CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Have a hankering to learn how to kayak or canoe on a stream that doesn't require a half-day's drive to reach?
The Coal River Group has a trip for you -- actually, two trips a month late spring through early fall.
You don't have to be a CRG member or even a boat owner to take part in the free bi-monthly float trips, each of which cover a section of the 100-mile Coal River/Walhonde Water Trail.
"Every year, we cover the entire watershed, including all sections of the water trail," said Tim Ligon, who has been leading the CRG-sponsored trips for the past five years.
Those taking part in the float trips run the skill-level gamut, from rank beginners to seasoned paddlers. While many participants are CRG members who enjoy the companionship of fellow paddlers and the relative ease of car pooling and shared shuttle duties, others are novice kayakers and canoeists anxious to learn the sport on a stream where riffles far outnumber rapids.
"A lot of people know the basics of paddling, but don't know where to go on the Coal River, or how to organize a shuttle," Ligon said. "These trips help them learn those things. For people who have never paddled but want to try it, I've got extra boats to let them use. The idea is to get more people out there on the river."
The Coal River Group's philosophy is that the more people who see firsthand what the Coal River system has to offer, the more inclined they will be to support efforts to restore and preserve it.
The entire Coal River/Walhonde Water Trail is suitable for novice paddlers.
"There are just isolated pieces of whitewater that can potentially cause problems," said Ligon. "There are only two or three places where I worry about beginners getting through, but I'll make sure they have the right line before they start through, and I'll have safety spotters keeping an eye on them as they go."
The stretch of the Coal River system that provides paddlers the most wilderness-like feel, Ligon said, can be found in two sections of the water trail on the Big Coal River between John Slack Park in Racine to Darmount Park between Ashford and Emmons and on to a takeout at Briar Creek near Brounland.
"There's either no road, or at least, no good road, following the river along that stretch, which is about 18 miles long," he said. "On the Little Coal, the section from McCorkle to the Forks of Coal gets away from the roads, too."
Among kayakers and canoeists taking part in their first CRG float trip last Sunday was Mark Scouler of South Charleston, who joined a couple of friends to spend a few hours on the river.
"It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon," said Scouler, who used the occasion to try out a new kayak and sample a new stretch of paddling water. "It was a pretty easy float with an enjoyable group of people. I'll try it again, sometime."
In March, Ligon and Jeff Petry paddled the entire 100-mile length of the water trail on the Big Coal, Little Coal and Coal rivers in three days, setting an unofficial speed record.