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Coal River Group's birth, growth recounted

Chris Dorst
Paddlers on a Coal River Group outing last May ride the mild water of the Little Coal River on a leisurely excursion from Julian to Water Ways waterpark in Boone County.

ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- Bill Currey is a former corporate director of public affairs for FMC Corp. and American Electric Power, who later formed his own public relations firm with a client list heavy on chemical companies and coal operators.

How did he become the co-founder of one of West Virginia's most successful watershed restoration groups?

It all started with a long, strange 2003 trip down the length of the Coal River system with the late Bill Queen, a retired phone company marketing manager and powerboat enthusiast who graduated from St. Albans High School a few years ahead of Currey. The first leg of the voyage was made in a 14-foot aluminum johnboat Queen had salvaged from a Kanawha River mud bank, and equipped with oars fashioned from plywood slabs and PVC pipe.

While sightings of household trash from upstream flooding littering banks and hanging from trees were not rare, Currey and Queen discovered that for the most part, the river was more scenic, natural and fishable than expected. They told their friends at the old River's Edge Café in St. Albans about their explorations, and invited them to take part in upcoming floats.

During the next few years, Currey, Queen and a core group of St. Albans-based paddlers began exploring the Coal River system, learning about the river's history while they improved their river running skills. They became convinced that the river was worthy of promotion as a scenic waterway for kayakers and canoeists, and worth protecting and improving as a sport fishery and series of swimming holes.

In 2004, they founded the Coal River Group, which went on to create the Walhonde-Coal River Water Trail, sponsor the annual Tour de Coal waterborne fundraiser, and channel hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stream restoration work into the river system.

The CRG also built an eight-acre lake from a mud flat at Meadowood Park, took on the management of 200 acres of land in conservation easements along the watershed, built or improved a number of river access points, and built a science and education building and outfitted it with solar and hydropower generating gear.

Currey details the life and times of the organization of volunteers that twice won the state's Watershed of the Year award in "Coal River Rising," available in soft cover or via iPad through Amazon.com. Copies may also be ordered by emailing Currey at bike1@suddenlink.net.

"The Coal Rivers, during the 80s and 90s, had such a bad reputation that only a fool would consider fishing, let alone swimming in them," Currey wrote.

When the CRG first began promoting the Coal River system as a water trail, Currey recalled meeting with a business owner to ask him to display trail guides. "Where's the river?" he asked, not realizing that it flowed directly in front of his store.

"Today, he sells live bait, fishing tackle, displays the trail brochures prominently, and offers advice on fishing conditions," Currey wrote. "We measure progress by small wins."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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