TORNADO, W.Va. — Bill Currey can’t stop smiling when he looks at Meadowood Park these days. The small park along the Coal River in Tornado is the launch point for what has become the biggest flat water event of its kind in America.
Saturday as many as 2,000 kayaks or other paddle craft will put on the river in the small park for a largely gentle float downstream to the confluence with the Kanawha River in St. Albans. It’s the 19th year for the Tour De Coal float trip which was first created to raise money and spotlight the good work of the Coal River Group to clean up the river.
“We started out to restore the river and the Tour De Coal was our only fundraiser. Now, look what we’ve done,” laughed Currey in a conversation with MetroNews.
Currey lives along the waterway and loves the river with passion. Two decades ago, he realized not everybody shared his affection. For years, the Coal had a well earned nasty reputation with coal waste, unfiltered raw sewage, and general trash all along its banks. Instead of complaining, Currey took action.
He gathered a few friends who had a similar vision to set out and change the river, both physically and its image. He and group members worked for positive change. They helped apply for grants to build sewage treatment plants. They staged river bank sweeps and worked the state legislature for policy changes to improve the river’s water quality.
The Tour De Coal was a fundraiser which in its inaugural year drew about 35 to 40 boats. Nowadays, the event is so big, it’s hard to pin down exactly how many people participate. Currey said it’s a situation of those who register and make the $30 requested donation to support the group and those who just show up to enjoy a float down the river. Currey welcomed both, but noted it makes numbers a moving target.
“We’ve had as many as 1,800 registered in the past, but last year we took out over 2,000 boats at Gateway Shopping Center and we only had a thousand people registered,” he said.
He laughed he got a message early Friday morning from a paddler in Florida.
“He sent me a picture of his kayak on his car and said he was leaving from Florida and not to start without him,” he said.
Participants can drop off their kayaks, Jon boats, canoes, or other craft at Meadowood Park Friday afternoon. They’ll have to pay $5 for security to watch them overnight. A shuttle bus from the Gateway Shopping Center in St. Albans to the launch will start running at 7a.m. on Saturday The opening ceremony will start at 8:30 a.m.
Paddlers this year will notice a brand new entrance to the park. Currey credited Kanawha County Commissioner Lance Wheeler who sought a bigger request from the Commission to pay for the project.
“He asked for a total of $275,000 to double-lane this road and that’s what they approved. We’re so proud of everybody, because now our little park is like a jewel out here in the middle of nowhere and the traffic is huge,” said Currey.
The forecast had been a little sketchy earlier in the week, but now looks to be sunny with much cooler temperatures.