By TAYLOR KUYKENDALL · firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 2004, the Coal River Group has been working to clean up one of the state's rivers that is increasingly becoming a hotbed of milder water recreational activity.
The Coal River Group, a volunteer nonprofit, was formed by co-founders Bill Currey and Bill Queen after they took a weekend fishing trip that resulted in a mission to paddle every mile of the Big Coal River, the Little Coal River, and the Coal River. The pair has since "paddled and fished every inch of the rivers."
"Our efforts over the past nine years have resulted in a major turnaround for the rivers," Currey said. "In fact the programs which have been implemented are considered by many as some of the most innovative and effective in the U.S."
The group was founded with the belief that the best way to protect the rivers was to promote an active interest in the rivers themselves. That's why the two began focusing on promoting recreational activities in the Coal River watershed such as fishing, kayaking and canoeing.
"It's hard to describe a passion," Currey said. "Basically, me and a friend of mine started the Coal River Group … by floating and fishing the Coal rivers just as a sportsman would. We wanted to see what the Coal rivers were like. When we did the 88 miles of river we said, ‘This is a great river system that nobody knows about.'"
Currey said the more people they took to various parts of the river, the more excited people became about the potential of recreation on the Coal River. In addition, the Coal River could provide economic development for the region, he said.
"We said, ‘Look, we can fix this, the problems on this river,'" Currey said. "We based our whole organization on fixing this river."
Some of those problems included a lack of access, improper sewage drainage and an overload of silt. By facilitating various projects, the Coal River Group has begun to overcome many of the problems preventing the Coal River Group from being a major tourist destination.
Each year, the group hosts the Tour de Coal, a float trip down the river designed to introduce newcomers and regulars of the river alike to the joy of floating the Coal River. This year, they expect as many as 600 to 700 people. In 2013, the Tour de Coal featured three days of events, including an 11-mile float trip, antique boat and car show and a kids' kayaking clinic.
The Coal River Group also has a fleet of canoes and kayaks it rents out to promote recreational activity on the stream system. Any profits from those rentals are used for river restoration projects taken on by the Coal River group.
"Every penny we make goes back into the river," Currey said.
The Big and Little Coal rivers all have headwaters that begin in Raleigh County but stretch across Boone and Lincoln counties. They form the Coal River at Alum Creek and stretch to the Kanawha River in St. Albans. The rivers drain a watershed of approximately 890 square miles.
With the efforts of the Coal River Group, the system now has 17 publicly available access points to the river.
The rivers have historically been a vital transportation corridor for human activity from the Native Americans who used the river to hunt and fish to the industrialists and resource extractors who later transported coal, timber and textiles down the river.
The heavy mining activity in the region is a major factor for historically poor conditions along some sections of the stream. Tighter regulations and active clean-up activities such as those done by the Coal River Group have largely restored much of the watershed.
"Our overriding solution to restoring the river to is to get people involved with the river," Currey said. "To that end, everything we've done is toward getting people to float the rivers and fish the rivers."