In the rugged Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, an equally rugged river flows north for almost 162 miles. Forming at the confluence of five pristine mountain streams, it twists and turns, tumbling through valleys and canyons.
Meet the Cheat.
Some say that the Cheat River embodies the story of Appalachia—the rise and fall of industry, a biblical flood, and a legacy of environmental catastrophe. But like Appalachia, it has survived the turmoil, somehow remaining wild and scenic, and lovingly embraced by a tight-knit cast of thick-skinned characters who are determined to right its wrongs.
The old-growth spruce forests of the Allegheny Highlands were logged extensively in the early 1900s. After the clear cutting spree in Canaan Valley, the Cheat watershed was next on the list. A group of Yankee frame houses in the tiny town of Thomas were disassembled and shipped by rail to be rebuilt in the community of Ruthbelle, a row of homes on the outskirts of Albright, a tiny river town downstream from the Cheat Narrows. Jim Snyder lives with his wife in one of these homes in Ruthbelle, a settlement which he says is likely the oldest community in the Cheat watershed.
Snyder is a master craftsman of wooden paddles and was one of the original raft guides on the Cheat’s legendary whitewater. At 62, Snyder is no longer guiding boats, but is still highly active in the river community. A builder of squirt boats (small kayaks), Snyder can often be found gracefully spinning underwater at Fascination Alley, a swimming hole on the Cheat Narrows where squirt boaters go to practice mystery moves, a unique style of riding a thin boat deep underwater like a wing in a draft. When he surfaces, his goggled face wears a permanent smile—life on the Cheat is good.
Snyder guided one of the very first commercial trips down the Cheat Canyon, a temperamental 7-mile stretch of class IV-V whitewater that has a reputation for being rougher than its West Virginia counterparts. "Back then we didn’t have proper clothing; we tried to wear wool because the Cheat runs in the spring mostly, so most of the trips were really cold," Snyder says. “Commercially, the Cheat is characterized by the fact that it doesn’t have a dam that regulates its flow. There are different lines in all the rapids at different flows. You’re taking a lot of chances commercially. It’s one of the more dangerous rivers; it’s through wilderness so if something goes wrong it’s a difficult extraction. It takes really good guides to guide the Canyon. It’s a more technical kind of rafting with a tougher breed of customer.”
Charlie Walbridge was one of those guides, a peer and friend of Snyder’s who helped pioneer the paddling industry in those early days. Like Snyder, Walbridge (at 68) still paddles the Cheat with the same fervor of his younger years. He still runs the Canyon in a C1, a style of whitewater canoe where the paddler is braced in a low kneeling position with a single-bladed paddle. Now retired from a life in the whitewater industry, Walbridge, who resides with his wife in Bruceton Mills, is an active board member of Friends of the Cheat (FOC), a watershed advocacy nonprofit whose mission is "working to restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat watershed."
According to Walbridge, the first trip down the Cheat came in 1954, when John Berry, the C1 national champion of that era, led a group on a 2-day trip down the river at the rowdy level of 2 feet. Activity was somewhat dormant until 1968, when rafting companies like Mountain Streams and Trails from Pennsylvania’s Youghiogheny River started commercializing on the Cheat’s gnarly wilderness character. Walbridge’s first trip down the Cheat came in 1971, and he began guiding for MST in 1975 when the Cheat’s burgeoning whitewater industry was in its glory days. Walbridge says the river saw up to 40,000 guests per year, with MST alone running 8-9 trips per day, not to mention the nearly 20 other companies that were out there.
And although the Cheat’s rafting industry functions at about 5 percent of what it used to, Walbridge says the experience is still very much the same. "The Cheat is West Virginia’s best kept secret," he says. “It’s a gorgeous river with so many personalities. When it’s low the rapids are picky and long and interesting; when it’s high, it’s a romper. It’s definitely not a tourist area, it’s not a national park, there’s not a close town with all kinds of restaurants and motels. It’s a little off the beaten track, the shuttle road is notorious, and again, it’s beautiful, but if you haven’t been on a rough mountain road, it’s pretty interesting. It gives you a look at rafting the way it was 30 years ago, when it wasn’t crowded and it wasn’t all homogenized with all the rough edges taken out.”
