By the late 1990s, Bill Currey and a friend were just two West Virginia lovers of the outdoors and fishing. After a river fishing trip, Currey became addicted to sharing West Virginia’s flatwater rivers with the world.
After working for approximately 20 years to create and develop standards for a flatwater trail system on the Little Coal, Big Big Coal, and Coal rivers, Currey is president of the new West Virginia Flat Water Trails Commission.
It all started with Currey’s grand vision, but it took some attention to detail to create the first still water trail.
“If we could clean (the rivers) to an acceptable level for tourists from North Carolina and Virginia,” said Currey, “then we would have a gold mine in terms of tourism and helping coal communities. who were already suffering from a lack of jobs and coal mine closures.
“We have a whole new industry to bring in, but we had to put it in place. And that’s how we created the aquatic trail.
Currey says there are two aspects to consider for the calm water trail designation. First of all, the waste has to be picked up and the water cannot be contaminated like what he found on the Coal River at the start of the project.
“We have been bothered by the condition of the river, not so much chemically but biologically with e coli and literal endless sewage and waste after years of neglect or lack of attention to rivers,” said Currey.
“And we’ve done it statewide. I mean, we treated rivers like sewers. And when people started to paddle kayaks and frequent rivers, we developed the Coal River Group. We felt like if they come to visit us, like our house, we want to clean this thing up.
While working on the Coal River projects, Currey suggested to the community that inviting tourists to your area is like having “company.”
“It’s a thing in West Virginia where we say ‘hey, we better clean up the coming company,” he said. “When the company comes in, do you want them to see a dirty river? “You want them to see a clean river. If they see a clean river, they’ll come back, if they’re having a good time.”
“This is a great example of what citizens can do (by working) with all agencies, telling them that this is what we need. We want clean water, so that we can derive some economic development from it. “
West Virginia has struggled for decades with polluted water left behind by industries. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are both regulatory bodies created to protect the environment. Currey says working with regulatory agencies has helped the cause.
“Instead of being antagonists, become an advocate and supporter of our agencies, like the EPA, the DNR and the Department of Highways.” said Currey. “It’s important for any community team. If you want to get the support you need to put up road signs indicating where boat launches are located, you need to maintain a relationship with the highway department in your area. But similarly, why reinvent the wheel, there is already testing and support available (from DEP).
The second aspect to consider when looking for a calm water trail designation is accessibility to the river. Currey says it’s essential to have clearly marked access points before inviting visitors to the area.
“I have paddlers from North Carolina and New York, Michigan, Ohio coming to our trails, and they’re scared to death of West Virginia,” said Currey. “They’ve heard all the stories and they think there are banjos playing in the background. If you are doing seven miles you are going to put in your launch, the first thing you need to do is get another car down to your take out, so that you have a car to take you back to the first car when you are done. So that’s the critical thing.
“We have to be better than anyone in terms of clarity and showing people where to go and how to get in and where to get out and where to park your car.”
The West Virginia Flatwater Trails Commission was established during the 2020 legislative session in West Virginia and has met four times in 2021.
“We met with the tourism department,” said Currey. “They were surprised at how many water trails we had and how sophisticated they were already. The fact that they didn’t know much about them showed us that we had a lot of work to do in educating people.
Currey says members of the Flatwater Trail Commission are finalizing suggestions for submission to the West Virginia Department of Commerce. Some of the suggestions include managing additional follow-up, promotion and funding.