Rollicking Rivers of the Virginias
The Cheat Canyon, from Albright to Jenkinsburg, was explored by John Berry, Bob Harrigan, and Dan Sullivan of Washington, DC, in the 1950s. Their first run took two days. In the 1960s it was considered one of the most challenging runs in the East. Although it seems less difficult when compared to the hardest rivers being run today, the rapids are still formidable. The hard rapids of the Narrows are like the easier ones in the Canyon. The rafting business in the area has been declining since the late 1970s, eclipsed by the growing popularity of the New River. The river is now a delightful, uncrowded, big water playground.
Only fools take the Cheat Canyon lightly. The challenges that faced the pioneers of the 1950s must still be dealt with. Low-water runs are tight and technical, with visibility obstructed by huge boulders. The many pools between drops have no current, making the run seem longer. Moderate levels open up the rapids, but the water is considerably more powerful. Really high water brings huge pillowed boulders, boiling eddies, and monster holes. Although the river superficially resembles the Lower Yough, the Cheat has many rapids as difficult as the tough ones on the Yough and five that are significantly harder. A smash-up or injury puts a paddler on foot in very rough country. Walking out of the canyon straight up would take at least two hours, and you would still be miles from the nearest house. There is a good trail on the right, but it is high above the river and intervening cliff bands can make access difficult.
The most challenging aspect of this trip is the high number of complex rapids in an inaccessible setting. A detailed description of each rapid is impractical, because there are still over 30 (count 'em) rapids rated Class III or higher. Accordingly, scouting is not feasible in many cases. Also, several of the Class IV rapids are separated, if at all, only by short pools in higher water. The remoteness of the canyon and the cold water in winter and spring make the Cheat a Class IVV run in high water (over four feet).
The first rapid is Decision (Class III+). It is 1.5 miles below Albright, where the Canyon begins. This rapids starts as a wide rubble bar and gradually narrows as it drops over smaller rocks and ledges, forming several holes. Through this upper part, a left-of-center line is easiest, with an interesting chute on the right. Then move right toward a house-sized boulder through a short pool (or wave train at higher levels) before the river drops over a set of large eroded ledges. This rapid is similar to numerous others in the Canyon and is certainly easier than many. If Decision is too much, please carry out now. Your body and boat will thank you.
After about another mile of pools and three significant smaller drops comes Beech Run (Class IIIIV). Enter this long rapid on river right before moving left to dodge rocks or holes depending on water level. About two-thirds of the way through and just below the steepest section, a group of closely spaced rocks obstructs the main channel at levels below about 3.0 feet. Run these on the left.
The next big rapid, and one to sway the minds of those who haven't seen any significant changes from the 1985 flood so far, is Big Nasty (Class IV at medium levels and Class IVV at higher levels). About a half mile and two easier rapids below Beech Run, the river forms a large pool just before a right-hand bend. The left bank is a steep, high mountain here. At water levels above 3.0 feet, first-timers and those with foggy memories should scout from the left bank.
Above Big Nasty, flooding deposited many small and medium-sized boulders, building up the entire riverbed and raising the level of the pool there. The small rapid below Big Nasty has also been obstructed by rubble. In between these pools, the entire river has been channeled toward the right bank and over a ledge. The result is a steep, fast rapid aiming all of the Cheat's water and anything on or in it into one big hole. At 2.0 feet the question"what hole?" seems appropriate, but at 3.0 feet, the hole is hard for decked boats to punch and is fully capable of holding or recirculating floating objects. Around 3.5 feet, it becomes truly nasty, flipping and holding 10-man rafts and recirculating swimmers more than once. At 5.0 feet, Big Nasty is a real circus. First, rafts and boaters must take a tightrope line on the approach. Then, for those who slip off the tightrope, the hole pulls repeated stunts like violently flipping and juggling up to three large rafts at once. Finally, the megahole pulls a true disappearing act with swimmersÂ—making them disappear, then reappear up to 50 feet downstream. Above 5.0 feet, the hole is fortunately too violent to recirculate swimmers; it just gets bigger! Regardless of the water level, successful lines all aim to the extreme left. Still, it is necessary to negotiate several lateral waves or diagonal holes constantly pushing toward the hole. At very high water a left-side sneak appears. A portage is an honorable option.
Even though the Maui wave above Big Nasty is gone, a super surfing wave/hole still remains 200 yards downstream on river left. You'll find it after you cross the cobble rapids forming the pool below Big Nasty. This usually benign hole is called Typewriter because you can easily move back and forth on it. Covering the left half of the river, it is gentle on the right edge, sticky on the left.
After one more rapid, the paddler reaches Even Nastier (Class IIIIV). This long rapid is entered just right of center and propels all comers through a respectable wave train leading to the left. From here it is either boiling eddies or ultraquick boat-scouting for the remaining 100 yards to avoid two offset boulders and holes. This rapid can also be entered on river left.
The middle third of the trip (a good three miles) is known as the Doldrums. Here you have Prudential Rock, great playing waves, and lovely scenery. This "flat" section, with a half-dozen significant lesser rapids, ends as you enter the last third of the trip. This last section is the most demanding because it has several complex heavy rapids.
After Cue Ball, a Class III boulder drop with a great surfing wave on the left, the river begins to act more serious. Anticipation, with a fast, narrow chute up against a cliff on river left, is just downstream. After passing through the chute, work over to the center, where the river opens up again. As you move through an easy boulder rapid toward a great surfing hole, notice the high cliffs in the distance on river left. Below here is Teardrop, a deceptive rapid that may lure you into a tricky chute on the far right or trash you in a nasty hole in the center. The easiest run is on the far left, to the inside of the turn.
