Charlie Walbridge has played an important part in protecting access to the Cheat and Big Sandy Rivers
Friends of the Cheat (FOC) is a watershed organization formed “to restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed.” Charlie serves on the their board of directors and has worked hard to protect and improve access to the Cheat Canyon and Big Sandy Rivers.
In 2003 the State of West Virginia made a strong effort to purchase the spectacular Cheat River Canyon.
In 2003 the State of West Virginia tried purchase the spectacular Cheat River Canyon but was outbid by Allegheny Wood Products (AWP), a large logging company. River access became an immediate concern. AWP now owned Jenkinsburg, the site of an old logging town which is the only takeout for the Cheat and Big Sandy Rivers. These popular whitewater runs have brought thousands of canoe, kayak, and rafting enthusiasts to the area for decades. It is also a popular place for swimming and picnicking in the summer. But the area has also been the scene of considerable abuse. Heavy use by ATV riders and college party groups had caused considerable damage over the last two decades. The area has been notorious for waist-deep mud holes and industrial-strength litter.
The Cheat Canyon Coalition
The Cheat Canyon Coalition, a group of organizations that worked to support the state’s purchase effort, contacted AWP immediately after the sale. Although they offered to raise money to fix up the area at no cost to the company AWP was unwilling to agree to a long-term lease and this made fundraising would be impractical. After an initial meeting and a tour of the area with their key people, they suddenly became “too busy” to discuss things further. Although access remained open, AWP threatened to fence it off and shut it down. Since they had closed the Allegheny Trail through the Cheat Canyon without prior notice we took this threat very seriously.
Some months before the Cheat Canyon purchase effort a piece of privately owned land at the upstream end of the Cheat Canyon came on the market. The parcel, running the length of Decision Rapid on river right, was owned by Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters, the first outfitter on the Cheat River. The company was sold, and the land was purchased by Dave Hough, part of the group that bought the company. Later, when AWP decided to convert an old railroad grade in the Cheat Canyon into a haul road, they met with Hough to discuss their plans to reopen the right-of-way that ran through the upper portion of his property. It was then that Hough expressed interest in purchasing the Jenkinsburg Takeout. After months of negotiations AWP agreed to a land swap, exchanging the portion of his property above their haul road for an area between the state road and the Cheat and Big Sandy Rivers.
Hough saw his ownership of the takeout as an opportunity.
He wanted to allow public river access, but also needed to stop the atrocious littering and land abuse that had become the norm. He hoped that Jenkinsburg would become an attractive place, an asset to his business and a source of pride to the community. He’d participated in Cheat Canyon Coalition meetings when various strategies for managing Jenkinsburg were discussed, so he approached Charlie Walbridge, a board member of both American Whitewater (AW) and Friends of the Cheat (FOC), to ask for help. Walbridge then approached the FOC Executive Director, Keith Pitzer. Since both men were former river guides and long-time paddlers who knew the area well they were excited to have a landowner who was willing to work with them.
The first challenge was funding, and here the two groups quickly found a valuable partner.
Over the years Pitzer had managed many acid-mine remediation projects locally and developed a solid relationship with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He believed that our work at Jenkinsburg might qualify for EPA 319 money provided to the states to deal with non-point source pollution. The extensive erosion at the Jenkinsburg site should qualify. Agencies like the DEP, which deal with huge projects costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars, often have 10-20 thousand dollars remaining in these accounts at the end of a fiscal year. While not enough money to fund another big project, these sums could be very helpful on a job the size of ours. Lou Schmidt, a DEP water quality expert familiar with the area, made several site visits and presented the idea to his superiors. Thanks to his work the project qualified for a matching grant of $15,000. There was only one catch – we had to raise at least $10,000 in private funds in just 30 days!
Charlie lead an intensive Internet fundraising campaign. Appeals were posted to whitewater club websites and chat rooms, regional message boards like Local Paddler, and national forums like Boatertalk and the AW website. Friends of Cheat, with its well-managed office and credit card capabilities, became the hub of the effort. We also encouraged interested people to copy our message and email it to their paddling friends. At Cheatfest, one of the largest river festivals in the country, we offered “Cheat River Access Sponsor” stickers to encourage small donations.
Ten $500 donations came from whitewater paddling clubs and individuals; the rest of the money came in donations of $100 or less. In all, we raised $12,000 in just 30 days. Working through the West Virginia Wildwater Association we received a $1000 grant from the American Canoe Association’s CFS fund. Sponsored by LL Bean, these grants are designed to provide quick cash for worthy river access projects. That, combined with the $2000 raised by AW. put us way over the top. Dave Hough signed a 20-year access agreement allowing non-commercial access through his land in return for these donations.
During the preceding months a plan for the area had been developed.
The upper parking lot would be enlarged, then ringed with huge rocks to cut off ATV access to the rest of the property. The lower lot would also be expanded, and the road to it straightened out to accommodate outfitter busses and trucks. This road would be gated, and a graded path created for river users from the upper lot to the river. All access beyond the upper parking area, except for authorized outfitter vehicles, would be on foot. At the same time all the badly eroded and trampled areas would be seeded and mulched. The DEP created a bid package, and the winning bid was submitted by Allenwood Construction of Clarksburg, WV. The project was managed by Friends of Cheat executive director Keith Pitzer.