If there’s one event that single-handedly altered the course of the Cheat, it would be the 1985 Election Day flood, which claimed the lives of 38 West Virginians and did nearly $700 million in damage. While Snyder is hesitant to correlate the bust of the Cheat’s whitewater industry with the ’85 flood, he vividly remembers the changes when the flood waters receded. "It was really big," he recalls. “It took our garage away. It brought the Appalachian Wildwaters office into our backyard; the building floated free and parked itself in our backyard for a while. The flood changed every rapid some. In two places the entire river jumped from river bed to the shore and carved out brand new troughs. It moved a rock the size of two school buses in the Canyon. It left exposed, sharp rocks for rafts to get cut on. For quite a while there was a problem with rafts getting popped.”
Walbridge wasn’t in West Virginia during the ‘85 flood. But when he returned, the river he intimately knew had been drastically altered. "There were a lot of changes, it made the river a lot harder," he says. “The river was really deeply scoured in a lot of places and it pushed a lot of boulders around. The Coliseum, Pete Morgan, and Big Nasty rapids all got much harder.” The flood, Walbridge claims, was the end of the guide-assisted format—a style of river trip where guests are taught to guide their own boats and a few guides direct the herd downriver while describing lines and pointing out hazards. Prior to the flood, the guest-to-guide ratio was 40 to four. The newer Cheat required a guide in every boat. “The post-flood Cheat had consequences,” Walbridge said. “Now Big Nasty is one of the biggest hits in rafting. I don’t know anything at conventional releases that will grab a boat like that.”
Just nine years later, another catastrophe happened—this time, man-made—when an abandoned mine shaft that had filled with acid mine drainage (AMD) blew out into the Muddy Creek tributary, flooding the Cheat with AMD pollution for 16 miles and killing all aquatic life in its path. The ’94 blowout sparked the formation of FOC, initiating a new era of environmental activism that had never been seen in a West Virginia watershed. Rafting continued, but it wasn’t pretty. "For one thing, it was really unsightly, it looked like tomato soup," Snyder recalls. “Every customer on a raft trip saw the outflow of polluted water when they’d pass Muddy Creek. There was a distinct line where the waters met.” Snyder, who has a way with words, jokes about the surprising benefits. “The water would clean jewelry and remove warts.”
The damage, however, was very real. "It really debugged the river," Snyder says. “When you kill all the bugs, everything else falls out.” And fall out it did. From aquatic plants to fish and fishing birds, the Cheat became a dead river. A trip was conducted with scientists who were out to catalogue the nation’s rivers; they found a paltry 4 species of fish in the Cheat. Seeing Snyder dance underwater among trout in the crystal-clear waters of Fascination Alley nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine a river that was one of the most endangered in the country just over 20 years ago.
The modern Cheat is a river of hope. Working in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, FOC’s revolutionary remediation tactics brought the river back from the dead in less than 20 years. "The fish population is huge, and supports fishing birds like ospreys, hawks, and bald eagles," Snyder says. “The fact that the Canyon’s ecology has come back, the fact that it’s been preserved, is a huge step in right direction for the watershed.”
"Nothing had been done like that before in Coal Country, and now many others use strategies that FOC pioneered," Walbridge says. But as FOC states, “rebirth has begun but there’s more work to be done.” Walbridge often thinks about the future of the Cheat. “The whole thing is we have to show the river to people,” he says. “FOC’s founders were people who knew it, but we’re getting old. What the place needs is somebody to come in and really promote the river.”
Both Snyder and Walbridge regularly share their skill and wisdom with young paddlers—paddlers who have respect for the river and possess the timeless Appalachian values of grit and self-reliance. While the two Cheat legends might be getting older, they’ve certainly passed the passion to preserve the Cheat on to the next generation.