Coal River community float celebrates importance of WV’s waterways

Gazette-Mail file photo
Paddlers travel down the Coal River as part of the 2011 Tour De Coal. The tour, which began in 2005 with around three dozen participants, is expecting around 1,000 people for Saturday’s event.

While barely three dozen paddlers turned out for the first Tour De Coal community float event in 2005, more than 1,000 people made the 11-mile drift from the base of Upper Falls of the Coal River at Meadowood Park near Tornado to the Gateway Shopping Center in St. Albans last year, with a like amount expected during this year’s Tour, set to begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

“Back in the beginning, we only had about 40 people join us for the Tour De Coal,” said Kris Radford, president of the Coal River Group, the event’s founder, organizer and principal beneficiary. “The event was experimental at that time. We didn’t know if anyone would even come out.”

The experiment turned out to be a success, gradually becoming the state’s biggest non-whitewater paddling event.

“It’s not a race, but rather a community’s celebration of its most important natural resource — its rivers,” said Bill Currey, co-founder of the Coal River Group. “We are proud to have created a uniquely popular event that the public seems to love.”

Currey said planning for this year’s Tour began in January.

“The most important thing we do is organize all the community emergency personnel and set up a wide variety of traffic and safety plans to accommodate the expected 1,000 visitors to the river,” he said.

Currey said the event could not be staged without help from volunteers, including the Alum Creek, Tornado, West Side and Lakewood volunteer fire departments, St. Albans police and fire departments, and citizen volunteers like Troop 75 of Boy Scouts of America “who help tired paddlers get out of their boats and help carry the boats back to the parking lot” at the Gateway boat landing at the end of the float. At least 65 volunteers will be assisting participants and helping to ensure safety at this year’s event.

Moses Auto Group has been the Tour’s primary sponsor for all 13 years of the event, with additional assistance being provided this year by City National Bank, Appalachian Power, West Virginia American Water, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Mardi Gras Casino and Spriggs Distributors.

Activities associated with this year’s running of the Tour De Coal begin on Friday, with a beginners’ kayaking workshop and vendors’ boat demonstrations on Pettigrew Lake at Mountwood Park near Tornado from 2 to 4 p.m., followed by a pre-registration party at the Coal River Group’s nearby education center and headquarters building from 4 to 7 p.m.

The party, which will include music and the early dispensing of commemorative T-shirts, will be a reunion for veteran volunteers and paddlers, and will give those participating in the Tour a chance to avoid last-minute registration crowds on Saturday.

The Coal River Group is an award-winning watershed association advocating for the restoration and enhancement of water quality and aquatic life in the Coal River and its two main tributaries, the Big Coal and Little Coal rivers, and promoting recreational activity along the streams. The $25 donation sought from each participant on Friday, or the $30 donation requested in registration taking place on the day of the event, make up the primary funding source for the CRG.

“We depend on the proceeds from this event to 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 efforts by our 600 volunteers,” Radford said.

Participants should bring their kayaks, canoes or stand-up paddleboards to Meadowood Park starting at 7 a.m. on Saturday, and then drive to the Gateway Shopping Center in St. Albans to catch shuttle buses back to Meadowood. Life vests and paddles are required. Rafts and jonboats will not be accepted as watercraft for this year’s float.

For more information on the event, call 304-722-3055 or visit the Coal River Group’s website at http://www.coalrivergroup.com.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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