West Virginia is growing rapidly as a destination for flatwater paddling, welcoming a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts who are discovering the magic of its clear-running streams.
Proponents say the growth is having a symbiotic effect, energizing the broadly realized sport as well as the communities into which it's been introduced.
Bill Currey, executive director of Coal River Group, says the statewide effort to clean rivers has wound up a power-house for community development.
"We approached this in the first place from the outset simply as a way to clean our waterways," Currey said. "However, communities have not only cleaned these rivers and streams, but they've also grown their economies."
Currey is awaiting news of the establishment of a state commission to oversee the development of water trails, and the enabling legislation has passed Senate and House of Delegates committees so far.
"The whole concept is to boost economic development," he said. "Many of these streams flow through areas that have been devastated by economic issues such as the demise of coal mining, and though the impact of these trails is not huge, it's still a measurably positive impact.
"And it's working. We've proven that they can have an impact economically. The communities along these waterways—water trails—are pitching in and cleaning the riverbanks and removing tires and working on improved sewer systems."
The water trails are designated pathways that provide for well-marked launch and take-out sites. Campgrounds, picnic areas, points-of-interest, and access areas are typically developed along the trails.
Flatwater paddling, now most often performed in kayaks, not only allows for exploration, but it's also an ideal way for anglers to reach fisheries motorboats can't reach, Currey said.
The Coal River in less than two decades has been transformed from one of the state's most polluted streams to one of its most clean, and other West Virginia rivers are following suit.
"It's like mother used to say: 'Clean this house up! We've got company coming,' Currey said. "Well, West Virginians respond to that. Company is coming, and they're getting ready."
Local officials are also lauding the transformation that paddling has provided. Victoria Surber, executive director of the Gilbert Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the initiative to build a water trail on the Guyandotte River has had a highly visible positive impact.
"One thing I can say for sure is that it's brought more community people out," Surber said.
"Families are out on the river now as soon as the weather breaks, and we've seen a dramatic increase in fishing. Ever since we've begun promoting the river we've seen an increase in tourism."
Flatwater kayakers themselves are pleased with the growth of the community, according to Steve Gunter, owners of Gunter's Yak Shak on the Kanawha River at Winfield.
Gunter says the kayaking community in West Virginia, notably where kayak fishing is concerned, are recognized nationally.
"When you look at all these bodies of water in West Virginia, which are for the most part in pristine condition, you're looking at an amazing destination opportunity," he said.
"On the Greenbrier River, it's common to see groups of 10 or 15 people or more floating along, pleasure boating."
An avid kayak angler himself, Gunter says West Virginia now boasts more kayakers than any other state per capita, and Mountain State kayak anglers are recognized nationally for their skills.
"When you go to a national kayaking fishing tournament, you see how respected kayak anglers from West Virginia are," he said.
"Of the 680 anglers which have qualified for the upcoming national kayaking championship, 82 guys are from West Virginia. That's a big percentage for such a small state."
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