Friends of the Cheat is excited to announce that West Virginia Land Trust has acquired the Jenkinsburg Recreation Area and the site is secured for public access! FOC will be partnering with WVLT and assisting in the long-term management of the property. You can support the campaign for site management at www.wvlandtrust.org/donate and designate your gift for Jenkinsburg!
When I first ran the Cheat Canyon in October of 1971, the Jenkinsburg takeout at the High Bridge was a wild and isolated place. Its days as a rowdy logging camp in the 1920's were long gone. The slopes were covered by head-high rhododendron, and only a single narrow track led down to the river. Over the next 35 years, the popularity of the place grew enormously. During the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, Jenkinsburg was the takeout for 40,000 commercial guests who ran the Cheat Canyon each year. Many others braved terrible roads to get there, sit back, and enjoy the place. Highschoolers, college kids, local families, and visitors all wanted to get close to the Cheat River.
Most of these people caused no damage, but as their numbers grew, serious impacts were inevitable; Fire destroyed the rhododendrons, access areas widened, and new paths were beaten down. Large crowds of people came to swim, camp, and hang out. Wild parties were the norm on warm-weather weekends, and sometimes the partying got out-of-hand. Swimmers drowned, sometimes after ill-considered jumps from the High Bridge. Huge amounts of trash accumulated.
As ATV riding became more popular, the Jenkinsburg/High Bridge area turned into a muddy theme park. Giant mud holes capable of swallowing entire vehicles developed and riders lined up to test their skills. Fun, but very destructive! Sometimes people loading boats were unnerved as ATV’s drove at high speeds within a few feet of where they stood. The entire property became criss-crossed with muddy trails to nowhere. A shuttle car left overnight was set on fire, and at one point, a body was dumped there!
Whitewater paddlers who used the place as a takeout for the Cheat and Big Sandy Rivers watched with bemusement and frustration as the “show” got wilder and wilder. The Cheat Canyon was then owned by Allegheny Power, which had a “hands off” policy towards the area. The place was 30 minutes away from the nearest town over rough roads, and the small Preston County Sheriff’s department rarely patrolled. What happened here was “over the hill” - out of sight and out of mind until a tragedy occurred. The beauty of the place, and its potential for outdoor enjoyment, was slipping away.
In 2004, the Cheat Canyon was offered for sale, and the State of West Virginia was outbid by Allegheny Wood Products (AWP). AWP turned down offers from FOC to manage and improve the site, and whitewater paddlers became concerned about losing access. But, like the power company, AWP management was pretty hands-off. In 2006, Dave Hough, part owner of Mountain Streams and Trails Outfitters, made a land swap with AWP and became the owner of the place. He wanted to allow public river access, but he also needed to protect his land from abuse. He approached FOC - Keith Pitzer and I offered our help.
In exchange for a 20-year access agreement, FOC teamed up with American Whitewater to raise $20,000 from paddlers. We obtained a $16,000 matching grant from the West Virginia DEP. The area received a total makeover. The upper parking lot was graded and enlarged, then ringed with large boulders to protect the rest of the property from off-road vehicles. The lower parking lot was expanded, and the road to it improved to accommodate outfitter busses and equipment trucks. A gate was installed to control vehicle access beyond the upper parking area. A path to the main raft takeout at the mouth of the Big Sandy River was hardened to resist erosion with a special honeycomb fabric. It looked great, but there were still challenges ahead!
It was clear from the outset that the rowdy element liked things the way they were. The first week, someone tore out the gate and burned signs posted at the access. FOC replaced the gate with a much stronger version, but ATV’s continued to create their own trails through the woods and down to the river. One afternoon a particularly irate (and intoxicated) local climbed up on the roof of a paddler’s car. He screamed curses as he dropped his pants and mooned the crowd.
Matt Schafer, a paddler and DNR enforcement officer, made protecting the area a personal crusade. He spent many free afternoons there, issuing dozens of citations and confiscating a number of trespassing ATV’s. He felt that much of the destructive behavior was tied to the drug trade because many of the people he cited were carrying drugs. Thanks to him, that crowd found another place to hang out!
Myself, Dave Hough, and others patrolled the site regularly. Rather than confront abusers, we simply repaired the damage and hauled away pickup truck loads of trash. We blocked unwanted ATV trails with fencing. We brought in outside contractors to add gravel and replace perimeter rocks that had been rolled. We persisted, year after year. Gradually, things improved. Many visitors helped out by picking up litter during their visit. FOC still patrols the area, but damage is rare and the trash rarely fills a single bag. A local man once told me that he missed being able to drive right down to the river, but that he now brings his 8 year-old son along, which he would not have dared to do before FOC cleaned up the place.
Dave and I talked often about the need for a long-term protection strategy, and began discussions with the West Virginia Land Trust several years ago. After careful research, they agreed to accept the site, and the land transfer was finalized this past summer.
FOC will continue to manage and improve Jenkinsburg public access, and continue their annual spring Whitewater Access campaign to maintain and repair Bull Run Rd.
So, how does FOC monitor for this species without doing harm? Environmental-DNA (eDNA) monitoring is a newer strategy that allows scientists to pass water through a filter at a sampling location, which collects microscopic DNA from the river or stream environment. The sample is then carefully secured to prevent contamination, and sent to a laboratory for analysis. There, the sample is tested for Eastern Hellbender DNA, and reported back to the sampler. If the sample comes back positive for Eastern Hellbender DNA, it can be deduced that Eastern Hellbender are likely present at or upstream of the sampling location.