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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: Big Coal River Events Bring Pride, Economic Opportunities to Residents

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A child who participated in Kevin's Lazy River Adventure Float.

The Big Coal River flows 40 miles through Boone and Lincoln Counties. John Slack Memorial Park is one of nine river access points on the Big Coal in Boone County. The UMWA hosts an annual rally at the park each year. It’s a hotspot for politicians but that’s not all you’ll find in Racine.

This story is the fourth 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.

John Slack Memorial Park is kind of the place to be in early September. The United Mine Workers of America hosts annual rallies on Labor Day to celebrate the union. Politicians often give fiery speeches during rallies in Racine.

But there are other times that people make their way to the park in Racine. It’s also a place where Mary Ann Browning helps organize events. She’s lived in Boone County for 83 years.

“The southern part of West Virginia has been hard hit because our main jobs are mining,” Browning said. “We do have mines here, they are still working. But we have tried to reinvent ourselves.”

Big Coal River Access Point Steps into Spotlight 

About 15 years ago, Browning and other volunteers got together to use the park for other community events. With easy access to the Big Coal River from the park, they started an annual float trip, in true Boone County style.

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Floaters bring kayaks, jon boats and canoes to the river access ramp at John Slack Memorial Park in Racine, W.Va. during Kevin's Lazy River Adventure Float in 2021.

It’s called Kevin’s Lazy River Adventure, to memorialize the late Kevin Kinder, a well-known Boone County resident who loved the river and passed away in 2002.

Floaters bring kayaks, jon boats and canoes and travel for 10.5 miles on the water.

“We had a ball,” Browning said. “We saw what it was and everybody had a good time and said ‘ya know, we need to start doing this on a regular basis.’”

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Kayakers on the Big Coal River during Kevin's Lazy River Adventure Float.

So they did. The float originally had 50 boats but has swelled to about 800 a year. Organizers formed the Big Coal River Branch Group and got busy to fundraise with sponsors and Bingo events.

And the People Said, “Let them Eat!” 

Organizers can’t let folks leave with an empty stomach. So Browning and other volunteers arrange a meal for participants at the end of the float at Dartmont Park.

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Organizers supply a picnic for floaters after the Kevin's Lazy River Adventure Float, 2021.

“It’s a regular West Virginia hoedown picnic with hotdogs and hamburgers,” Browning said. “This past year we also had ribs and chicken. This past year we had about 1,500 people for that and we fed them all.”

Big Coal River People Know How to Help Big 

The Big Coal River forms from two tributaries; the Clear Fork and Marsh Fork Streams in Whitesville. It flows mostly Northwest until it joins the Coal River around the community of Alum Creek in Lincoln County.

The Big Coal has provided drinking water, a source for baptisms, and social life with a deep connection to coal production in the region. To prepare for Kevin's Lazy River Adventure, residents come together to pick up trash.

Teresa Perdue says jumping in to help is what people in Boone County do.

“All I gotta do is write it on Facebook and here they come. They’re just good people,” Perdue said. “You can just post it on there, ‘Hey I need some help,’ and before you know it people’s commenting, ‘We’ll be there, what time?’ and people show up and off to the river we go.

A lot of the help comes from Perdue’s family and friends. Even children are excited about helping clean up the river before the float.

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Children from the local elementary schools join during regular cleanups along the Big Coal River in Boone County.

“All of these small children had their galoshes on. They were ready to work,” Perdue said. “The gloves were too big for their hands but they went and worked hard.”

Next Generation of Floaters

Perdue says the kids leave their galoshes and oversized gloves at home when they return to take part in Kevin’s Lazy River Float. The atmosphere helps bring them back.

“It’s family oriented. Our river is not really deep in a lot of spots, but it’s just deep enough that the kids can also be on their own kayak and come down the river,” Perdue said. “And it’s just beautiful.”

Sherri Sharps has lived in Boone County for more than 30 years. She can see the Big Coal River from her front porch.

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Children in kayaks on the Big Coal River during Kevin's Lazy River Adventure, 2021.

“When you hear those kids giggling and you will hear music playing,” Sharps said, “because they have these little coolers in the back with the radio on top and they're singing and they’re going down that river and they look up at me and everyone just waves ‘Hi, here I am.’ And to me that’s just an awesome thing.”

Sharp's husband is a retired United Mine Workers of America coal miner. His job supported the family pretty well, until it didn't.

“I worked two jobs when my husband got laid off,” Sharps said. “So when you went from a coal mining paycheck to $160 a week, it was a wake up call.”

Paddlers will find Sharps back on dry land at the John Slack Memorial Park every year on the last Saturday of September. Just two months after the float, Sharps organizes the Big Coal River Heritage Festival. The idea is to host only crafts and art made by West Virginians, to support each other.

“It is income, but it’s also to showcase what they make with pride,” Sharps said. “When I go on vacation, I want something made in that area, and that’s what they come here for.”

The first year in 2011, 20 vendors set up shop at the Big Coal River Heritage Festival. This year, Sharps expects 60 West Virginians will bring their handmade treasures. Lifetime resident, Mary Ann Browning, says the West Virginia vendors are thankful for the opportunity to share their work.

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Big Coal River Heritage Festival at John Slack Park in Racine, W.Va. 2021.

“(The Festival) brings a lot of the Boone County people out who has been doing all of this artwork in their homes and giving it to their children and their grandchildren and we’ve given them an avenue to sell their stuff.”

Making these events happen along the Big Coal River takes a lot of volunteers and time. Sharps says, it’s always something special.

“If you yell, you've got people coming out of the woodwork,” Sharps said. “You don’t find that in the city. It is here. So they need to come here and find out what we’re all about.”

The Big Coal River Heritage Festival is on the last Saturday in September. Kevin’s Lazy River Float on the Big Coal River happens on the last Saturday in July.


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