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You Can Call It a Comeback!
The annual Cheat River Festival (Cheat Fest) kicks off the boating season in West Virginia the first weekend of May. It’s a fundraising event hosted by a local non-profit, Friends of the Cheat. The festival offers a family-fun atmosphere and a plethora of boating opportunities from down-river races to rafting reunions.
The Cheat River is truly a comeback story. The wide river with boulders as big as houses winds through the Allegheny Mountains and coal country of West Virginia. Twenty years ago the lower Cheat River was considered dead. Muddy Creek, a main tributary of the Cheat, was a victim of illegal dumping from mining and ran the color of tomato soup.
This past spring an almost 8-mile stretch of the Cheat River canyon was bought by the Conservation Fund and Nature Conservancy for preservation. Thanks to an unrelenting community and years of dedication, endangered red bats, green salamandersotters and bald eagles have returned to the Cheat River canyon.
I put-on the River mid-morning Friday of Cheat Fest weekend with more nerves than usual. My balance is shaky and my core is sore with each stroke I plant. My husband and our close friends are chatting happily as they eddy-hop down Class II boogie water. Their strength and confidence remind me how I used to feel here. After all, I usually race this section during Cheat Fest weekend so I’m no stranger to the run or its rapids. But, this year I’ve opted out of the competition. Instead, we planned a celebratory first day back on the water float.
Last June I found out I was pregnant. At twelve weeks I learned there was a tumor vying for space with the baby. At nineteen weeks I had a miscarriage. The whole process broke my heart. I distracted myself by focusing on getting rid of the tumor. I tried naturopathic medicine and diet changes but it would not go away or shrink in size. In late March, I underwent a surgery to have the tumor removed and have been recovering ever since.
My physical strength is returning but there is still pain in my heart and my mind is often clouded with doubt. Like the mighty Cheat River I feel like I am slowly returning from a very bad place. The River didn’t transform from dead to healthy overnight and I recognize the slow timeline of healing. Each day getting a little stronger, each week building my confidence back and each moment learning to take life as it comes.
Like the Cheat, it was the passionate support of my community that helped bring me back. My amazing husband who walked every step of the journey with me, my friends and family who reached out and reminded me I wasn’t alone and my employer, Confluence Outdoor, who allowed me the flexibility to grieve and provided strong purpose to get back to work.
We pull off the river above High Falls. We stand on huge boulders by the water’s edge calling out lines and watching as other boaters enter the rapids and shrink out of sight under steep rock canyon walls. We build a fire, tell jokes and laugh about adventures gone wrong. When the racers come through we spray them with super soakers and laugh so hard we cry.