CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – A rainbow of kayaks is located in Jeff Petry's courtyard, with its neon colors unmissable while driving along a narrow, winding road in Ashford.
Last year, Petry, a full-time project manager at an engineering company, invested his own money in dozens of kayaks and launched a rental business from his home in Boone County.
It transports kayakers to the ports of entry along the shallow river, sometimes more than 10 miles away from home.
More and more people are coming to the hometown of Petry to practice kayaking and fishing in the Big Coal River, and he is happy to show the quiet creeks and the virgin land in the old mining town.
"I like to see people happy," he said. "And if they can have a good time in my backyard, that's even better."
Petry's business, Big Coal River Outpost, is one of two kayak rental businesses that opened last year in Boone County.
The businesses, operated by local residents, follow a growing interest in water tourism in southern West Virginia, and signal the hope of other economies due to the decline in coal.
"I think this is one of our lifelines," Petry said. "Everyone is hanging their hats in Hobet (Mining in nearby Madison), but we have a river here that is already clean. We have plenty of room for expansion."
In May, Dain and Brenda Bender opened Little Coal River Camping & Kayaking in Julian, about 20 minutes from Southridge Mall in South Charleston.
Together with the kayak rental and a shuttle service to Madison and Danville, the business offers a handful of campsites for mobile homes and mobile homes. A food stand serves hot dogs, snacks and other items.
The couple owns multiple businesses in Boone County, including a construction business and a pawn shop.
Brenda Bender said that, last year, she noticed an increase in customers coming to her pawn shop to buy kayaks. Her husband saw the interest as a business opportunity.
The business has been "play and go," said Brenda Bender. The couple has hired some people to work at the food stand and the transportation service.
"I hope it takes off," he said. "Hopefully, as it grows, we can hire more people."
The growing interest in kayaking in southern West Virginia can, for many reasons, be attributed to Bill Currey.
In 2004, Currey co-founded the Coal River Group, a nonprofit organization in Tornado, which sought to promote tourism in the three Coal, the Great, Small and Main rivers, in four counties: Boone, Kanawha, Lincoln and Raleigh.
"The history of this area is intertwined with fun on the river," he said.
The Carbon River was labeled "the dirtiest river in the country" in 2002 after a report by the American River Association.
Currey, who has rowed in the river since he was a child, took it as a challenge to clean the water in his backyard.
The Coal River Group worked on cleaning the rivers, mostly turbines with soot from the construction of the Corridor G, Currey said, and the volunteers dumped the garbage from the garbage trucks.
A few years later, the group created the Walhonde water trail of Coal River, the first mapped water trail in West Virginia. It covers 88 miles from Whitesville to St. Albans.
The group also rents kayaks outside its Tornado headquarters, where summer interns receive college credits and cash tips for their water tourism promotion work.
Currey's passion project now brings thousands of visitors and income to small towns and waters in southern West Virginia.
"We take away the fear of southern West Virginia from tourists who had never been before," he said.
& # 39; A different picture & # 39;
In June, almost 2,000 people participated in the Coal River Group Coal Tour, one of the largest day-paddle events in the country. The 11-mile annual flotation trip runs from Tornado to St. Albans.
And Kevin & # 39; s Lazy River Adventure, a one-day event that began 13 years ago as a memorial, brought more than 1,000 people to Boone County for a 10 1/2 mile float down the Big Coal River in July.
Petry benefited from the event, renting its share of kayaks to the participants.
"It brings money, and brings millennials and makes them want to stay," Currey said. "It presents a different image of what they have seen."
The promotion of water tourism by Currey has extended beyond the Coal rivers, and many people who try to grow businesses classified as rivers cite it as an influence and guide.
Pete Runyon, who is working to develop water tourism on the Tug Fork River in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, said Currey approached to help him.
"It has taught me a lot," Runyon said.
The Tug Fork River, Runyon said, was once a garbage dump and darkened with coal mud. Mine closures over time have helped eliminate water, and external groups have cleaned the water.
"Fishing is tremendous," he said. "We stand out for our small mouth bass, especially."
Several years ago, Runyon approached Matewan leaders to turn the city into a kayak destination.
He detailed a series of businesses, including a camp and kayak rental business, which opened in Matewan and Williamson. The Fish Trap, which will open soon in Matewan, will sell live bait, fishing equipment and fishing and hunting licenses from West Virginia.
"It's already generating jobs for people," Runyon said.
There is also Hatfield and McCoy Airboat Tours, which offers one-hour trips from Matewan.
Runyon operates a Facebook page, "Friends of the Tug Fork River", with more than 6,200 followers who regularly share photos of fishing, rowing and having fun on the river.
"We have people from all over the country who come kayaking on the Facebook page," he said. "This is a regular vacation area, if we can work on it."
& # 39; I want to see the change & # 39;
James Frye, just out of college, is working with communities throughout southern West Virginia to coordinate clean-up and boost tourism on the Guyandotte River.
He is a consultant for interpretive trails through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, and the position allows him to focus solely on promoting growth in multiple counties that span the river.
He recently directed a cleanup near Branchland in Lincoln County.
"We took 120 tires out of the river on a 2-mile stretch. There was scrap, a water heater and kitchen parts," said Frye. "The idea is to make it as clean as possible, and that is a continuous process."
Water tourism in Guyandotte could be an additional revenue stream for counties, including Wyoming, where tourism has received a recent boost from Hatfield-McCoy ATV trails.
"The communities are making great effort and energy," said Frye. "It's hard to find resources to help perpetuate growth."
In Boone County, despite the massive success of events such as Kevin's Lazy River Adventure, the decline in finances makes it difficult to count on local government support.
Boone, in an effort to compensate for a multimillion dollar budget deficit due in large part to the decline in coal, recently proposed eliminating lights and maintenance in county-owned parks. The list of parks includes Dartmont Park, where the river adventure ends.
Currey noted Boone's financial difficulties, and then emphasized: "(Leaders) must support boat launches (that) bring people to spend money. They will not want to reduce something with what they are earning."
Petry has seen his business come and go since it was launched last year. But he said he dreams of a day when the kayak rental business could be his main source of income and a source of work for his community.
"I just want to see a change," he said. "You hear all the horror stories of Boone County and everything bad. Then, you go out and there are people having a good time."