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Laid-back spirit of Tour De Coal sparked major growth during event’s first decade

LAWRENCE PIERCE | Gazette file photos
Tour De Coal participants gather with their boats at Meadowood Park near Tornado shortly before the start of the 2012 running of the annual 12-mile Coal River float. The 10th annual event will be held Saturday.
Paddlers in the 2012 Tour De Coal head downriver from their starting point just below Tornado’s Upper Falls.
Tour De Coal participants lug their canoes and kayaks from a staging area at Meadowood Park to a launch site along the Coal River.

What started out a decade ago as an event designed to convince area canoeists and kayakers that the Coal River was more than a final resting place for scrap tires and silt but the setting for a quality float trip, has blossomed into a 12-mile long river party, drawing hundreds of paddlers from several states.

The 10th annual running of the Tour De Coal paddle event takes place Saturday, starting from Meadowood Park in Tornado and ending at Gateway shopping center in St. Albans.

“It’s not a race, but rather a community float trip for 600 people — kind of a huge party on the river,” said Kris Radford, president of the Coal River Group, the organization that created the Tour.

Last year, more than 600 people floated down the 12-mile section of mild water on the lower Coal, and more paddlers are expected to participate in Saturday’s event. “Last year, almost no one pre-registered, but this year, a large number of people have done so,” said Bill Currey, the Coal River Group’s co-founder and board chairman. “Our whole fleet of rental boats is already rented out.”

The annual event, which is the Coal River Group’s primary fundraiser, involves more than paddlers testing the waters of the Coal.

“People living along the river host parties, provide water and refreshments to the participants, and everyone just has a ball,” Radford said. “The public needs to know that after 10 years, we now host hundreds of out-of-state tourists who plan far in advance to be on the Coal during the Tour De Coal.”

An army of 70 volunteers, along with personnel from area volunteer fire departments, Kanawha County Emergency Services, and the St. Albans Police and Fire departments, run shuttle operations, launch boats, handle registration forms, and guide paddlers through the Lower Falls of Coal.

While the Tour is not a downriver race, its roots date back to the era of Coal River Marathon, when canoeists paddled 34 miles of the Coal between Peytona in Boone County and St. Albans each May, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

“The old race kind of inspired us,” said Currey. “But it was kind of a tough man contest, and we envisioned something everyone could participate in for the Tour De Coal. The Run for the River Triathlon we started in April incorporates some of that manly man stuff from the old race.”

While the Tour De Coal float event starts at 9 a.m. Saturday, learn-to-paddle classes will be held from noon to 3 at Meadowood Park’s Pettigrew Lake. Classes are free and open to prospective paddlers of all ages. To register, call 304-722-3055. Also today, a pre-registration party takes place from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Coal River Group’s River Center building at Meadowood Park. Pre-registration fee for the Tour De Coal is $20, and day-of-the-Tour registration is $25. All those paying registration fees receive a Tour De Coal T-shirt. Paddlers taking part in the Tour should drop off their boats at Meadowood Park early Saturday morning, drive back to Gateway shopping center, in St. Albans, and ride a shuttle bus back to the park. Several area churches and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort and providing the shuttle vehicles.

Bridge Road Bistro and other food vendors will be on hand to serve hungry paddlers at both the put-in and take-out points. Vendors will be displaying a variety of watercraft, and a drawing will be held for a new kayak, courtesy of Cabella’s.

The event expected to take place on Saturday is a far cry from the first Tour De Coal in 2004, according to Radford.

“It was an experimental event, and heck, we didn’t know if anyone would come out and join us,” she said, but 40 canoists and kayakers showed up to take part.

Tour De Coal registration fees “help fund our many ongoing programs that teach youth about clean water, promote tourism for the entire 88-mile river system, and support dozens of river trash removal projects by volunteers,” Radford said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169.

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