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The series, West Virginia Water Trails, explores waterways in southern West Virginia. Listen to hear stories from communities coming together, to create new economies - with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

W.Va. Water Trails: How Guyandotte River Access Points United A Community

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Kayakers join the Guyandotte River Regatta in 2014.

There are 26 official West Virginia Water Trails in the state. Earning the status can take years of work. According to the recently formed West Virginia Flatwater Trails Commission, the status comes with a few conditions including ongoing cleanup efforts and clear access points.

In Lincoln County, creating the access points along the Guyandotte River turned out to be much more than a way to get on the river, it was also a way to unite the community.

This story is the third of a series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories from people coming together across southern West Virginia, to create new economies and communities- with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority. 

Finding a Way Onto the Guyandotte

Just behind the West Hamlin fire station is a path to a river. A quick walk down a grassy hill takes boaters to a concrete pad by the Guyandotte. In this region, accessing the river wasn't always this simple. In fact, the concrete on this access point was poured in 2019.

Fire Chief Ron Porter remembers the challenges of getting boats on the Guyandotte before the access point.

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Slide at Branchland Park after repair work.

“That was tough,” Porter said. “You were fighting briars and brambles and slipping and sliding over the riverbank. And to get that back out was doubly difficult. So you had to drag it up over a riverbank and through all the brush and mud.”

Porter and the department often pitch in to help maintain the access point. He says it’s important for water rescue emergencies. He's also noticed more people floating and enjoying the water.

“We have a lot of people enjoying kayaking, especially. In the summertime, it's not unusual to see a dozen or 15 kayaks in our parking lot out here where they've taken out on the river,” Porter said. “They'll park their cars here, go further upstream and put their kayak or canoe or whatever craft they’re using, and paddle, down the river and take out here. [The river] has been utilized a whole lot more now than it ever was.”

Another access point on the guide is at Branchland Park. It was barely noticeable just a few years ago.

“I lived here for years and did not even know that there was a boat dock [at Branchland] because it was just weeds and trees,” Branchland resident Wanda Cremeans said. “You couldn't see the boat dock.”

Wanda lives along the Guyandotte River not far from the park and entry point. She remembers when the work on the Branchland access point began.

“We started cleaning it up and burning the brush,” Cremeans said. “[We] wanted to get kayaking, going again. We had a lot of people, friends, family, a lot of Cremeans’s jump in there and help with everything. So some of those people have already passed on, just like Tony has.”

Tony Cremeans was her husband. He passed away in 2020. He ran an auto repair shop and was an advocate for recreation on the river.

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Wanda and Tony Cremeans at Branchland Park in 2014. Tony Cremeans passed away in 2020.

“He was very community oriented and liked to bring things to Branchland for people to have fun,” she said. “He loved to live life and have fun.”

Wanda, her family and many other volunteers did a lot of work to clean up Branchland Park. Ralph Triplet grew up at Branchland and worked closely with Tony and other volunteers to clean up the park and entry point.

“Everybody's close in the neighborhood but we kind of partnered up and we said we were kind of tired of the ‘Guyan River’ and the Branchland community having a black eye that it had,” Triplett said. “We thought we would try to clean up the riverbank up there at Branchland a little bit.”

Ralph and other volunteers wanted to bring back the Guyandotte River Regatta that he says was big deal in the 1970's.

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Jerry and Randy Lawson at the finish line at the former bridge at West Hamlin of the River Regatta in the 1970's.

Guyandotte River Regatta Returns

Work on a river access point is never really done. Triplet says volunteers pitch in annually to pick up
litter. The community also put up artwork painted by Wanda Cremeans that celebrates the river. They also worked with the Coal Heritage Area Authority to put up signs that clearly marked the access points.

Word got out and people from the region started showing up. There was even a kayak rental and shuttle business that opened. With the revived access point, residents worked to host the Guyandotte River Regatta in 2014. Wanda Cremeans remembers cookouts and a car show to go with it.

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Guyandotte River Regatta put in at Branchland Park in Lincoln County, W.Va. in 2014.

“It was a fellowship,” she said. “It's just like a party, like a community party.”

The community party lasted about all weekend. The event was gaining momentum and helping to bring a few smiles back to the Branchland community.

“Branchland didn't and doesn't get a lot of events,” she said. “So, it was like, ‘Hey, this is so cool.’ Branchland is doing something.”

Organizations and volunteers who wanted to maintain the Guyandotte Water Trail formed the Guyandotte Water Trail Alliance in 2014. With help from volunteers and the Alliance, the Regatta expanded from Branchland in Lincoln County to four other entry points and counties along the Guyandotte River including Wyoming, Mingo, Logan, and Cabell. With the ongoing clean up efforts and clearly marked access points, the Guyandotte River remains a West Virginia Water Trail.

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Guyandotte River Regatta, 2014

“This section of the river parallels Route 10,” Ralph Triplett. “You can see the river, the entire course. And there's various pull offs, people can see it and watch or dance and I think we have a lot of potential for growth on what we have here.”

Because of the COVID 19 pandemic, the Regatta has been canceled the past two years. Plans are underway to bring it back this year. Chief Ron Porter hopes another regatta reignites the momentum and community pride he saw in his hometown before the pandemic.

“We really need jobs and we need the businesses and the opportunity to have more services available,” Porter said. “If tourism, if it can in some way play a role in that, that will be fun. That would be great.”

There's a lot of work ahead of the community, lots of organizing, fundraising, and even more cleanup along the river. Ralph Triplet says finding a new generation to help will be critical to the success.

“We're definitely looking for new blood,” Triplet said “A lot of us are, further down the highway, any kind of support that we could get. I hope this works out well for the whole river. So yeah it's a good undertaking.”

Triplet says work is underway to register the Guyandotte Water Trail Alliance as a 501 c3. There's another access point on the Guyandotte just outside of West Hamlin called Salt Rock. This site has been closed for a few years.

Other organizers met in 2020 with state officials with plans to create a new access point in Ranger.

Corrected: March 2, 2022 at 1:25 PM EST
A previous version included information about a Flatwater Trail designation. The story has been updated to correctly reflect the official West Virginia Water Trail designation information.
Southern W.Va. Bureau Chief, Reporter/Producer, jlilly@wvpublic.org, 304-384-5981, @JessicaYLilly

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