rescue instructor, and board member with the Friends of the Cheat. Find more of his work at www.charliewalbridge.com