Fish Tails Tell the Tale

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Article and Photographs by Adam Webster

In June, I joined two Friends of the Cheat staff members to cast lines into the Cheat River at the mouth of Muddy Creek, hoping to catch a bass, trout, walleye, or maybe even a musky. Truth be told, I think we were hoping to catch any sort of fish since Muddy Creek and the section of the Cheat River below its confluence, known as Cheat Canyon, had been considered “dead” for most of the last 25 years. 

Knowing that tens of millions of dollars were spent during that last quarter century to recover water quality in the Cheat River and its tributaries, however, was a promising aspect of our pursuit—we were literally “testing the waters” to see if fish had returned. 

Within the last two years, all indicators suggested that fish were indeed returning into Cheat Canyon and beyond. People sharing photos on social media showed fish caught above and below the Muddy Creek confluence. A photo of a musky as long as a Labrador retriever, caught above Muddy Creek, in Albright, sparked dozens of shares and hundreds of “likes” on social media. I still do a double take when I look at that photo—it’s hard to believe.

It’s hard to believe because the Lower Cheat River was known to be polluted for decades. In 1994, the river grabbed national attention after a series of “blowouts” from a coal mine on Muddy Creek poured millions of gallons of acidic water into Cheat Canyon. The water quality became so bad that in 1995 the Cheat River was listed by American Rivers, a river advocacy group, as one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States. 

When I first experienced the Cheat Canyon in a raft in the early 1990s, the shorelines were indeed stained fluorescent orange and electric white from pollution, known as acid mine drainage. When I mentioned trying to catch a fish in Cheat Canyon while sitting around a campfire one evening long ago, a wise-cracking river guide handed me a bottle of whiskey and said, “You’ve got about as good of a chance catching a fish in a swill of flavored ethanol as you do in the Canyon.” 

My heart sank.

Despite the “whiskey incident,” however, I lugged a fishing pole into Cheat Canyon many times through the years. I wanted to believe that rivers are resilient. I wanted to hold on to a hope that the majesty of the Cheat River wouldn’t always be matched by its tragic condition. I wanted to believe that if I could just catch one fish, maybe things were getting better.   

I didn’t catch a single fish anywhere in Cheat Canyon for nearly a decade —at least not anywhere within a few miles of Muddy Creek, that is.

Wading into the water at the mouth of Muddy Creek on a summer afternoon in 2020 with an expectation of catching a fish made me antsy. In fact, I didn’t even grab my fishing pole. I took my camera instead and let Garrett Richardson (Monitoring Technician) and Owen Mulkeen (Associate Director) do the casting. I just wanted to see it happen. These two guys, along with a long list of other FOC staff and partners past and present—made this recovery happen. This was their moment. Not many people can say that in their lifetime they helped bring a dead river back to life. 

As those two tied lures to their lines and set out to prove what was once impossible, I admired the view looking downstream into Cheat Canyon. Fifteen years prior, I stood in nearly the exact spot surrounded by life-choking sediments and telltale stains of heavy metals caused by acid mine drainage. The pH, or acidity, of water flowing from Muddy Creek into Cheat River back then was, at times, similar to lemon juice or acid rain. The water flowing from Muddy Creek into the Cheat River today, as a result of a nearly $10 million treatment system built by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, is close enough to “normal” that fish and other aquatic organisms should be able to thrive. 

Then it happened. 

I heard a splash behind me. Garrett signaled an excited “fish on” sort of smile while standing in the outflow of Muddy Creek into Cheat River. His line was taught, and his fishing pole went into a bend. As he reeled, a feisty fish slapped its tail on the surface. In that instant, I felt as if we turned the page into a new chapter about the Cheat River.  

As Garrett released a soda can-sized smallmouth bass back into the river and my mind did a rewind on 25 years of what was and what now is, I recalled words and wishes of characters along the way. In the mid-2000s, in interviews with Dave Bassage and Keith Pitzer, both former FOC Executive Directors, they each described a future in which trout thrived in Muddy Creek and that the Cheat River would recover as an intact ecosystem. 

