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Cheat River Outfitters Celebrates its 50th year

Frank Jernejcic, VP of UMRA, and retired from WV Division of Natural Resources comments: I started paddling the Cheat Canyon in 1971 during the infancy of the whitewater industry in WV and have paddled it about 30 tiimes in a kayak.  Albright became  a popular destination for commercial whitewater trips in the late 70’s when DNR started regulating the industry statewide.  I wrote the original regulations for the industry since I was the only person in DNR who was a whitewater paddler and also a raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers.  There were 20-30 outfitters at the time and all competing for an allotment of the maximum number of passengers we thought we should allow on each of the 3 rivers on a single day.  The Cheat season was mainly during March to May before outfitters then concentrated on the New River and moved their operations south.  Reliable water levels and weather conditions eventually favored the New River over the Cheat for the commercial business model.

I flew over the Canyon in a helicopter 12 years ago to photograph and map any possible shoreline fishing access sites when DNR developed the Cheat Wildlife Management Area.  I kayaked it for the last time three years ago at extremely low water (165 cfs).  It was the toughest thing I had done in ten years and I was incapacitated for a week.  That was my paddling swan song.  What memories!

Cheat River Outfitters celebrates its 50th year We d n e s d ay. It is the only one left out of 19 outfitter businesses that used to be in Preston County. It also survived the flood of 1985. Daniel Kozmo said the business came into being while he and his friends were seniors in high school. The group started a Wilderness Club and decided to help Eric Neilson kick off his new bu s i n e s s. “He (Neilson) got a school bus from the school and convinced the school officials to let us go whitewatering in Albright. He made it sound like he had been doing this (white watering) for a wh i l e. ” Kozmo said. “When we got to Albright, it was pouring rain, so we camped at Teeter’s Campground.” In the 70s, it was called Sines Campground and was run by Earl Sines and his wife. “The river was high, so we thought it would be too dangerous to go down the canyon so we went down the narrows,” Kozmo said. “We found out we were the first people to take the Cheat River Outfitters commercial trip down the river.” Neilson said he talked his idea over with his father before starting the business. “I went to Dad and said, ‘I can do t h i s. ’ He said, ‘go for it.’ I was a whitewater racer. I worked my way up and I was racing on the Savage River in Bloomington,” Neilson said. “I was in the nationals in 1975 when I started the business. I run the Cheat a few times. I showed up in May 1975 with a 1970 milk truck that was painted over and a few boats. I started the business with the support of the Mt. Hebron High S ch o o l ” Neilson said starting a business and making it succeed requires a lot of work. “I spent the first five years working in construction to sustain the business. By 1980, it leveled out. Then in 1985, we just bought our first new vehicle and a 50-by-50-foot building. The river took it out like it was cardboard. We went into debt a quarter to a half million dollars to rebuild. My wife and I watched our buses go into the river one by one.” After 25 years, Neilson said both he and his wife decided it was time to retire. “The business required a tremendous amount of work. You deal with the raising river levels and have to make most of your money in April, May and June. After 25 years my wife Peggy wanted to get out of it and so did I,” Neilson said. “It takes a lot of planning. If you’re not dealing with the river you’re dealing with the back out Bull Run Road.” Current owners Paul and Wendy Hart said guests come from places like Washington, D.C., Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. “The canyon is the adventure trip. It’s 13 miles long and the only way to see it is from a boat,” she said, “The endangered threetoothed snail makes its home in the canyon.” Wendy said in contrast, the narrows is a nice introductory or family trip. She said it’s shorter and the trips can include a rock jump and a swim spot. “The narrows aren’t overly crowded, but you do occasionally see a kayak. There is a chance to see eagles, osprey, deer, an occasional bear, fish and hellbend e r s, ” Wendy said. The hellbender salamander is the largest aquatic salamander in North America. She said her husband worked for Neilson prior to them deciding to buy the business. “I was finishing up my degree in recreation management, and Paul had worked for Eric in the early 90s as a guide,” she said. “Paul told me Eric had been talking about selling Cheat River Outfitters, so I asked him if he thought Eric was serious.” Wendy said she and her husband packed up all of their belongings in a U-haul and went to Albright to sign the papers. “We raised three children here and have met thousands of incredible guests,” she said. Cheat River Outfitters is at 2764 N. Preston Highway, Albright. Call 304-329-2024 or text 304-698-6371. for more inform at i o n . Cheat River Outfitters celebrates 50 years in business,

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