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The Glory Days of Cheat River Rafting - Charlie Walbridge The Glory Days of Cheat River Rafting - Charlie Walbridge

The Glory Days of Cheat River Rafting

In the 1970’s, long before anyone was a sponsored paddler, the only way to make money by paddling was to be a river guide. Unlike the west, where commercial and private paddlers formed very separate groups, back east, we were all part of the same community. Since there were very few skilled whitewater paddlers around, we often tagged along on commercial trips running the Lower Yough. You got a free lunch and a shuttle in exchange for working informally as an extra safety boat. It was easy to move from this to occasional employment. There were no real “standards” for guides; you just had to be known to the company manager. On busy days “known” paddlers were sometimes approached and offered work as they unloaded boats. My first day of guiding came after my car was broken into and my wallet stolen. When I tried to borrow twenty bucks from Greg Green he recommended me to his boss at White Water Adventurers instead. By the mid-70’s I also tagged along occasionally on Cheat River trips. Business here was growing fast. My friend John Brown, who guided for Mountain Streams and Trails, told me one spring that they were looking for safety boaters on the Cheat. He suggested that I come down for a training weekend and meet “the boys”. Afterwards, I signed up to work several weekends during April and May. Later that Spring I met the company owner, Ralph William McCarty.

Ralph McCarty was a man who spent his entire life “thinking outside the box.” Some people referred to him as “Crazy Ralph” because he had a unique, stream-of-consciousness way of talking. I thought he was crazy like a fox! A lot of his ideas never went anywhere, but some of them were right on target so I always listened carefully. He’d been a successful engineer in the aircraft and automotive industries of the Midwest since the early days of World War II and held several patents. He soon became better known as a riverman. He became an active whitewater canoeist, a founding member of the Mad Hatter’s Canoe Club of Cleveland, and an early instructor at the Western Pennsylvania Whitewater School. In the mid-60’s he went to Ralph Freeze at Chicagoland Canoe and bought a high-performance European inflatable kayak for his son, Mike. Since it was not a self-bailing ducky, he added a full fiberglass deck that would accept a spray skirt to keep the water out. This hot little boats was way ahead of its time

As McCarty reached mid-life he entered the outfitting business. He bought a bunch of those high performance ducks and got Chuck Tummonds, a paddler and fiberglass fabricator, to produce the add-on decks. Mountain Streams and Trails opened in 1967, offering guided ducky trips down the rivers of Western Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia. Although his main business was on the Lower Yough, he also offered trips down the Casselman, Cheat, Upper Yough, and Lower Big Sandy! In 1968 he bought a single huge raft he called the “Black Mariah” to accommodate friends of ducky paddlers who didn’t want to paddle alone. The spaces on his raft always booked really fast, and he geared up to meet this demand. For this, he designed a unique raft were later referred to as “Ralph’s Rockets”. The side tubes extended back past a square stern to make the boat track better. A guide who knew how could use these stern tubes could climb back aboard very fast after a flip. He then contracted with Rubber Crafters of West Virginia to build them.

In the Spring of 1968 his company, Mountain Streams and Trails (MS&T) ran its first commercial Cheat Trip. His son Mike, who ran the company until 2003, was in junior high school back then. At the Albright Ball Field (now the Cheat Canyon Campground) they used a machete to cut through the thick rhododendron that lined the riverbank to reach the water. (This rhodo and the giant riverside sycamores washed away in the ’85 flood) His plan was to use the Cheat to build his spring business, when the Yough ran at levels that were considered too high for commercial trips. But the Cheat business grew explosively. By the time I arrived in the mid-70’s Cheat Season  was bigger than Gauley Season! They were running eight or more trips a day of 50 people each on weekends from Easter to Memorial Day. There was also substantial weekday business. Appalachian Wildwaters was just getting started, and Whitewater Adventurers was running a few trips, but “the boys” from MS&T had the bulk of the business. Soon outfitters from the New River, who were looking for an alternative to high-water spring trips there, came up to run the Cheat.