 

“It may well be that I never get to see trout in Muddy Creek in my lifetime,” Bassage said, “but we’re already seeing bass in Cheat Canyon. So, you take your successes where you can find them,” he said. 

Another splish and splash from the corner of my eye and serendipity struck! Garrett was reeling in rainbow trout at the mouth of Muddy Creek.

“We’ll take our successes where we can find them,” I thought to myself.

 As the fishing hour was upon us, Owen landed a couple bass on a fly rod and Garrett moved further up into Muddy Creek and showcased a healthy smallmouth bass. In the weeks after our trip, Garrett caught another bass more than a quarter mile upstream in Muddy Creek.

So, what’s next?

First, I hope that bottles of whiskey will be used to celebrate good days of fishing instead of being used to describe water quality in the Cheat River. 

On a more serious note, FOC needs your continued support. What does “support” mean? It means making financial contributions to the organization and volunteering to help its restoration, recreation, and community development programs succeed into the future. In many ways, this is just the beginning.

What is evident to me is that the recovery of the Cheat River is no longer just a tale about fixing pollution caused in the past, it is a story about the future and not just what will become of the river, but about what the river will become for its communities.


Virtual Cheat Fest 2020 Raffle Item!

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2020 Cheat Fest Donation-Based Raffle Item – Custom Fire Pit by Sam Wilson

$5 for one chance

 

$20 for 6 chances

 

Click Here to Bid!


Monongahela National Forest Celebrates 100 Years of Conservation and Service

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Mouth of Otter Creek – Photo by Adam Webster

“Happy 100th Birthday Monongahela National Forest!  FOC directly benefits from the Monongahela National Forest, as over 30% of our Cheat River watershed is protected by these forested lands.  Without receiving the outstanding water quality that comes from our tributaries protected by the Monongahela National Forest, it is questionable if the Cheat River would have been able to make the recovery it has today.  Some iconic areas protected by the Monongahela National Forest that fall in the Cheat River Watershed include: Dolly Sods Wilderness, Bickle Knob, Cheat Summit Fort, Otter Creek Wilderness, Glady Fork, Laurel Fork Wilderness, Gandy Creek, and Gaudineer Knob to name a few!”  – Madison Ball, FOC Restoration Program Manager

The iconic Bear Rocks Preserve – Dolly Sods Wilderness

April 28 marks the 100-year anniversary (#MNF100) of the establishment of Monongahela National Forest. In 1920, following the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation designating land purchased for the protection of the Monongahela River as Monongahela National Forest. Since that time, the Forest has grown from an initial 7,200 acres to more than 900,000 acres, all in West Virginia. The Forest continues to benefit the public more than ever by providing recreational opportunities, a wide variety of forest products, and abundant natural resources for all to enjoy.

“We invite everyone to celebrate with us on April 28, in spirit and online, 100 years of caring for the land and serving the public on this National Forest,” said Shawn Cochran, Forest Supervisor. “I’d like to thank the State of West Virginia, our partners, volunteers, as well as past and present Forest Service employees who have served and dedicated themselves over the years to caring for this land that belongs to all of us.”

You can help celebrate the Forest’s birthday online at the following locations:

Be sure to check out the Forest’s website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/mnf for more fun Centennial activities later this year.

Special thanks to the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area for assisting with planning the Forest’s Centennial and sharing information with the public. Learn more about them and link to their social media platforms at https://www.appalachianforestnha.org/.


2020 Spring Sinuosity – 2020 Eternal

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Joey and Chandler

Hey there Cheat River friends. How are you? Overall, I’ve been feeling good during my first global pandemic experience. My day-to-day hasn’t changed that much here in rural West Virginia. The biggest adjustment has been working from home, and I’m thankful to my co-workers and colleagues for their commitment and flexibility during this transition. I miss seeing my friends, but I’m talking to my mom more. There are baby goats in the pasture next door, and just watching them brings me joy. I miss our big gardens, and I wish we weren’t looking for a house to buy right now, but we will figure it out. Heck, I remembered how to cook!

I was overcome with sadness when the truth-saying-troubadour John Prine passed away last week from Covid-19. FOC alum Ellie Bell concurred that he was “good” and losing him meant losing a bit of good in this world. I let those feelings snowball and was soon at my lowest point of that day/week/month – what day is it anyway?

