When I think of some of my favorite places along the Cheat River-- Holly Meadows, the mouth of Horseshoe Run, Seven Islands, the famous “Narrows” and Cheat River Canyon-- it is hard to picture the devastation that took place here. We at FOC often focus on our more recent rebirth story of the Lower Cheat from Rowlesburg to Cheat Lake, but fewer know that the Cheat’s entire length has been to the depths of hell and back.
During the early 1900’s, the Cheat River became a toxic slurry of several pollutants, including acid mine drainage, untreated sewage, tannery chemicals, and sediment. Fish kills were not uncommon during this period, as a 1929 Report from West Virginia Wildlife Magazine documented:
“The week of August 4th brought to state officials in Charleston the news of wholesale killing of fish in the Cheat River...the damage appears to have been inflicted between Parsons to Seven Islands, a distance of 16 miles, although dead fish were reported to have been found in quantities as far down the river as Albright. Attorney Dailey said that he had “never heard of such an outrageous destruction of fish life.”
It can be assumed during this dark period that Hellbenders, one of our most sensitive species to pollution, were pushed entirely out of the mainstem, either perishing or moving to cleaner water in our tributaries.
Another explanation for why Hellbenders were not detected in the Canyon is that the Albright Dam is blocking their route to recolonization. Six Cheat River samples came back positive upstream of the Albright Dam, one as close as 3 miles upstream. Just one sample immediately downstream of the dam came back positive. Because eDNA monitoring has the potential to detect DNA that travels in the water for hundreds of feet, it is possible that the positive result is related to a Hellbender just upstream of the dam. If so, opening the gateway for Hellbenders into the Cheat Canyon is one more reason this obsolete dam needs to go.
The pandemic has gotten a lot of people outdoors to recreate. Last summer local stores were sold out of recreational kayaks, bicycles, and transport racks! I hope those new to outdoor activities stick with it so they can enjoy the resources we are working so hard to develop. Newbies who try a new activity, whether it is fishing or whitewater boating, rely on others who are experienced to mentor them. People need this support to preserve through the “learning” phase of a new activity that requires specialized knowledge. I would have never bought my own Thrillseeker or raft if I hadn’t been thrown into a community of whitewater guides 16 years ago. I wouldn’t have had that first amazing experience to interest me. I wouldn’t have had someone criticizing my J-stroke, or telling me where NOT to swim. It is a bit more challenging right now to reach out and provide that support. But, I am hopeful that this long period away will result in more patience and openness from those with skills to share.
I’ll be sharing some of my knowledge, too: I was recently nominated as a Commissioner to the state’s new Flatwater Trails Commission. I am hopeful my involvement with this group as well as the work of the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority will benefit the Cheat River valley’s outdoor economy. It feels great to pivot from strictly defense - the RESTORE aspect of our mission - to the PROMOTE component of our work.