Guide training was informal but thorough. Potential safety boaters were evaluated by managers and senior guides as they paddled the river. A strong roll was essential and anyone who swam was likely to find himself “pushing rubber.” We also had to learn the river. It’s one thing to run the Cheat Canyon for fun, another to always know exactly where you are so you don’t direct guests someplace where they don’t belong. Experienced safety boaters were paired with rookies who showed them the “guide rocks” and “guide eddies” where we would stop to direct rafting guests away from danger and provide safety back-up. For instance, a sharp piece of metal next to the abandoned railroad bridge below the Albright Ball Field could slash a raft badly. We eddied out next to it and motioned the rafts away. If anything bad happened, we were supposed to converge on the scene to assist. The guides were expected to be excellent river swimmers, and we practiced this skill in the icy March water.

Cheat trips were run using the same “unguided format” used on the Lower Yough. The tripleader gave his safety talk as we drifted downstream from the Route 26 Bridge in Albright. He covered the difference between “small, friendly” and “big unfriendly” rocks and what to do if you fell out of your boat. He also gave the guests a “talk-up” above major rapids while safety boaters assumed their positions. He then lead his trip through the rapid. The “grunt guide” brought up the rear. He carried the group’s lunches and the first aid kit, and was the person responsible for releasing pinned boats. The safety boaters circulated around unless they had a specific assignment, assisting the grunt guide as needed. We always tried to coach the guests to unpin their boats themselves to avoid the hassle of getting out of our boats.

The Cheat Canyon before the ’85 flood was a lot like the Lower Yough, only slightly harder and twice as long. The rapids, except for Coliseum, were pretty straightforward. At the bottom of Decision Rapid people were warned by the tripleader that if they didn’t like what they saw, they should walk out. Some did, especially on those really cold spring days. Beech Run had a big hole halfway down at high levels. Big Nasty was just a big, frisky wave train with no hole. At Even Nastier there’s a pourover rock just upstream of a bad pinning rock. A raft could drop into this slot like toast in a toaster, and you might as well tie it off and wait for the water to go down! A guide always stood on this rock to warn people off and push them off with their feet if they didn’t listen. We ate lunch just below here.

Lunch was a pretty basic affair. Guests had their choice of mystery meat or PB&J sandwiches. There were apples and MS&T’s famous generic soda. Guides told me that the guests were always hungry, and good food would be wasted on them. We’d described the rest room facilities (boys upstream, girls downstream) and told them to throw their apple cores into the woods where a 90 pound chipmunk would clean up. They were cautioned against throwing lunch meat into the woods because that would make the chipmunk carnivorous, and then everyone would have to take their paddles into the woods for protection. Lastly, everyone was told “to put the top of the pop top in the hole in the pop top can” before turning in the can to be carried out. This was a good time to socialize with the guests, but we weren’t above pulling their leg. I remember one day someone asked if any of us were “licensed river pilots”. I told them my buddy Jim had been a barge pilot on the Allegheny River, but that one day his barge got away from him and rammed the Interstate 79 Bridge near Pittsburgh. “And the unemployment office sent him here.” I concluded.

After a long class III stretch known as “the Doldrums” the river starts to pick 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. Years earlier John Sweet showed me a great line down the middle that always worked, but it took some courage to get out there in the center at high levels. After Maze Rapid, Coliseum approached. This rapid was quite long and really tough to guide. 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”. Below here was  “Lower Coliseum”. This is now called “Pete Morgan” to honor a man in Albright who ran a gas station at the Route 26 Bridge. Before the days of the internet and dial-up gauge reports paddlers phoned him 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 long swims. But the 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 a bit of rugged adventure, and they got it. I don’t remember any really close calls.

Rafting back then was not for the faint-hearted. People camped out at Cheat Canyon Campground, which on popular weekends was extremely crowded. Campers sometimes got pretty rowdy, forcing the campground owner, Grant Tichnell, to strap on his pistol and get things back under control. But we were an honest bunch. It wasn’t unusual to come in late at night and find Grant asleep in his chair. We’d tuck five bucks into his shirt pocket (sometimes there was quite a lot of money in there!) and enter the campground without waking him up.

The Albright Fire Department offered breakfast to everyone, and as a result of their partnership with MS&T they had one of the best equipped small-town fire departments in the country. There was no change area at the put-in, just a parking lot and a few portable toilets. But being a progressive company, we allowed the few female customers to change in a parked van or a school bus. Customer service was pretty no-nonsense, and no whining was allowed. Once, while visiting “The Last Resort”, MS&T’s base on the Lower Yough, I overheard someone tell a guest on the phone: “Now sir, I appreciate your position, but please, just remember one thing: I have your money, and you have my sympathy!”

April Cheat trips could be brutally cold, but wetsuit rentals were not available. Our management thought it would be too much trouble, so the brochure suggested that rafting guests should get one from a dive store. A few people did, and everyone else was pretty miserable. On really cold days guides took the matter into their own hands. The company had a number of huge black military surplus dry bags that we’d fill with our extra clothing. At lunch, the tripleader would issue the warm stuff to the coldest looking people. In the late 70’s an enterprising young guide named Mike Minke bought a huge bread truck and set it up to carry several hundred wetsuits. He parked in Cheat Canyon Campground and did a booming business, renting everything he had for ten bucks apiece. In the evening he’d hang up all the suits, turn on a kerosene heater, and open the top vents. The next day his suits were dry and ready to be rented again.

Mike’s business was very successful during the Cheat and Gauley seasons. He liked to party, and he would circulate around the campground with a pistol on one hip and a truckers wallet stuffed with cash on the other. Some nights he’d get pretty plastered, and we all worried that someone would try to roll him and take his money. It never happened, but raft company owners took note of his success. When they entered the wetsuit rental business a year or two later Mike was unable to compete. After a few years he and his girlfriend moved out to Wyoming. Outfitters in Maine and on the New River tell me that these rentals are probably one of the most profitable parts of their business.

One of the things about being a guide is that you get to work with all kinds of people, some of whom you hope you’ll never see again. Late each spring we got a visit from a group we called “The Gay Weightlifter’s Club”. They were all quite buff and wore bikini bathing suits. One year “Big Jim”, a tall, handsome guide, was their tripleader. At the end of the day I asked him how it went. He gave me a nasty look, then lifted his shirt. There were pinch marks all over his body! Jim was a great guide, so we were all disappointed when told us that he wouldn’t be guiding next season because he had found “a great opportunity, with a future”. It turned out he was going to be the quality control manager of a dog food plant in Connelsville! He never should have told us that! Guides barked at him for the remaining weeks of the season whenever his back was turned.

Being a river guide, if there was trouble on the river, we were expected to handle it. I always preferred to paddle with other guides because I knew if I got in trouble, they’d come after me. One day I was working my raft through Lower Coliseum when I hear my buddy Chip Queitzsch screaming for help. Chip was en engineering student at UVA and he never got excited. I grabbed a throw rope and ran like hell. Pushing my way through a crowd of canoe clubbers on shore, I saw that Chip was in chest deep water holding a guy’s head above water. His kayak had wrapped around “trap rock” in the “second box”, and his buddies were just watching the scene unfold from shore. I got one of them to hold my rope, then swam out to release the boat.

Mountain Streams and Trails had a set procedure at the takeout. Guests carried the rafts from the river to a large U-Haul truck. Here the guides sorted gear and loaded boats. Two guides balanced a raft on their heads, took a running start, and threw it into the truck. If you bounced it off the front of the cargo compartment, it was considered a good toss. If part of the raft was left hanging out the back, it was a wimpy effort. Solo tosses got you extra points, but you had to be quick! Sometimes the raft would catch the back of your head and slam you into the truck bed, so I always kept my helmet on. A crowd of guides would be hanging around to critique your performance. For many years no one on the Cheat would hire women as guides, supposedly because they weren’t strong enough to chuck the rubber. But when I worked at Nantahala Outdoor Center in ’74 we had a number of excellent female guides, and we loaded rafts pretty efficiently. I still remember encountering U.S. Team member and NOC Chatooga Section IV guide Lynn Ashton in Ohiopyle after she had been turned down for work on the Yough. She was especially furious because her much-less-skilled boyfriend was hired.

