Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Forgotten River

Don’t confuse the title above with “The Lost River”—West Virginia already has one of those (, and maybe someday I will write about that state park and the river that disappears into the side of a mountain.

This essay is about a forgotten river; the Cheat River. It is the river where I had lost my whitewater virginity in my very first rafting trip back in 1983 while at WVU. However, I had not returned to the Cheat until this past weekend. It wasn’t that I had a problem with the Cheat River, because my initial raft trip was such a great experience that it inspired me to make dozens of more trips over the years. I’ve covered all sections of the famous New and Gauley Rivers. I’ve done the Shenandoah and the Potomac in the eastern panhandle. I’ve rafted the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania as well as the man-made ASCI whitewater course at Deep Creek, Maryland. But I had never got around to returning to the Cheat River where it all began.

I guess it was one of those things where since I could already claim to have done the Cheat, it wasn’t as important to run it again. I always knew it was there and felt I would get around to running it again, especially since the big flood of 1985 had totally changed the river. This past weekend was finally the time to head out to Preston County to try the Cheat.

There are actually two sections of the Cheat River—the Cheat Canyon (downstream from Albright) and the Cheat Narrows (upstream from Albright). The big whitewater is in the Cheat Canyon, but it is primarily run during high water levels of the spring. The Cheat Narrows is a tighter, more technical stretch of smaller rapids, which can be fun in an inflatable kayak (known as a “duckie”). Even though the water was running low, we wanted to give the Narrows a try.

We arrived at Cheat River Outfitters less than 45 minutes after leaving Morgantown. I had selected this outfitter because they have a permanent presence in Albright, West Virginia. There are other outfitters who run the Cheat, but they are part-time “satellite” operations of outfitters based at Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania on the Youghiogheny River. I wanted to reward a full-time West Virginia business with my money.

The folks at Cheat River Outfitters (CRO) are very nice, and are quite competent at what they do. However, if you are expecting some of the high end furnishings you might get from some of the top New and Gauley River outfitters in Fayette County (Class VI, ACE, etc.), then you might be a bit disappointed. The helmets and lifejackets are functional, but slightly faded, beginning to show their age. Even without the glitz and glamour of the big operations, the "heart and soul" of CRO is there to safely provide you with a good time on the river. And a good time was had by all on the day we were there!

As with other outfitters, an old school bus takes you upstream from their headquarters, and you get to see the glimpses of the river for most of the trip. Route 72 parallels the Cheat during this section—instead of the trains you see and hear when rafting the New River, you sometimes catch coal trucks or motorcycles passing by. However, for the most part, all you see and hear is the beautiful West Virginia wilderness—steep green hillsides, blue skies, gray rocks, and dark water, periodically punctuated with frothy whitewater. It was wild, wonderful West Virginia at its best!

The Cheat Narrows may be a bit boring for a hardened whitewater veteran, but I’m able to have fun wherever I go. It is tame enough for beginners, but skill and experience can be very helpful in the challenging sections. I would compare it to the section of the Youghiogheny River above the falls that is known as the Middle Yock. The Cheat is not as broad as the Middle Yock, so you need to hit the right line to get through properly, thus making it seem more fun to me.

It seems to me that the Cheat River should get more attention for its outdoor potential than it does. Morgantown has been growing by leaps and bounds, seemingly unaffected by the recession impacting most of the rest of the state (and nation). Albright’s proximity to Morgantown should cause it to draw more customers than it does.

However, much of the state’s efforts to promote whitewater tourism centers on the New and Gauley Rivers, in part because they are located well within West Virginia’s borders. Tourists who come to Fayette County are likely to stay and do other things within West Virginia. With Albright located so close to both the Pennsylvania and Maryland border, outdoor enthusiasts may well come to the Cheat and then run off to Deep Creek, Maryland, or Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, for the rest of their vacation.

Still, I would like to see more folks consider giving the Cheat River a try. I regret waiting so long to return to this forgotten river, and I hope to return again soon. Too often people overlook what lies in their own backyard, knowing that the nearby activities are always there when needed, but never seeming to get around to actually doing them. If you are interested in exploring the Cheat (or other activities such as rock climbing, paint ball, or caving), check out the good folks at Cheat River Outfitters at Don't forget about the Cheat River!

One of the CRO guides wades over to help a woman stuck on a submerged rock. Notice the large dead tree stuck on top of the biggest rock visible downstream--it was apparently stranded there from a previous flood.

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