This is the first installment in an occasional series of stories examining the Coal River system.From its headwaters in the highlands of Raleigh County to its confluence with the Kanawha River at St. Albans, the Coal River is an often-overlooked natural and recreational gem.Trout swim in headwaters tributaries like Pond Fork in Boone County and Marsh Fork in Raleigh County, while spotted bass, smallmouth bass, hybrid striped bass, catfish, sunfish, drum and tiger muskie are at home in the warmer waters of the Lincoln and Kanawha County lowlands.In the heat of summer, swimmers flock to the cool, swirling natural Jacuzzis below Upper Falls at Tornado, and at countless other pools upstream and down. Power boaters ply the last few slow-moving miles of the Coal as it winds its way from Indian Creek through St. Albans to join the Kanawha, while paddlers aboard kayaks and canoes sample the mild rapids and miles of roadless shoreline of the Little Coal between McCorkle and Alum Creek.“It’s a river that’s in pretty good shape, with a lot of potential for fishing and recreational boating,” said Bret Preston, the state Division of Natural Resources’ warm-water fisheries chief.The Coal is also a river of history.Between Racine and St. Albans, the remains of eight lock and dam structures are still visible, including wooden planking dating back to the 1850s, when the river carried the coal needed to fuel the evaporators for the Malden area’s salt works. There are three pre-Civil War gristmill foundations still visible along the river, along with 15 structures built during the 1860s or earlier and numerous log-boom assembly areas, with iron pins and cables dating back to the region’s first major timber harvest in the late 1800s.But the Coal is also a river in peril.In 2000, the conservation organization American Rivers listed the Coal as the second-most endangered river in the nation, because of siltation from widespread mountaintop removal mining along its upstream tributaries.“If land use activities along the river are not properly planned, siltation can affect spawning habitat and reduce the numbers of insects and macro-invertebrates fish feed on,” said Preston.During a recent float trip on the Little Coal, as a group of 17 paddlers landed on a rocky bar on a roadless shoreline for a lunch break, a great blue heron glided above the tree canopy that nearly covered the stream while a kingfisher bobbed and weaved just above the surface, looking for a meal.“This is about as wild and wonderful as West Virginia gets, and it only takes a half-hour drive from Charleston to get on the river,” said Bill Currey, after pulling the whitewater raft he was piloting onto a shore strewn with mussel shells and lumps of cannel coal.Currey is president of The Coal River Group, an organization formed to protect the Coal and promote recreational activities along its shore.Between the Corridor G bridge near McCorkle and the highway’s Alum Creek interchange, the Little Coal flows through six miles of roadless, undeveloped valley. The Coal River Group has sponsored several paddling outings this spring and summer to showcase the river’s possibilities.“This is a river that’s rich in nature and history, and our goal is to preserve, protect and promote it,” said Bill Queen, chairman of the recreation committee of The Coal River Group, which sponsored the outing, and is promoting development of a river trail between Peytona and St. Albans.During the past year, Queen and other members of the CRG have “floated, boated, walked, driven and kayaked the entire river bed,” he said.In addition to cataloging numerous historical sites, CRG members determined that the river and its banks are suitable “for floating, rafting, fishing, hiking and biking,” according to Queen. “We studied the fish habitat and observed wildlife and fowl in the region. We can testify that the river is alive and offers nature lovers the opportunity to experience wild and wonderful West Virginia at its best.”Since joining the CRG, Queen has discovered a surprising number of fishing and paddling possibilities on the mostly overlooked river.He’s caught and released numerous hybrid striped bass, including a citation qualifying 7-pound, 4-ounce monster, and scores of scrappy spotted bass. He’s also discovered several remote stretches of river containing mild rapids surrounded by nothing but forest and sky, like the four-mile run between Peytona and Dartmont on the Big Coal and the six-mile stretch between Pinnacle Rock and Forks of Coal on the Little Coal.“When I tell people about the fish I’ve been getting into and the places I’ve paddled on both the Little Coal and Big Coal, they have a hard time believing it,” he said. “But as far as I’m concerned, it equals the Greenbrier in terms of beauty, easy rapids and great fishing, and you don’t have to drive three hours to get there. If you want to see whether you’ll like kayaking and whitewater, the Coal is a great beginner stream.”One of the Coal River Group’s top priorities is to develop a proposed Walhonde River Trail, named after the Delaware Indian name for the Coal. Initial plans call for developing eight light boat launch sites along the Big Coal and Little Coal rivers, with signage leading off Corridor G.The CRG then hopes to acquire funding for a study to develop a biking, hiking and equestrian trail along the Coal between Alum Creek and U.S. 60 in St. Albans, and promote fish stocking on the main-stem Big and Little Coal rivers.“The river trail would begin where the Hatfield-McCoy Trail’s Coal River loop ends,” said Queen. “We’re hoping the chance to fish and try a little mild whitewater will give the ATV riders a reason to spend another day in the area.”Later, the CRG plans to promote engineering and environmental impact studies for a combined whitewater paddling and fish habitat enhancement demonstration project in the Little Coal.Currently, the CRG, using a grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection, is monitoring summer bacteria levels in the Coal between Tornado and St. Albans.“The summer sampling program came about when we found no one could answer our question, ‘Is the Coal River safe to swim in?’” said Bill Currey, CRG president.Data from the Coal River Group monitoring effort will also be used by the DEP to determine the Coal’s Total Maximum Daily Load, or the amount of municipal and industrial discharges it can safely handle.“We want to generate more river recreation and increase the value of the Coal River as a tourism and recreational center for the region,” said Currey. “But we can’t do that until we know the river is safe to swim and boat in.”In May, more than 30 CRG volunteers cleared 1,283 pounds of trash from the riverbanks of the Coal in the vicinity of Meadowood Park near Tornado. They also cleared brush and weeds to provide a scenic overlook of the Coal River’s Upper Falls along the entrance road to the park.The Coal, Currey said, has the potential for becoming “a major recreational river with tremendous possibilities for future growth of the local economy if we keep it clean.”Future stories in this series will focus on the river’s history and environmental problems.To contact staff writer Rick Steelhammer, use e-mail or call 348-5169.