By now the approaching cliffs and a growing roar signify your arrival above High Falls. Note the high, thin ribbon of water coming in on river left, then get ready for action. This drop is Class IV+ even at moderate levels. Scout from the right shore. There's a sneak route down river right, too shallow at low water, but a good choice when the river is high. There's a tricky route down the far left that flips many boats. The preferred center line is scrapy at low water and rambunctious at higher flows. Start a boat length to the right of a washed-out eddy above the drop. This turns into a small wave at high water. Look for a smooth wave at the lip of the drop and paddle through the left shoulder of the wave, angling your boat left. A few forward strokes will carry you between a huge pour-over on the right and a large stopper on the left. Ride the waves over the last ledge into the pool below.
Maze Rapid is just downstream. At low levels the preferred route winds between giant boulders and is tight in places. Higher water opens up the passages, but huge, pillowed boulders and nasty holes complicate the route. Work from left to right to miss the deviously arranged boulders, then cut right at the bottom to finish. Solve the puzzle and win a chance at a trip down the hardest rapid in the Cheat Canyon: Coliseum Rapid.
Upper Coliseum Rapid (Class V) was formed when the 1985 flood completely filled in the right side of the river. The left chute, formerly a high-water line, now carries the full flow of the river. This wild drop has changed several times in the last decade; don't trust my description or your memory! Eddy out upstream on the right, just above a gorgeous tributary waterfall, and work your way downstream on foot and scout this drop carefully. The best view is from the top from a large rock on river right; the best portage route is on the left.
Here's the way things looked in 1998: Recyclotron, a giant hole that seems to get worse each year, dominates the top of the rapid. There is a clear, left-side route complicated by a breaking wave. After you thread your way between these obstacles, you'll confront a powerful chute moving from left to right between two offset holes. The right-hand hole is very dangerous, and the left side pour-over could cause problems at some water levels. Some paddlers like to run to the left of a breaking wave at midstream, then cut to the right. Others like to catch a left-hand eddy, then ferry back out into the chute. The run-out of the drop is fast and powerful, and it will be hard to recover swimmers. Boaters should consider setting a safety rope.
Now the river enters Lower Coliseum, cutting left and roaring through a short, complex boulder garden. A huge, pyramid-shaped rock (Coliseum Rock) looms downstream. There are huge holes on the left, but the right side is much easier. The river still does not let up, moving at full speed into Pete Morgan Rapid. This drop honors the owner of the gas station at the Albright bridge; he gave river gauge readings to inquiring paddlers for many years in the '60s and '70s. The gas station washed away in the 1985 flood, which also rearranged the rapid. The best route is down the left chute, starting on the right side and cutting left to avoid an aggressive stopper at the bottom. It's easily scouted from a cobble bar on the left. Pause for a moment in an eddy and note the unique fluted sandstone columns on the left side of the run-out before moving downstream.
After Pete Morgan Rapid you'll encounter several long Class III+ drops before the river calms down as it approaches the Jenkinsburg bridge. About a mile from the take-out a clear stream cascades in from river right. The slate outcrops at the mouth of this little stream are a great place to look for fossils and catch some sun. Paddle under the bridge and take out on river right.
Gauging the Canyon
There is a painted gauge on Route 26 where it crosses the Cheat in Albright. The river can be run at well below a foot; two to four feet would be considered moderate levels, and anything above that is high water. The gauge readings have fluctuated considerably since the 1985 flood, but we now think that it reads about three inches higher than the pre-1985 level.
After Pete Morgan's gas station washed away in 1985, the Albright bridge gauge could not be reported to the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh. There is a gauge under construction in Jenkinsburg, but it is not available yet. The Parsons gauge, 50 miles upstream, is available by phone. Three and a half feet (900 cfs) at Parsons equals about two feet at Albright; 4.5 feet (1,900 cfs) equals three feet at Albright. The actual flow at Jenkinsburg will be roughly 33 percent greater than at Parsons.
The Albright Power Station Gauge is reported on the flow phone operated by the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh (412-262-5290). This gauge previously gave erratic readings, but it was reset and upgraded in 1997. Steve Ingalls, an Ohio boater, worked with several active Cheat River paddlers to create a conversion formula between the Power Station and Bridge gauges. The formula is: Bridge Level = (1.6 x Power Station Level) + .1. The reliability of this formula for levels under 2.0 feet at the Albright bridge gauge has not been determined.
Put in at the Albright bridge (C) or, to avoid a mile or two of flat, uninteresting water, at one of the two campgrounds downstream. The take-out at Jenkinsburg (D) is hard to find and involves some travel on rough dirt roads (see map). From the put-in, take Route 26 north to Valley Point. Turn left on Hudson Road, then take a gradual left turn when you reach the four-way intersection at Mount Nebo. The road turns to dirt, passes to the right of a large A-frame house (the Clarks), then descends steeply into the canyon. It is passable by ordinary vehicles but becomes slippery in wet weather. The river can also be reached from Route 7 in Masontown via Bull Run Road; turning left at the first intersection, right at the second. This road is also steep and rough. The Cheat shuttle takes about an hour and a half to run. Glen Miller (304-379-3404) will pick you up in Jenkinsburg and run you back to Albright for a reasonable fee. It saves time and vehicle wear.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication