Armed with kayaks, paddles and groups of friends, upwards of 2,000 people arrived at Meadowood Park in Tornado to take part in the 15th annual Tour de Coal.
Sponsored by the Coal River Group, one of West Virginia’s most prominent watershed groups dedicated to keeping the Coal River clean, the Tour de Coal brings people from all across the state — and even the country — to participate in the 11-mile float trip from Tornado to St. Albans.
While the event gives people the chance to get some exercise and have fun, the sense of camaraderie it creates is one of the main reasons people keep coming back every year.
Cindy Martin, of St. Albans, came back for her second year with two of her girlfriends to spend the day paddling down the Coal River.
“It’s just a lot of fun to see everyone out on the water and enjoying West Virginia’s outdoors,” she said.
Martin said she was a little overwhelmed when she participated last year, but that she had the best time doing it. She said she had never really done anything like it before and didn’t really know what to expect; however, this year she was back for more.
“Everybody was so nice and so helpful,” she said. “It’s just having a good time, meeting people on the river and making connections that maybe we can be paddle buddies.”
One group of friends had been wanting do the float for years, but had never been able to get everyone together. Last night, two hours before registration closed, they made the last-minute decision to sign up.
“It was like, ‘Hey, do you want to go? Yeah, sure,’ so we were all at Walmart at like midnight buying our stuff,” said Melinda Kessler, of Cross Lanes. “Being able to do it and hang out with our friends all day is pretty awesome.”
This year’s Tour de Coal was one of the biggest the Coal River Group has seen, considering the very first event only had 44 people.
Bill Currey, chairman of the Coal River Group, said there were about 1,600 people registered to participate, but that number doesn’t account for people who may join in along the way with their kayaks and canoes or come in motorboats to join in on the fun.
“We’re so happy this is our 15th year,” he said. “All of the money we make here and our net profit on this thing goes right back into the river. We’re religious on that.”
Currey said the Tour de Coal not only helps fund the creation of new boat launches, river cleanups and the promotion of tourism, but it brings people together.
“Right now we’ve got people from at least 12 states that we’ve counted,” he said. “We also have families that have been coming here for years.”
One family was honoring their grandfather who recently passed away by having a group of around 20 float down the river.
“Last year we had a marriage,” Currey said. “We had a couple that met on a float in earlier years. They came down and were devoted paddlers and stopped at Lower Falls and got married.”
Currey said throughout the years people have tried to get him to turn the event into something competitive or make it into an even bigger event with concerts. But, he said, that’s not what this is about.
“It’s just a community float, and we’ve been dedicated to keeping it that,” he said. “We want them to enjoy the trip down the river and be safe.”
According to Treasurer Bob Miller, who has been with Coal River Group since the very beginning, planning for the Tour starts in January and while he said it’s a lot of work for the group, it’s all worth it when they see how many people come out to enjoy the event.
“I think it’s been a tremendous thing for St. Albans and the whole area, as far as bringing tourism in,” he said. “It adds a tremendous amount to the economy of the Valley.”
Before heading into the water, Martin said she thought the event was really important to West Virginia.
“I’ve traveled all the way across the country for work, and it’s a beautiful country, but West Virginia will always be my home,” she said. “It’s just great to share it with other people.”