Cheat in springtime

dsc_0110For whitewater enthusiasts, there are plenty of rivers to play on. Predictable rivers with dammed releases, offering familiar rapids that present scripted challenges.
But for purists, those looking for the unexpected thrill of snowmelts mixed with sudden showers, there’s nothing quite like the Cheat in the springtime.
This West Virginia wild river roars to life in late March, builds to a crescendo in April and May, then eases into a mild-mannered float through the summer, unless a flash flood sends it surging again.
“It’s the largest undammed river in the Eastern watershed, which makes it seem a little more pristine, but you also get whatever Mother Nature gives you,” says Paul Hart of Cheat River Outfitters. “Dammed rivers tend to run like McDonalds, they’re all pretty much standard and you can memorize how to do it; but the Cheat has more personality than most other rivers out there. You have to know how to read water or you’ll find yourself in a pickle.”
Which is exactly why Mike Logsdon likes to use the Cheat to teach his students at the nearby Adventuresports Institute at Garrett College.
“There are so many variables it requires you to be attentive,” says Logsdon, a physics professor and rafting instructor. “And there’s the adrenaline rush – you’re not sure if you’re going to get thumped.”
Logsdon, who was inspired to found the Adventuresports program while rafting on the Cheat, says this river in particular teaches students how to manage risk; noting that the river’s first rapid is called Decision.
“It’s the place, on a high water day, that you can make the decision if you really want to do the river or get out and walk back to your car,” says Logsdon. “It’s a key lesson.”
As a natural flow river, the Cheat is rainfall dependent.
“It has a huge drainage of 250 square miles, so it can pick of a lot of water if you get some good thunderstorms,” says Roger Zbel of Precision Rafting.
“When you get rain on top of snow, it’s just mind-boggling,” says Hart. “You can water it rise in front of you, more than inch a minute, so that you can start out in a Pinto and finish in a Ferrari.”
Hart, who “cut his teeth” on the Cheat 14 years ago, likes “the fact that it’s different every time.”
This variable personality makes it harder to make a commercial success of it, but that lack of commercialism is also what makes it so special – you won’t see the “traffic jam” of rafts that you’ll find on more predictable rivers.
“Mid-season on the Cheat, there’s often no one else on the river. You get a wilderness experience that few get,” says Hart.
“Icebreaker” trips start at the end of March, where snow can still be flying as you paddle down the river clad head to toe in neoprene, swaddled in a life vest and protected with a helmet.
“The real hard-core action seeker comes in early April because that’s when the water is the wildest,” says Zbel, adding it’s the first place to get wet for enthusiasts throughout the region. “It keeps you busy and on your toes the whole time.”
For novices, who might appreciate more favorable conditions, May is the high season, followed by summer “when people like to jump in and get wet in the calm water between the rapids.”
“The Cheat is really an extremely beautiful kind of rugged place,” says Zbel. “The Cheat Canyon is one of the last remaining wild canyons in the Eastern U.S. The sides are so steep with 1,000-foot banks that you can see no sign of man at all, just bears and deer and wild turkey and foxes.”

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