The following article is a paid collaboration with Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.
The 162-mile long Cheat River is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the eastern United States, forming high up in the Allegheny Mountains of northern West Virginia. It flows north through wide, verdant valleys before rumbling and tumbling down a rugged canyon on its way to meet the Monongahela River.
Grab a paddle, and you can explore the the flatwater of the Upper Cheat Water Trail, the forgiving rapids of the Cheat Narrows and the expert-level whitewater of the Cheat Canyon.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Cheat is to understand the community of river riders who live and play in its 1,422-square mile watershed. One common thread connecting these folks is Friends of the Cheat (FOC), a watershed-advocacy nonprofit. FOC’s founding members wanted to give back to the river that had given them so much.
The crew aims to keep the Cheat waterway healthy, so it can support a diverse ecosystem, and more of the recreation they love.
The woman at the helm of the organization is Amanda Pitzer, FOC’s energetic executive director. With a dark tan and bright blue eyes, she seems to have a permanent wide smile when she’s near the river.
Originally from Erie, Pa., Pitzer first got involved with FOC as a volunteer in 2006. In 2010, at just 29 years old, Pitzer beat out 66 other applicants to become executive director. In the six years since, she’s been highly effective in that role.
As nonprofit managers often do, Pitzer wears many hats— she’s responsible for managing FOC’s full-time staff of seven, handling financial oversight and audits, and working alongside volunteer committees that handle the organization’s recreational pursuits.
"I don’t have a single focus," Amanda said. “That’s what makes the job challenging.”
In the last few years, she’s helped the FOC focus on recreation and river access.
"FOC wasn’t always focused on recreation," Amanda said. “Building a solid recreation industry here goes beyond water quality.”
Under Pitzer’s direction, FOC designated the Upper Cheat as a Water Trail in 2014, and now nine river access points make it easy for paddlers to access the flatwater run. That same year, the organization was also instrumental in the designation of the 3,800-square mile Cheat Canyon Wildlife Management Area, officially preserving the seven-mile stretch of whitewater.
FOC is most known for the Cheat River Festival, an annual event the first weekend in May, where river paddlers and music lovers unite to celebrate on the bank of the river at the Cheat Fest Grounds in the sleepy town of Albright.
"Cheat Fest is a unique event in that it’s for locals, paddlers, music lovers and just people who love the Cheat," Amanda said. “It means a lot for the local community. I think it makes people feel good about where they live; it’s a happy day.”
2016 marked the 22nd whitewater celebration, with a stout music lineup and prime weather drawing the biggest crowd in the festival’s history.
Although early May in Preston County tends to be damp and chilly, the festival is scheduled during the Cheat’s wild spring flows. A highlight is the downriver kayak race, dubbed the Massacre-ence, which starts under a defunct railroad trestle just upstream of the festival grounds and runs the seven-mile length of the class IV-V canyon.
"If we want to hand this river to the next generation, we have to get people involved and get them to care about the river," Amanda said. She’d like to see the resurrection of the Cheat’s commercial rafting industry and more private boaters.
"I think with the rail trail coming along, and through offering a broader menu of things to do, the Cheat can continue becoming West Virginia’s playground."
When asked about the future of recreation in the Cheat watershed, Amanda got an excited and hopeful tone. She hopes to increase recreation by bolstering river access points, adding new and improving existing facilities, and increasing FOC’s engagement in recreational events.
"I think we’ll see more people out on the river," she said. “There is something special about being in the remote areas of the Canyon; you really think ‘this place is for me.’ ”
Learn more about exploring the Cheat River.
Originally written for West Virginia .