On the River
In nearby Albright, thousands gather every spring to celebrate music, art, and nature as part of Cheat River Festival.
Lena Cerbone watches the river change with the seasons from the porch of her house. Spring means green buds on the trees, spring peepers in the evening, and brightly colored kayaks drifting down the waters of the Cheat River near her home. In Albright, just 45 minutes from Morgantown, the Cheat River Festival is the true herald of spring. On May 4, 2013, more than 3,000 music lovers, artists, musicians, families, volunteers, and nonprofit organizations will converge on the confluence of Muddy Creek and the Cheat in celebration of the river and new life. “It’s practically in our backyard,” Lena says. “I can sit on my own porch and listen to the music. It has enriched the experience of living here.” Originally from upstate New York, Lena and her family moved next door to the fairgrounds in 1999. They have seen the celebration evolve from a few friends enjoying music along the riverbank to a diverse collection of river enthusiasts coming together in support of restoring one of West Virginia’s most treasured waterways. “We are really lucky. One of the benefits of living here is that you have this kind of good, clean, affordable fun.”
Created by the nonprofit group Friends of the Cheat (FOC), Cheat Fest provides revelers—affectionately known as festers—with a day of live local music, an art market packed with local and regional works, food vendors, a silent auction, and an arts and crafts tent just for children. The day before the fest, river enthusiasts and athletes enjoy a fun 5K foot race and the “Mass-Occurrence” Downriver Race through Cheat Canyon. Festival proceeds go toward the organization’s efforts to promote and preserve the river ecosystem, but perhaps most importantly, the fest brings together river lovers of all ages and backgrounds. “Environmental stewardship is important,” says Jenny Williams, pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood. She and her family have been attending the fest for five years, volunteering and enjoying the diversity of people who attend. “Sometimes there’s not a lot of crossover between Christians concerned about the environment and people who are concerned about it for other reasons. It’s nice to be in a place that offers that intersection. Our waterways are a precious resource. It’s part of what makes our state so beautiful.”
Just a few decades ago, the river was dying. Beginning in the 1970s, locals noticed bright orange stains on the rocks lining the river. Fish populations dwindled. Swimmers complained of stinging eyes and nosebleeds. In April 1994, a containment structure failed at T&T Fuel’s #2 Mine in Albright, spilling acid drainage down Muddy Creek and into the main stem of Cheat River. A second blowout in 1995 spread the devastation further, killing native animals and plants and turning the water orange. The acid killed fish along 16 miles of river, says Amanda Pitzer, FOC executive director. “It brought attention to the problem of mine drainage quickly.”
With tourism evaporating in the ’90s, communities along the river banded together with FOC and began organizing task forces and restoration efforts, collaborating with landowners, researching treatments, writing grants, and installing treatment systems such as wetlands, settling ponds, and limestone channels. “It started with folks and river enthusiasts meeting around the kitchen table. This year we have a full staff and our budget is hitting $1 million,” Amanda says.
For communities along the river, this blue ribbon of water near the Pennsylvania border, patterned with rushing white rapids and filled with scrappy smallmouth bass, is more than just a source of recreation. “I’ve been awed and amazed by the extent to which this is a labor of love for so many kinds of folks. Watching all these people rally together—some with close to 20 years of involvement—they all come to the same conclusion. There is no question that this is worthy of time and commitment,” says Emma Donovan, festival coordinator. “It’s a real testament to this community.”
Nineteen years after the blowouts, the Cheat is making a comeback. Insects, fish, frogs, and even golden eagles call the Cheat home again. Where once American Rivers, Inc., a national river conservation organization, listed the river as one of the 10 most endangered waterways in the nation, the EPA now considers it a success story. “You have to have the bugs to feed the fish and the fish to feed the predators. It’s all connected, and the water quality is the biggest part of that,” Amanda says.
But one of the biggest, most visible testaments to the power of this grassroots movement is Cheat Fest itself, where the diverse threads of the movement come together in celebration of what they’ve done and what they hope to accomplish with future generations. “A lot of kids grow up in the Cheat watershed area and it has a profound impact on them,” Emma says. “The fest is a really great way to help them connect the dots.”
The 19th Annual Cheat River Festival will be held in Albright on Saturday, May 4, 2013. Visit cheat.org/our-
- In the Round with Bob Shank, Meadow Run, and Jason Jaros, 1–2 p.m.
- BiBs & Barefeet, 2:15–3:15 p.m.
- Shivering Timbers, 3:30–4:30 p.m.
- Wheels, 5–6 p.m.
- From the Hip, 6:15–7:15 p.m.
- Hillbilly Gypsies, 7:30–8:30 p.m.
- Rising Regina, 8:45–9:45 p.m.
- The Lewis Brothers, 10–11 p.m.
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