Actually, in the late 60’s Mountain Streams became the first river company to hire woman and minorities. Greg Green (who later started the first successful river photography business) joined Sue and Cathy Spindt living at the company headquarters in town. This “progressive” living arrangement did not set well in town, and their lease was not renewed. Greg continued to work on the river for various companies as the first active black guide, but no other women were hired until the early 80’s. Now they are guiding on all of the major eastern rivers and we wonder how we managed without them

We always told our guests that the shuttle ride at the end of the trip was as wild as the river. And we weren’t kidding! Anyone who’s taken a trip up the Masontown side of the Cheat takeout at Jenkinsburg knows how steep and narrow that road is for any vehicle, much less a school bus! I kept my helmet on, and so did lots of other guides. Several times the bus seemed to span precipices as it negotiated the tight turns. We did this because the road on the Valley Point side that we use today was in very bad repair. Going out this way required a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle and a sense of adventure. The infamous “mud hole” at the top of the gorge was the crux move: you just gunned it and charged through a hundred yards of door-deep slop and hoped for the best

On busy days we stationed someone at the top of the hill on the Masontown side and used CB’s to make sure that two buses wouldn’t meet part-way down. Sometimes locals would blow through the traffic checkpoint and go on down anyway, causing a huge traffic jam. Once some guys from Masontown who were fed up with all this activity drove an old clunker of a car down the road, broached it in a narrow spot, and abandoned it. Guides from several companies, lead by a tough local man who was driving the lead bus, got out and manhandled it off the edge of the cliff! MS&T eventually switched to using vans, driving guests to the top of the road and transferring them to buses.

Eight trips a day with 44 guests each, plus guides, means that there were a lot of people to move around. When things went well, it was easy enough. Each tripleader had a scheduled finish time, and by hurrying up or slowing down over the last few miles you could meet your goal easily. But occasionally there was a bad pin on the river that threw your schedule off. Sometimes the rescue involved not only your own guides, but the guys from the next couple of trips. Now everyone arrived at the takeout simultaneously, and there were more people needing rides than the busses could handle. A broken-down bus could cause the same problems. This always seemed to happen when the weather was really bad.

He had maneuvered his way into working a trip composed of high school girls from Fairfax County, Virginia. They were cute, but also very under age. Dave was determined to impress them, and the delays at the takeout gave him the perfect opportunity. Now, understand me, a few guides jumped from the 50 foot high deck of the Bridge at Jenkinsburg, but most of them hung by their arms from the deck before letting go. Dave announced that he was going to jump from the superstructure of the bridge, adding about 30 feet to his leap. Very few people had ever done this, and nobody did it twice. As a crowd gathered, he reached the top and took the plunge. He came up screaming. His legs had apparently parted slightly during the fall; he was wise enough to protect his privates, but the water found another venue, He was rushed to a hospital in Morgantown to have his underpants removed from a place where the sun never shines!

I was part of a group that would sign up for the early trips so we could take a fast, sweet run down the Big Sandy afterwards. We ran our shuttle the night before, leaving a vehicle in Jenkinsburg. The next day we’d load our boats after the trip and go, planning to get to the takeout in time to ride out with the equipment truck. Usually my Dodge Power Wagon, the designated shuttle vehicle, was crammed with more people and boats than it could safely handle. Once, bouncing up a particularly bad spot in the Valley Point Road, the wooden rack frame over the pickup truck bed broke. The people riding underneath screamed, but stopping was not an option. Afterwards we jury-rigged a repair, finished the shuttle, and made the run.

