April showers bring May flowers. This old adage to me has always felt like a way people would just try to justify weather that they don’t like. When you live in Ohio, springtime weather doesn’t make sense. From somebody who has monitored the weather on a daily basis for years as a pilot, I will preach this til I die. I think some people are tired of the winter and just want warm sunny weather, and rain puts a damper on their plans, so they justify it with the metaphor of flowers blooming in May. Realistically, though, who cares about flowers?
For whitewater kayakers, however, April showers can create some fun times. In many areas, the spring snowmelt (and associated higher flows) is over. Now, we are starting to rely on a combination of rainy weather and dam releases to have some fun. Sure, rain isn’t as predictable as snowmelt, and sometimes involves stopping whatever you are doing in order to grab your boat and drysuit and go make a run for it. Any kayaker in Ohio who has paddled Tinker’s Creek knows what I mean by this.
Every year, the first weekend of May is the amazing event that we call Cheat Fest. Hundreds of experienced boaters pile down to Albright, West Virginia to set-up tents and cots, drink beer, eat greasy festival food, and enjoy the many miles of paddling that the area has to offer. Cheat Canyon, Cheat Narrows, Upper Yough, Lower Yough, and multiple sections of the Tygart are all within a reasonable distance.
Cheat Canyon is a beautiful and exciting run. A Class IV run with a Class V+ shuttle (pick your lines and don’t bottom-out your car), there is nothing like it this weekend. As an added bonus, the campground is at the put-in. Literally. Carry your boat 100 feet, and in you go. I am a huge fan of big water, something we don’t really have in Ohio, so needless to say this run is worth the trip.
A nice thing about the Cheat is how it begins, with a rapid named “Decision.” For most paddlers, this allows for a nice little warm-up, finding tongues and working our way around holes. For some, it is a reality check, giving them the “decision” to hike out if they need to. The entire river is read and runnable, although I’d recommend following someone’s lines (and/or scouting) a few rapids, notably High Falls. Very fun rapid but it can get shallow and sketchy. Let’s not forget the other good ones, such as Big Nasty, Coliseum, and Pete Morgan, the latter two being my favorites on the river. Some correct lines are also a little intimidating (“Wow I should not be this close to that rock/hole”), but hey, that just adds in to the fun factor. The holes in this river can give you one hell of a beatdown. Not only that, but good luck hiking out the river after Decision.
The only photo I have at the moment (until I get around to some video screen-grabs) of Coliseum is a first-person shot taken while approaching the top of the rapid. I’m not posting it because it does not do the rapid any justice. The line through Coliseum involves finding a tongue between two holes, a tongue which is not much wider than your kayak. Extremely fun rapid, but I would not want to be in those holes, especially Recyclotron on the right. Oh, and don’t fight too hard to make a path around one of the holes, because if you do, you are setting yourself up to quite possibly just be going into the other one. Immediately following Coliseum is Pete Morgan, and extremely fun line that involves hugging a rock while riding over a drop, all the while not getting surfed at the bottom. Caught a beautiful eddy right after the drop; just another reason why I like a boat with edges.
Cheat Canyon is a blast, especially if you spend most of your time read and running. Plus, then you might get to spice it up with a few not so great lines, all the while side-surfing and fighting your way into a trashy pillow of water or fun wave train and bracing and punching your way down.
Pete Morgan is also a very fun rapid to run, eddy out, and watch other people drop through while standing and videotaping from a rock. I’ve seen some pretty funny carnage there. This is also a very good river to remember to throw yourself into a rock if you get pushed into one. Some of them can be kind of funky, but in a fun way.
This river is a very good warm-up for the real excitement, which is the shuttle out. Very rocky roads, wide enough for a single car, alongside drop-offs. All-terrain vehicles are not a bad idea here. My Honda Civic? Forget about it. I’m catching a ride with somebody else, even if I have to bribe them with a six-pack.
As far as the festival goes, it is a very chill time. All of the main camping, even if off festival grounds, is within an easy walking distance. In my memory is correct, there are less food, gear, and souvenir tents than Gauley Fest, and it’s a little more difficult to buy and sell used boats, but the food is amazing, and if you enjoy bluegrass music, this is the place for you.
If you want to buy new boats, open canoes, or squirt boats, you are in luck. All of the aforementioned were available for sale, and in large numbers. Piles upon piles of boats were out for adoption, of every make and model. Liquid Logic was showing off their new Braaap, Blackfly Canoes had a few different models available, Russ’ Ribs had a food truck with some outstanding food, and probably every 2014 boat model from any of the major manufacturers was available, in a multitude of size and coloring. The festival attracts many non-kayakers as well. WVU students, locals looking to check out the festival, artists selling their work of all kinds, the list goes on. To top it off, they even had a smoothie stand.
Unfortunately, due to scheduling issues, I was only able to drive down this year Friday evening (after the race), and had to drive back Saturday evening, spending a total of close to 10 hours in a small car with a Wavesport Recon jerry-rigged onto the top. And there is no question in my mind that it was worth it. All kayaking festivals are fun. Cheat Fest, Gauley Fest, Stoneycreek Rendezvous, Ohiopyle Over the Falls Festival, you name it. But something stood out about Cheat Fest. It has an aura to it that I find difficult to describe, but worth experiencing. Being able to lay on a cot in a peaceful nighttime environment and falling asleep while looking up at the stars is always a pleasant experience.
After some very fun time hanging out at the campground and festival, I had to unfortunately turn back and head to Northeast Ohio, arriving just after midnight, in one of the most physically-tired states I’ve been in in a long time. Nonetheless, it was worth it because I spent the following day at a dropzone doing my first non-tandem skydive, and believe me, pulling that cord and flying a canopy around by yourself, while descending a couple thousand feet and maneuvering yourself to a safe landing, is a feeling that nothing can replicate.
Every large kayaking event leaves me with the same belief: go to festivals. If you have to take off of work, do it. If you have to spend $100+ in gas money to get down there, do it. If you need to bring your dog down with you because you can’t find somebody to feed him, do it. Besides, they love the festival as much as we do.
Now, we count down the two weeks until the next one.
-Bridge Day (BASE festival, but might as well paddle the New River Gorge while you’re there)
The list goes on. These are just some of my favorites; there are way more festivals than this that are worth going after. Last but not least, let’s not forget the race happening on the Little White Salmon!