ST. ALBANS, W.Va. — Fifteen years ago Bill Currey and Bill Queen had a vision and a dream. The two of them could see the value of cleaning up the Coal River and making it a tourist destination. They formed the non-profit Coal River Group with those goals in mind.
Although many thought they were crazy, the two had some early believers and with hard work and dedication they expect close to 2,000 paddlers on the water this weekend at Meadowood Park in the community of Tornado ready to make a four hour float downstream to St. Albans. .
“It’s hard to believe this will be our 15th year and we’ve only had one rain out,” Currey laughed.
The first Tour de Coal drew 44 boats. Last year it drew 1,600 and officials expect it will draw that many and probably more this year.
“Our whole objective was to get people down here to float the river. We figured if we could do that, the next week they would come back and help us clean it up,” Currey said thinking back to 2004.
“Those first 44 boats became our base cleanup crew,” he said.
It didn’t hurt that during the last 15 years kayaking has exploded in popularity. Fishing kayaks have been among the fastest growing segment of the market.
More and more paddlers have marked the event on their calendars. Last year the city of St. Albans enhanced the event with a full weekend festival surrounding the celebration of the river with the inaugural Yak Fest. It’s quickly turning into a giant revenue generator for the community.
“We’re going to have 10,000 people in downtown St. Albans and 2,000 on the river,” Currey said. “We’re going to bring a half Million dollars into the city of St. Albans with both events.”
Currey hopes other communities along the Coal River will hold similar festivals. Already an event later in the summer on the Little Coal at Racine draws about 500 paddlers. The Guyandotte River,Tug Fork, and Little Kanawha Rivers have also seen the formation of organizations attempting to emulate the success of the Coal River Group.
“They ask us how to get started, we always tell them, ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel, just follow our model,'” said Currey.
The kayak and canoe enthusiasts will float the river from Meadowwood Park in Tornado all the way to the confluence of the Kanawha River in St. Albans. Logistics are starting to become a big obstacle with volunteers trying to help get almost 2,000 craft into the water and helping them take out later in the day.
Paddlers can drop off boats at the launch Friday evening and leave them overnight for a fee of $5. A shuttle from St. Albans at the Gateway Shopping Center will start running at 7 a.m. on Saturday. The Yak Fest will be happening all weekend in the downtown area.