If nothing else was running, we’d hang out at the put in until it was time to get dinner in Kingwood. The company rented the second floor of an old stone building that in it’s past life had been the bank. It became known as “The Cheat Suite”, the weekend guide’s home away from home. It became filthy as only guide quarters can be. You couldn’t drink the water, but at least the toilets worked. Unless the weather was really awful I preferred to camp out! One night I was there when my friend Chip brought his very attractive girlfriend Bette there. I sat and watched in amusement as several different guys came into the room, saw her, then walked right into the narrow edge of an open door. Ouch! The place got a little worse every year. After I stopped guiding, MS&T built new guide quarters. This was a windowless structure across the street that everyone called “the mailbox”. Appalachian Wildwaters later rented the old bank and tried to open a bar there, but rowdy locals tore the place up so badly that they couldn’t make a profit.

One afternoon turned into a guide’s workday from hell. Everything went wrong, and the end-of day shuttle was horribly late. As usual, all the safety boaters had loaded their boats on the ducky trailer, a relic of our company’s past history with inflatable kayaks. On the way out the trailer lost a wheel. It fishtailed over the edge of the road, and several kayaks broke loose. These quickly slid into the depth of the Bull Run gorge. It was getting dark. Running around with flashlights, we managed to find all the pieces and get rolling again. After an 11 PM dinner at the Pizza Hut in Kingwood, we got back to base and crashed. The next morning Ralph McCarty, a notorious early riser, arrived at our camp at dawn. He was annoyed that the ducky trailer was not unloaded as it was supposed to be, and moved around camp to wake people up. Dan, his own manager, told him to get lost!

One year a bunch of strangers came to town. They swaggered around, told everyone they were “Lehigh Guides”, and generally seemed quite pleased with themselves. But the boys at MS&T weren’t impressed. “The Lehigh’s not a real river, it’s a damned float trip” someone said. Having already been harassed for being affiliated with the Philadelphia Canoe Club, which my guide buddies called the “Philadelphia Swimmin’ Club”, I kept my mouth shut. The Lehigh Guides asked to tag along on our trips, and we obliged. We lead them down tight side chutes ending in holes that we’d cut away from at the last minute. We’d also try to get them to play in some of the Cheat’s nastier holes. A favorite was “Fool’s Hole”, located in the Doldrums. It didn’t look like much, but oh boy, was it deep! If you surfed across it quickly, you could make it look easy. One of us would make that move, then sit back and watch the fun.

The Cheat Canyon is a wild ride at high water, and it was way too nasty for guide assisted trips. Our cut-off off was four feet at the Albright Bridge. If the water was higher, we moved the trips upstream to the Narrows. Normally a Class III run with one easy Class IV drop, at eight or nine feet this stretch gets awfully pushy. There are huge waves and some very large holes. Keeping track of a group of self-guided rafts, let alone rescuing someone, was pretty challenging. Safety boaters towed swimmers to shore and advised them to walk downstream to the takeout. We then peeled out and rushed downstream to help someone else.  The run was over very quickly, but some guests felt that it was quite long enough.

Eric Nelson, owner of Cheat River Outfitters, was on shore with his movie camera one day as one of our trips headed into Calamity Rock Rapid. He caught a boatload of turban-wearing Sikhs, from India, as they were thrown head over heels by the big crashing wave at the bottom. As they flew out of the boat, their turbans unwound! This film was played back often over the next few years. Guides hanging out at Cheat River Outfitters’ base watching home-made boating movies would start to chant, “Swam-is, Swam-is!” until Eric loaded that film. Then we savored multiple slow-motion replays. This film, like so many other good things, was lost in the 1985 flood. After Mountain Streams started running the Gauley they realized that the Rockets just weren’t big enough. So they bought a fleet of huge black 16-footers that they called “BFR’s”. These “Big Fat Rafts” were terribly heavy, but very stable. Naturally, they saw service on the Cheat at high water with a guide in each boat. These trips were a lot easier on the guests.