Construction began on August 22nd, 2006. Aided by a spell of dry weather took only eight days to complete. The upper parking lot was graded and all the mudholes were drained and filled. There was a deep one where a sport utility vehicle would sink clear up to its windows! Then huge rocks were plucked from the edge of the county road right-of-way and carried to the upper parking lot, forming a barrier to random vehicle access. Illegal four-wheeler trails from the road below the switchback were also closed off with large boulders. The road to the lower parking lot, once passable only by four-wheel drive vehicles, was graded and straightened to accommodate the outfitter’s buses and trucks. The lower lot was expanded so that several companies could load trips simultaneously, and the path to the main takeout at the mouth of the Big Sandy River was hardened to resist erosion with a special honeycomb fabric.
This was just the beginning of a multi-year battle to regain control of the property. Local hooligans liked things the way they were. They burned signs and tore out the gate to the lower parking lot. We replaced the gate and signs and closed off places where ATV’s were crashing through the woods. We regularly policed the area for litter, removing truckload quantities every few weeks. Matt Schafer, a paddler who was also a DNR officer, patrolled the area on his own time and issued dozens of citations. Matt’s formidable presence convinced the rowdier elements that they needed to relocate! Over the next 10-15 years littering and property damage slowly died down. We’ve gotten a lot of help from many concerned users who help clean up during their visits and call FOC to report damage.
In 2007 it was clear that the county roads down to Jenkinsburg, never well maintained, were deteriorating rapidly. We found out that, due to cutbacks in state funding, these roads were essentially abandoned by the highway department. Under Charlie’s leadership Friends of the Cheat began an annual online fundraiser to pay private contractors to upgrade the road on the Valley Point side. Their experience and contacts from managing dozens of acid-mine remediation projects were extremely useful here! Working under permits from the State Highway Department, FOC has raised over $10,000 annually.
Over the years Charlie and Dave Hough had discussed the need to protect the Jenkinsburg Access for the long term. In 2020 money became available, and after considerable study we decided that the West Virginia Land Trust would be the best long-term steward of the land. Donating the land was a lengthy process that involved careful study of the tract by the Land Trust. Additional money was raised for acquisition costs and long-term stewardship.
Once the River Right had been passed on, Charlie turned his attention to a 20-acre property on river left. The land was owned by a group of outfitters who bought it during the “Glory Days” of Cheat River Rafting in the 1980’s as an alternate takeout. Today it was seldom used and badly abused by ATV’s. Charlie believed that the outfitters would sell the property in return for continued access rights, and he was right! Thanks goes to Precision Rafting, Cheat River Outfitters, Wilderness Voyageurs, and Laurel Highlands River Tours for working with the West Virginia Land Trust on this project. Money became available, and the property was donated in 2021. The following year Friends of the Cheat supervised excavation work to block ATV access and repair erosion damage in the area.
Here’s a link to the West Virginia Land Trust’s Jenkinsburg page: https://www.wvlandtrust.org/rec-access/jenkinsburg/
Charlie has also helped with access to the Big Sandy River, a popular Class IV run with a takeout at Jenkinsburg. In 2007 his wife Sandy found a small piece of property above the Rockville Bridge on River Right. Friends of the Cheat bought it. Although small, it gave us a foothold. A property upstream was owned by a defunct mining company which had been bought out by Chesapeake Energy. Keith Pitzer contacted Scott Rotruck, a Vice President of Chesapeake Energy and a long-time Friend of the Cheat. He arranged to have the land donated to FOC! A year later Allegheny Wood Products traded several hundred feet of riverfront property in exchange for the part of the Chesapeake property uphill from their haul road. Charlie, working for FOC, raised the money needed to build and maintain a parking lot and river access that serves both the upper and lower sections of the river.
In 2023 Charlie partnered with retired Cheat River outfitter Dave Hough to purchase 4.25 miles of riverfront property on the left side of the Big Sandy below the Rockville Bridge. This purchase from the Waterfront Development Group safeguards the river-left Rockville Access and the portage routes at Wonder Falls and Big Splat. It also provides the potential for a riverside trail along the river from Jenkinsburg. After a more ambitious purchase effort did not succeed, Charlie mobilized major gifts from over two dozen paddlers. This allowed him and Dave Hough to make a purchase offer that was accepted. American Whitewater plans to transfer the land to the West Virginia Land Trust for long term stewardship. This will ensure that the land is managed for its conservation and recreational values in perpetuity, including guaranteed paddler access and the potential for trail development.
The link to the American Whitewater announcement: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Article/view/article_id/r1eQZZUlAItLZlDpyA4jI/
American Whitewater still needs to raise funds to complete the transfer, and seed a stewardship endowment to support perpetual management. Our grass-roots fundraising goal is $75,000. Any donations received in excess of our goal will be directed toward additional river access and protection opportunities.
To give, please follow this link and put “Big Sandy Fund” at the bottom of the form: https://connect.clickandpledge.com/w/Form/c178a504-b0d6-486e-8d74-db507a71fad1
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“The freedom to take calculated risks, in business, love, or whitewater, is one of the most cherished prerogatives of a free people. I don’t try to discourage knowledgeable people from willingly assuming risks; but I do work to educate inexperienced paddlers so they don’t get into trouble inadvertently.”