From those I’ve been communicating with, this roller coaster of emotion sounds common. As you can likely imagine, this composition has been hard for me to write. I’m sad that Cheat Fest is cancelled, and the challenges that lie ahead for FOC are daunting, but I am confident they are do-able, because we have all of you.

I’ve been thinking more about people who don’t have a support system. This crisis has highlighted vast inequalities in our society and failures in our systems. We aren’t just staying home and sewing masks, we are figuring out how to feed hungry kids, the legal way to administer telemedicine, and how to communicate with and care for our seniors. And what about those who are entirely left out and discriminated against? I wish I could do more.

I have reduced my news intake, but I have been hearing a lot about getting “back to normal” lately. I’m hopeful normal will be better for everyone. What will that path look like, and how do we know if we are even on it? Back to “normal?” I want to go forward, I want to go downstream – don’t you?

I call this column Sinuosity. A river’s sinuosity is its tendency to meander back and forth across its floodplain over time. A river with a high sinuosity would have an “S” path, winding back and forth. I think this is the kind of path we are on right now, as individuals and as a society. As our stream path moves across the landscape, it leaves behind evidence of where the river once was. Like oxbow lakes or scars of rubble, we have evidence of our prior paths we can examine. But, unlike nature, we can get out of these paths, these ruts that take us back to almost the same place we were before.

We have a unique opportunity to live more deliberately during this time. We can create new, healthier, happier paths. Many of my friends are taking hold of this opportunity – doing a cleanse, organizing old photos, getting a new puppy. They hope to create new habits and come out of this different – different on their own terms versus letting an obstruction direct their path.

I love spring in West Virginia. It is a time of growth and hope. The red buds along the Narrows are popping. FOC projects are still popping, too. Despite 2020 being off to a really, REALLY awful start, I am so fortunate to be happy, healthy, and working with Friends of the Cheat. I hope to connect with many of you during virtual Cheat Fest week. Tune into my virtual Education Eddy episode to learn about our progress on removing the Albright dam and to literally “see” what else I’ve been working on these last few months.

Stay safe.


April is Clean Up Preston Month!

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FOC is partnering with the Preston County Chamber of Commerce BAD Buildings Committee to encourage Preston County residents to clean-up their local roadsides and individual homes and properties during Clean-Up Preston Month!

FOC staff will be participating individually and with our pandemic isolation partners on Earth Day – Wed. April 22nd.  Join in by organizing your own safe pickup and tag us on Facebook @friendsofthecheat or Instagram @cheatriverfriends.  

Roadside clean-up supplies including bags and pickers are available by calling Preston County Litter Control Officer Jay Sowers at (304) 698-5594. Participants may also use their own bags. Please gather bags/debris to a single, easy access area.  For collection, please promptly contact
Officer Sowers at (304) 698-5594.

CONTEST

Safe at home with time for projects around your own home, or want to do something nice for an essential worker’s home while they continue working to ensure the safety of us all? .

Take a “before” photo of an area that needs some cleaning or maintenance, then take an “after” photo after you’ve improved the area. Post it on Facebook and/or Instagram with #cleanuppreston @prestonchamber or @friendsofthecheat.

The Preston County Chamber will select four winners (!) who will receive a gift certificate to a local restaurant offering take-out, courtesy of the Preston County Chamber of Commerce. .

It’s a WIN-WIN! We can support local restaurants, enjoy a cleaner, happier community and show our pride in the place we are so lucky to call home. #prestoncountyproud.

Please stay close to home, and conduct clean-up activities only with your families and isolation-buddies following CDC recommended physical distancing guidelines. Do not organize large groups or carpools. Groups violating these rules will be eliminated from the contest.

For collection, please promptly contact
Officer Sowers at (304) 698-5594.

Also, for self-disposal the Kingwood Transfer Station is currently open Monday-Friday from 7:00 am – 3:00 pm with no loads accepted later than 2:30 pm. Items not accepted are: yard waste, burnt lumber, liquids and appliances with freon. Contact the Transfer Station at (304) 329-3235.