The Cheat was known for rapid changes in river level which, as some locals ominously said, would “cheat you outta your life”. One year in early June, 1980 (when, fortunately, I wasn’t working) the river rose from 2.5 to over 14 feet in less than twelve hours. At nine o’clock, with the gauge still reading a relatively reasonable seven feet, trips headed for the Narrows. The water was even higher in Rowlesburg, and they got in trouble soon after launching. Safety boaters recovered everyone but a man who was marooned on a midstream rock. This rock is on the shoreline at normal water levels. John Lichter, MS&T’s river manager, kayaked out to him. He decided that he could not pull the man to safety with his kayak because there was a bad strainer just downstream. To add insult to injury, the water was still rising. The rock was covered with snakes, who fortunately were too terrified to cause any trouble. Fortunately, a coal company helicopter was in the vicinity. The pilot, a Vietnam veteran, made a daring one-skid landing on the rock and picked up the stranded guest. Management moved in quickly and cancelled subsequent trips.

Low Water created its own problems. As the level dropped, the current slowed, and the trip took a lot longer. In addition, there were more rocks to hang up on. Guests and guides got tired and cranky. One day, after finishing trips at very low water levels, we heard a commotion from the Cheat River Outfitters base. A group of huge men were trying to bully Eric Nelson into refunding their money, which he had already spent! They backed down when a large group of guides from both companies barged into the room to offer Eric support. On another day Jim Colianne was having problems with a raft that was being paddled by four huge men. They kept hanging up on rocks, and there they would sit and scream at the guides to pull them off. Late in the day their raft hung up on a rock one more time. Jim pulled into an eddy, hopped out of his C-1, and told them to get out of their boat. This they did, figuring he was going to pull the raft loose. The grunt guide pulled alongside with a mischievous expression on his face. Before the rafters realized what Jim was doing, he popped the valves and deflated their boat. “You’ve seen the streams,” he said as he rolled up the boat, “Now it’s time to hit the trails. Trail’s right over there. Watch out for snakes.” He threw the raft into the grunt guide’s boat and paddled off, leaving the speechless men to find their own way downstream.

Often on weekends I’d meet my old racing buddies who razzed me about “selling out”. “Guides are like whores,” they said, “first they do it for fun, then they do it for their friends, and then they do it for money.” I didn’t care. I was being paid to paddle. We learned to play the river in between the rafts, sometimes closer than we should. To this day I don’t mind mixing it up with my rubber buddies. At Boulder Line we’d do enders between oncoming rafts. Occasionally a guide’s timing would be off and he’d land on top of the raft. This was one way to get in really big trouble with your tripleader.

Although many guides had fantasies of romancing a female rafting guest, it almost never happened. Single girls didn’t go rafting much, and if they did, most had better prospects than the likes of us. John Connelly was an exception.  His blue eyes and charm allowed him to succeed where others failed. One day he made a play for a lady, but things didn’t look good. We razzed him unmercifully at the takeout and on the bus ride back. But shortly after we got into Albright, the lady pulled up in a sports car with a bottle of wine looking for John. He smiled broadly at all of us as he hopped inside. Years later he started Eastern River Expeditions, which became the second-largest company in Maine. After Gauley Season he drove up and ran the Kennebec and Penobscott Rivers solo, then returned home to raise the capital he needed to open his business. The same salesmanship that he used to convince his guests that they were having fun on the Cheat at low water served him well in his new endeavor!

Memorial Day was the last big rafting weekend on the river. To celebrate, Mountain Streams and Trails and Cheat River Outfitters threw a huge guide party on Sunday. The only downside was that we had to work the next day. One evening, on the way back to our camp, my buddy Jim and I tripped over “Fish”, our river manager. He was lying semi-conscious in the grass, his eyes wide open. I never knew what “pie-eyed drunk” meant until that night. We were afraid that someone would back a car over him, so we took him to his van and laid him out, face down, under a sleeping bag. We had to work the 8:00 trip, and thought that we’d have to find the keys to the equipment truck and inflate all the boats by ourselves. But the next morning we awoke early to the sounds of raft blowers. Fish was hard at work, looking fresh as if he’d gone to bed at 9:00! Another time a group of us decided that Chris Walters was too drunk to drive back to Ohiopyle, and tried to take his keys away from him. We chased him all over the campground for thirty minutes. We tackled and manhandled him many times, but he fought us all off. We finally decided that a guy who could elude a dozen of his buddies was probably sober enough to drive.

In 1985 much of West Virginia experienced catastrophic flooding. The Cheat River crested at 26 feet (roughly 250,000 cfs), wiping out half of the town of Albright. Many residents had only a few minute’s warning before their homes were inundated. MS&T’s Cheat Suite and all the buildings around it were leveled. Cheat River Outfitters was washed away, too. Eric Nelson evacuated some of his gear by truck, but stopped when his wife Peggy told him that she just couldn’t stand watching him cross the Route 26 Bridge, and if he did it again she would divorce him! Pete Morgan’s gas station at the Bridge was flattened. Appalachian Wildwaters lost half of its building. That evening the owner, Imre Szylagyi, took a canoe and paddled into his office to retrieve computer tapes and vital papers before they were carried downstream. The water rose to the eaves of the building at Cheat Canyon Campground and took out all the magnificent old sycamores that lined the riverbank. The water kept rising, cresting over the Route 26 bridge and depositing a 5’ diameter tree across the roadbed. There was so much debris in the river that the spillway at Lake Lynn Dam, which holds back Cheat Lake, was almost blocked. Had that happened, the dam almost certainly would have been lost.

When the water fell, devastation remained. You could see the power plant from the Route 26 Bridge where buildings had blocked the view before the flood. Outfitter busses were found lying on their sides along the road leading into Albright. Rafts and T-shirts were caught in the trees and bushes lining the river for miles downstream. 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. Many of the Cheat Canyon’s rapids were changed. Coliseum Rapid was completely remade, and continues to be altered as time passes. It has become a very challenging rapid! Green’s Hole above High Falls was washed away.

At high water a huge hole developed in Big Nasty Rapid where none existed before. All the pre-season training in 1986 had been at moderate water levels, so no one knew it was there. Then, on a day known afterwards as “Black Saturday”, guided trips encountered the hole for the first time. The monster flipped almost three-quarters of the boats on the river, and juggled two or three rafts with ease. As a result of experiences here, and at Coliseum Rapid over the next few weeks, companies abandoned the guide-assisted format and put a guide in every boat unless the water was very low.

Despite the suffering and loss of life, the flood was an amazing event. I’ve never seen anything like it. I heard that an archaeologist tried to return to a site that he had been working on in the Seven Islands section, way upstream near Parsons. Objects recovered from there had been carbon-dated and found to be several thousand years old. But when he returned, the island was gone! As a boater and a guide, it was amazing to see how this huge event changed a river I knew so well. Many of us mourn the destruction of “the old Cheat”, but I have come to enjoy it’s successor just as much.

Nowadays the Cheat rafting season is a shadow of it’s former self. Where once sixty thousand guests ran the river each year, now barely a tenth of that number go down. There are many reasons for this. The T&T Mine Spill in 1990 sent filthy water roaring down the river and gave the river a whopping dose of bad publicity. Thanks in a large measure to the efforts of the Friends of the Cheat, the river has made a strong recovery. But when self-bailing rafts became popular companies that offered summer trips on the New River Gorge realized that they could now run the river at high spring flows. They abandoned the Cheat and developed lavish New River Bases, which feature hot showers, heated changing areas, restaurants, bars, and other amenities. Spring rafting, in general, is on a decline throughout the East. I’m told it’s hard to market a river that is at a nice level one weekend, then goes way higher or lower the next.

Today the Cheat Canyon has changed very little from John Berry’s pioneering canoe run in the mid-60’s. As a rafting river, the Cheat is West Virginia’s best-kept secret. Challenging at all levels, it remains wild and unpredictable. This makes it rewarding in ways that dam controlled runs will never be. 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!