In October of 1994, Dave Bassage and Roger Harrison sat in the back of a bus after a paddling trip on the Gauley River. As the rickety bus bounced and rolled over the waves of the rugged Appalachian terrain, the two paddlers bounced and rolled through the waves of a vicious brainstorm. They were spawning a plan.
Many things have been spawned in the back of a bus, from the mischievous ploys of ornery children to a pivotal piece of the civil rights movement. This particular plan, on this particular bus ride, would become the central spectacle of the environmental justice movement that would go on to restore the mighty Cheat River.
Bassage and Harrison were dreaming up the Cheat River Festival, an annual event hosted by Friends of the Cheat (FOC), an environmental nonprofit whose mission is to “Restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed.”
This May, the Cheat River Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary, and the silver lining is far more than symbolic. In the 25 years following the formation of FOC and the first Cheat Fest, a staggering amount of environmental, recreational, and cultural improvements have taken place throughout the 1,422-square-mile watershed. Cheat Fest lies at the galactic center of this microcosm and has been the site of countless events of varying scale that have contributed to FOC’s rise and success.
Cheat Fest Origins
It all began in the spring of 1994, when the waters of an illegally-sealed underground coalmine burst through a mountainside, flooding Muddy Creek and the Cheat with deadly sludge. This toxic concoction contained acidic water and heavy metals, staining the banks bright orange. A decades-long legacy of acid mine drainage (AMD) had already rendered the Cheat a dead river, but now the outlook was even more bleak.
While the Muddy Creek blowout didn’t kill the Cheat, it did serve as a catalyst for change. A tightknit group of paddlers and whitewater guides gathered on the banks of the Cheat to figure out how to accomplish the herculean task of resuscitating a dead ecosystem. Those friends became the Friends of the Cheat. Dave Bassage, a raft guide at the time, was one of the founding members and immediately stepped into a leadership role. “None of us had been part of an organization or formed one before or knew anything about that,” Bassage says.
Just as quickly as the idea hit him on the bus, Bassage and a fledgling FOC were suddenly planning the first Cheat River Festival. “At that point I was president, and we didn’t have any staff,” Bassage recalls. One of the original FOC board members lived in the house above the modern festival site. “He said we could use his bottom land and we went down and walked around, and it was completely over grown, we couldn’t even tell for sure if it was flat. We gave it a shot and got to work clearing weeds.”
Cheating the System
FOC agreed to split proceeds from the inaugural event with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which at the time had Harrison at the helm. They roped in the West Virginia Brewing Company, which wheeled in the stage on a trailer bed. “We were making it up as we went,” Bassage says. “The stage for the first Cheat Fest was something we just tacked together to get through it all.”
FOC would need some power—star and electrical—to put on the musical aspect of the festival. In a move that was unprecedent at the time, Bassage reached out to Anker Energy, a coal company, to see if they’d provide some generators. Anker offered up some generators plus a $10,000 sponsorship donation.
“We caught a lot of flak for working with a coal company, but part of our philosophy was we were looking for allies and not enemies,” Bassage says. “Anker also pledged $200,000 to do a clean-up anywhere in the Cheat as long as it was some place that would make a difference. This all came from my breakfast meeting when I was just going to ask for some generators.”
Both FOC and Cheat Fest faced skepticism early on. The river was dead because of the legacy of coal mining—why were these boaters, some from out of town, working with industry? Bassage says that skepticism, which was “coming from every direction,” presented an opportunity for FOC to develop credibility through Cheat Fest. “We were willing to sit down with the coal company, we brought in local musicians, we brought in local food vendors,” he says. “It helped us to develop and foster those relationships. Now that it’s been 25 years, everyone in the area knows Friends of the Cheat.”
The Cheat’s ecosystem is alive once again. Everything is flourishing, from macroinvertebrates to fish to several species of fishing birds. And while some may be quick to differentiate FOC from Cheat Fest, it’s easy to see the impact the festival itself has had on the river’s recovery.
“To be there on a totally dead river that has now come back to life and to know that was because of the efforts we did is priceless.”
Bassage claims that Cheat Fest has kept visibility on the river as FOC has evolved throughout the years. He tells the story of finding a fishing lure during FOC’s first river cleanup. “I thought someday, I’m gonna use this and fish on the Cheat,” he says. “And these days, one could. The Cheat has come back to life, it isn’t perfect, there’s still AMD to be addressed, but now nature gets a fighting chance. Ultimately, I’ve found that nature wins if you give it a chance, and Cheat Fest has been the catalyst to make that happen.”
A River of Promise
FOC’s inclusive philosophy ultimately resulted in the formation of the River of Promise task force, a coalition of state and federal agencies, academic institutions, environmental organizations, and industry representatives working together to address the legacy issue of AMD in the Cheat River watershed. “We said let’s all pull together to try to clean up acid mine drainage because the legacy AMD was coming from old abandoned mines and there was no liable partner out there,” Bassage says. “Rather than point fingers on who to blame, we just had a mess to clean up.”
According to long-time FOC member and local paddling legend Jim Snyder, that industry endorsement was paramount in the formation of FOC’s partnership with the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “If you’re gonna come up with a solution, you’ve got to have everyone at the table,” Snyder says. A master craftsman of hand-hewn wooden paddles that are used around the world, Snyder can usually be found squirt boating along the Cheat Narrows. “You have to learn to be cordial to each other and work toward a common goal. The River of Promise essentially made that real.”
That promise is one that was kept. It all came full circle in 2018 with construction of the state-of-the-art AMD treatment plant on Muddy Creek that’s now discharging alkaline water into the Cheat Canyon. Following the DEP’s ribbon cutting ceremony at the T&T treatment plant on Friday, May 3, a special public recognition will be held at Cheat Fest to commemorate the 25 original River of Promise signatories.
FOC’s Fantastical FUNdraiser
For FOC executive director Amanda Pitzer, Cheat Fest highlights the common ground in a politically divided watershed. “I think Cheat Fest is a place and time that brings people together of varied interests and backgrounds,” Pitzer says. “It’s a story that people can tell for generations about a group people who worked to change something that they thought was wrong and won. We throw this pebble that is Cheat Fest, and the ripples that come out are immeasurable.”
The festival’s financial ripples, however, are very measurable. According to Pitzer, FOC receives an average of 40 percent of its overhead budget each year from festival proceeds. “In a sunny year, it can be up to 60 percent,” she said, highlighting how the weather for one day can have quite an impact on FOC’s annual budget. “A lot of watershed groups have one or two staff if they’re lucky, but Cheat Fest has allowed us to operate and have a staff.”
Those ripples extend into the local community as well. “There’s the economic development standpoint,” Pitzer says. “It’s the biggest thing that happens in Albright every year. We’d love to see Albright look more like Cheat Fest every weekend.”
Simply put by Cheat Fest Volunteer Coordinator Ellie Bell, “Cheat Fest is everything.” It’s a concert, a boating pilgrimage, FOC’s biggest fundraiser, an educational outreach event, and a social melding pot all rolled into West Virginia’s biggest spring party.
At just 25 years old, Bell is as old as Cheat Fest itself. She’s served in several roles at FOC over the course of her early environmental career, including a two-year stint as the Stream Monitoring Coordinator and three years as Cheat Fest Coordinator from 2016 – 2018.
But it’s not all sunshine and good vibes. Cheat Fest is a monumental undertaking that consumes nearly two-thirds of a year to plan and wrap up—all for a two-day event. According to Bell, the job starts in October and doesn’t let up until the following August. “It’s more than just planning a party,” Bell says. “It’s also planning for a fundraiser and planning an outreach event. It’s making sure FOC is on budget and ready for the enormous amount of projects that are always happening.”
Lauren Greco, an environmental scientist, was Cheat Fest Coordinator in 2015 and wrote the book—literally—on how to do the event. “We call it the bible,” says Pitzer. “It took a scientist to organize twenty-some-odd years of the festival.” This year, Greco has returned to West Virginia to reprise her role as Cheat Fest Coordinator, letting Bell narrow her focus to coordinating the festival’s 350 volunteers.
Via the cultural phenomenon of Cheat Fest, Bell is a shining example of the younger generation’s ability to find happiness and stay in West Virginia. “Cheat Fest has defined my life,” she says. “My community went from tributaries to oceans; it just grew immensely. I met my boyfriend through Cheat Fest, I met my best friend through Cheat Fest, I met my career mentors through Cheat Fest.”
Like Snyder and many others, Bassage has attended every festival. He views the annual pilgrimage—and FOC—among his greatest successes. “I have no children, and I think of FOC as my baby that has grown up and made me very proud,” he says. “I was just part of the team that made it all happen, but it’s still what I’m most proud of in my life. To be there on a totally dead river that has now come back to life and to know that was because of the efforts we did is priceless.”
Head to Albright May 3 and 4 to celebrate 25 years of the Cheat River Festival. For info on presale tickets, head to www.cheatfest.org. Gate tickets are available for $15 on Friday and $25 on Saturday and are the best way to directly benefit FOC. See you there!
Dylan Jones is publisher and editor-in-chief of Highland Outdoors. He’s been to every Cheat Fest since 2011 and will absolutely be at this one. Swing by the Highland Outdoors tent and celebrate the Cheat River with us!