CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lovely recreation jewel is available free to the Charleston region's quarter-million people, but few of them notice it.
The tranquil Elk River is clean and clear, shady and scenic -- a perfect place for canoes, kayaks, rubber rafts, johnboats, inner tubes, paddleboats or anything that floats, as they used to say at the Sternwheel Regatta.
The only thing missing is easy public access. If more user-friendly roadside pull-offs enabled launching of lightweight craft, the Elk could be a summer playground for fishing and swim parties. How about one at Coonskin Park, the Elk Valley's best retreat?
Coonskin already has a canoe-sliding chute, but it's neglected and covered by flood silt. Across the river, the state Division of Natural Resources maintains a better chute beside U.S. 119 at Mink Shoals. But the river needs more water-edge parking and public piers for families and kids. Could Coonskin install a community river-access facility?
Thousands of Charleston-area folks have small boats. They just need handy places to use them.
On Memorial Day, my son Jake took me river-running in his swivel-seated pontoon boat with an electric trolling motor. We left my car at the somewhat primitive Slack Street boat ramp just past the recycling center. Then we took his boat in his pickup to an even more primitive access lane off Rena Mae Drive above the Big Chimney bridge.
The Elk was beautiful, so clear we could see every pebble on the bottom. Arching sycamores made a shade canopy over half the river. Sunlit trees on the other side cast sparkling reflections. Clusters of vines hung from trees like long chandeliers. Geese and ducks were everywhere.
Various riffles, such as at Mink Shoals, provided safe thrills (minor, compared to whitewater hurtling in the mountains). Fishing with plastic "wacky worms," Jake caught and released a dozen bass as we meandered downstream, steering around islands. Although houses and roads fill Elk Valley behind riverbank trees, we were unaware, lost in nature.
About a mile below Coonskin Park, riffles cease and the Elk is full of powerboats. Water recreation is different from that point downstream. (In that section, Jake's battery died and we paddled to the Slack Street ramp.)
The Elk is a remarkable river. At 172 miles, it's the longest solely within West Virginia. It begins where two creeks merge at Slatyfork, Pocahontas County. After a few miles, it disappears underground into limestone caverns for more than five miles in a section called "The Dries." Then it resurfaces and flows through Randolph, Webster, Braxton, Clay and Kanawha counties. It passes Webster Springs, Sutton (where a large dam turns it into Sutton Lake), Gassaway, Clay, Clendenin and Elkview, before entering the Kanawha at Charleston. Major branches are Holly and Birch rivers, which join it in Braxton.
Far upstream, various outfitters serve boating and fishing along the Elk, but there's little organized usage near Charleston, the state's population hub. The exquisite Elk is too attractive to neglect. It's a shame to waste much of its potential for the state capital. Public planners should create more easy access points and let Elk River blossom into another recreation treasure for the Charleston region.
Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or email at hau...@wvgazette.com.