Photo: Irene Owsley

(Ed’s note: This article first ran in C&K’s 2010 Whitewater issue; the 2011 Whitewater issue is on newsstands now.)

By Kate Stepan

Mud squishes between my toes as the Halftime String Band takes the stage. My buddy Bob Spangler plucks hollow notes on his upright bass. Yesterday he led me down the lower Big Sandy for the first time, and then it rained all night and the Cheat Canyon gauge shot up to 6 feet. God, I love Cheat Fest.

It's spring's first hurrah, held the first weekend of May in Albright, West Virginia. The Cheat's finicky flows, short season, and sometimes scary-high water don't draw crowds like the New and Gauley rivers a few hours to the south.

The festival keeps a low profile, too. "This whole area is kind of an old-school throwback," says local stalwart Charlie Walbridge. Where marquee paddling events like Teva Mountain Games and the Reno River Festival tout sponsored paddlers, Top 40 bands, and truckloads of corporate swag, Cheat Fest has Bob. And Charlie. And squirt boat legend Jimi Snyder. "It's expanded to 3,000 people and we don't want it any bigger," says Snyder, who was building fiberglass boats and wooden paddles in Albright long before most festival-goers were born.

"I don't remember the first Cheat River Festival that well, it was that good," he says. "We've had to pull people's cars out, and one time a guy who was tripping thought he was a snake in the mud."

Just another day at Cheat Fest, boating's quintessential homage to grassroots action. It started in 1995 as a Friends of the Cheat (FOC) fundraiser. A coal company had stopped up a mine on a tributary and filled it with slag. When the concrete blew out, escaping waste turned the river orange and killed almost every living thing in it. Thanks in part to FOC, the president of the mining company went to jail and the state ordered a cleanup.

Now minnows dart between rocks in the eddy above Coliseum Rapid, a sure sign that life is coming back to this Class IV Appalachian classic. But the bathtub ring on the canyon walls serves as a rust-colored reminder of what was nearly lost. This is why I come to Cheat Fest—to celebrate what we've gained. To celebrate what remains. And simply to celebrate what's there—good friends, good music, good neighbors, and a river flowing through it all.

The 17th Annual Cheat Fest. starts tomorrow at noon, featuring live music, a downriver race, and some of the best Class II-IV in West-by-God-Virginia. Don't miss it.

Photo: Irene Owsley