Fifteen years ago, during the first running of the Tour de Coal, 44 paddlers turned out for the 11.5-mile community float from Tornado to St. Albans.
“We really didn’t know what to expect, so we were happy with that number, “ said Bill Currey, chairman and co-founder of the Coal River Group, the nonprofit that created the event, which serves as its primary fundraiser.
After the debut event went off without a hitch, Currey set a goal of attracting 100 paddlers to the following year’s Tour. Sixty kayaks and canoes, most of the latter carrying two-person crews, brought Currey close to his stated goal for the Tour’s second run, although he now says we was uncertain whether the first year’s turnout would ever be surpassed.
Over the years, interest in the Tour de Coal steadily grew, with last year’s event attracting 1,600 registered participants. “We expect about that same number to be on the river on Saturday for this year’s Tour,” Currey said.
The Tour de Coal is now one of the nation’s two largest flatwater paddling events, along with Cincinnati’s Paddlefest. “We both had about the same number of paddlers participating in our events last year,” Currey said.
With 15 years of experience running the event, the CRG has established a reliable pool of volunteers and corporate sponsors to help make the Tour run smoothly. The CRG has also developed a user-friendly online registration system, streamlined its shuttle system, and added new parking areas to accommodate the growing number of Tour de Coal participants.
Personnel from the Tornado, Lakewood, and West Side volunteer fire departments and St. Albans fire and police departments help keep the event safe, while other volunteers help paddlers get their boats to the put-in point at Meadowood Park and off the take-out site at Gateway Shopping Center.
“The St. Albans High School baseball team and the employees of O’Reilly Auto Parts help tired paddlers get out of their boats at the Gateway boat landing until 5:30 p.m.,” said Currey. “The City of St. Albans always helps with supplies and with cutting brush along the riverfront to pretty up the site for our many visitors.”
Moses Auto Group, the event’s primary sponsor for all 15 years, is joined this year by other major sponsors including City National Bank, Appalachian Power, West Virginia American Water and Dick’s Sporting Goods to help cover the tour’s costs and promotion.
Yak Fest, a two-day music, food, beer, art and craft festival that debuted last year at Olde Main Street in St. Albans in conjunction with the Tour de Coal returns Friday and Saturday. Live music performances begin at 4 p.m. on Friday, starting with Albert Frank Perrone, Heather and Travro, Blues Crossing, Creek Don’t Rise and Mountain Heart.
Sunday’s performances begin at 2 p.m., starting with Emma Meadows and followed by Scott Honaker, Dave McCormick, Makenna Hope, Stephen Jones & Crossfire, Yarn and Fletcher’s Grove.
“Between the Tour de Coal and Yak Fest, we should bring about 10,000 people here for the weekend,” said Currey. “For a little town like St. Albans, those are big numbers.”
During its nearly two decades as a watershed organization, the Coal River Group has organizeds trash cleanups along Coal River system, conducted water quality sampling, supported development of sewage systems in towns along the river and its tributaries, and applied for grants to bring stream structures to portions of the river to control sediment and improve fish habitat.
The CRG also maintains and promotes the 88-mile Coal River Water Trail, which stretches from Whitesville to St. Albans.