High Water: The 2016 Cheat Festival Down River Race


Some people shy away from the rain. And still more have no desire to spend an afternoon standing next to a swollen river--let alone a desire to slip into that river in a small craft to pit themselves against the force of the water. This isn't to say that one group is more admirable than the next, no. It's just a matter of how we each get our kicks.

And so, last Friday, I stood next to a muddied Cheat River in a light, intermittent rain and waited...

In the week previous the area upriver from where we stood had seen close to three inches of rain, and the river at our feet showed it. Saplings, some I'm guessing usually stood three or four feet above the rocky bank, were barely grasping air as the darkened water tossed them. Overhead, swallows wheeled and dove, black against the clouded sky. It was easy to just watch them cut about and forget I was here to photograph paddlers of various stripes as they ran through this turbulent section of the river known as the Wind Rapids.

A group next to me said it was a matter of logistics, this waiting. Because of the high water, the race had been moved miles upriver from its usual venue within the confines of Cheat Canyon. Hence the delay while the racers were wrangled at the new put-in upstream and eventually sent off in a mass start.

We stood along the banks of a stretch of the Cheat called the Narrows: a less strenuous piece of water than the Canyon, but one that still offers its fair share of class II and III rapids. The Wind Rapids, in particular, are rated class III--"rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe."

Scenes like this one swamp me lately. The young, vibrant green of the trees. The clouds that lid the valley like a muffled terrarium. The realization that I am here, in a often belittled part of the world, and yet I am seeing a moment that is wholly unique and celebratory and simple. For years I've tried to tell myself that I need to leave Appalachia. And I have had multiple opportunities to do so. Yet still, here I am--with this moment, and its good kind of contentment.

Here I can learn. Here I can create. Here I can find what I need to find.

As the time neared, traffic picked up behind us on Rt. 72, and more people made their way down the the slick, gravely slope to find a perch to watch the racers from. Coozied beers were had by a few. A man beside me told two kids about the hard stretch of rapids that tossed him overboard that day. Plastic baggies of gorp were passed around, and every so often someone would take a phone out to video the ever-rushing water...

Annie Dillard said, "how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing." Maybe that is the point here--for our own reasons this riverbank is where we chose to be. This is what suited us in one way or another.

Each little group had their boulders and tree trunks to sit or stand on. They each had their friends they expected to see running the rapids. Or they simply saw fit to spend their Friday evening observing and photographing strangers do a thing they enjoy...

I want to know what brought them here, this crowd. I look back, now, and feel that I should have gone and spoke to them all. But it's fine, I guess, that I couldn't bring myself to. That's another essay in itself.

So together, and alone, we waited. It started to sprinkle rain. Umbrellas went up and jackets were held overhead. The rain stopped again. The swallows were still above us.

And we urged on the paddlers as they came around the bend to meet the rapids.


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