The expansion of broadband and cellular access in West Virginia will notably improve safety and economics along its water trails, say officials with the state flatwater trail commission.
Bill Currey, president of the commission, says expanding access won’t just bolster tourism—it could save tourists from potentially dangerous situations.
“Flatwater trail areas need broadband badly. We’re growing the business so fast that there are so many people on the river who could get in trouble,” Currey said.
“The value of our water trail," he added, using the Coal River Water Trail as an example, "is that it’s in rural, isolated areas, and part of that trouble is that those areas don’t have broadband or cell service.”
In October 2021, Gov. Jim Justice announced a billion-dollar broadband strategy that will expand access in underserved areas, providing broadband to 200,000 homes and businesses.
Currey says expanding access could ease the burden on emergency responders who are called to find those who may go missing on the water trails, he said.
“The primitive part of what we advertise is what’s so attractive to so many people,” he said of the Coal River, "but it also poses dangerous situations for the emergency responders in Boone County, Lincoln County, and western Kanawha.
"It’s a two-edged sword: you want visitors to come, and you want them to have a good time, but outdoor sports can be dangerous.”
Currey, who established the Coal River Group, one of the state’s first flatwater trails, says he hopes the example of the Coal River will help with the state's 14 new trails.
“We as the Coal River Group want to be able to provide visitors and tourists an umbrella of safety as much as we can, but that same concern applies to all 14 water trails. As all of them grow, they’re going to experience the same issues that we’ve had to deal with, with the Coal River,” Currey said.
John Burchett, member of the state’s flatwater trail commission and overseer of the state’s newest flatwater trail in Mingo County—the 60-mile Bloody Mingo Trail along the Tug Fork River—said one of his goals is to expand broadband access in that area, which suffers spotty connections at best.
He says commission members are also planning to find additional broadband resources, though as a newer delegation, designated only last year, it will take some time.
“This is something we will address down the road,” Burchett said. “We’re a brand new commission. We’re mostly organizing and collecting information about the trails that we have and trails that we will build. But I do see this as something that’s important for flatwater trails in the state.”
An increase in broadband connection can help draw more visitors in, Burchett said. By posting and sharing photos of the trails on social media, locals and tourists can promote their experiences and encourage other out-of-state kayakers and paddlers to try out West Virginia’s flatwater trails.
“It would help to have continuous coverage on our flatwater trails, especially in emergency situations,” Burchett said.
“But also for continuing the recreational aspect of it, with social media. If you’re out on the water and you want to connect with some friends and share the experience of your trip, you can do that.”
While broadband access will play a part in making the state’s water trails as safe as possible, increased signage and other resources are already available. Burchett shared some additional flatwater safety tips.
“Each trail should develop their own mapping and informational signage that would be available at each place that is designated as a put-in or take-out,” he said.
“Anytime you’re on the water, you want to leave word with friends, family or someone where you’re staying as to where you’re going and how long you’re expected to be gone, so that if something goes wrong, at least emergency services, first responders would know where to start looking for you.”
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