The Cheat River Festival, Friends of the Cheat’s annual kick-off to summer, was started by paddlers and river stewards to raise money to restore the Cheat River’s waters polluted from a century of coal mining. It’s now a celebration of two and a half decades of successful clean up efforts, essentially a family reunion, and importantly, a fundraiser supporting continued stewardship. 

As you know, this year was different. The 26th annual Cheat River Festival, as a part of a world-wide community response to COVID19, was cancelled in the name of public health and safety. Cheat Fest is our largest fundraiser which contributes to the annual operating budget of FOC and we, along with so many, didn’t know how this loss might impact our financial stability. However, in the days after this difficult and unexpected decision, our community showed their unwavering support and continued to buy pre-sale tickets even though the festival was no longer happening. And, as the new world reality settled in, many folks reached out with ideas about how the community could still celebrate pieces of the festival from afar. The 26th Cheat Fest went virtual.

Virtual Cheat Fest was our week-long homage to the Cheat River Festival — and our goal was to share as much Cheat Fest magic as possible.  Many aspects of the fest were transformed, the music, educational presentations, the 5K, silent auction, and even some fun for the kids – with hopes of sparking joy and a sense of connection within the extended Cheat River Family. 

In so many ways, the virtual festival was a true, if not a little bit unexpected, success. In terms of fundraising, the silent auction, raffle, ticket sales and t-shirt sales all exceeded our expectations. Through the membership drive, we welcomed 24 new and 31 renewing memberships, and had as many as 2,700 folks engage on “Festival Friday” through social media. There were over 60 runners in the Virtual 5K, many sharing heartening and funny reflections about their run. We would like to share a big congratulations to Lowell Cerbone for winning the race! A true Cheat local; nice job Lowell! Almost all of the musicians scheduled to play the festival shared recorded sets from their homes, and dozens of song shares were sent in from the community. For a party where no one gathered, we definitely felt a sense of togetherness! 

As with every Cheat Fest, it happened because of the collective effort of FOC staff and the generous and committed volunteers from the watershed community. In particular, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Adam Payne for organizing the bands and managing the live streaming aspects of the festival, Lisa Maraffa for organizing the silent auction, Joel Wolpert for creating and sharing his mini-film “Deep Breaths”, and Allen Davis for adapting his emcee prowess to the virtual world so beautifully. A huge thank you to the musicians who recorded their sets from home, to the festival and race sponsors, all of whom stayed on board after cancelling, to the folks who created Ed Eddy videos, to those at home who recorded themselves playing songs, and to those who contributed to the silent auction. In addition to the people who helped to create the festival was the incredible Cheat River community. A big thanks to everyone who donated, became members, ran the 5K, and who watched from home and carried on the Cheat Fest spirit! What a heartening display of Cheat River love. Especially in difficult times like these, showing up for each other in whatever way we can is incredibly important, and Friends of the Cheat is honored to have such a supportive community. 

We’d like to invite anyone who didn’t participate to explore the virtual content which is all free and accessible through the website Learn about fishing on the Cheat in Garrett Richardson’s Ed Eddy talk, enjoy Joel Wolperts mini-movie Deep Breaths, and for those with extra time, tune in to the full seven and a half hour livestream of Saturday’s music on the Cheat River Festival Youtube channel. 

There are still opportunities to donate to support Friends of the Cheat, all of which are accessible through our online store. There is a donation-based raffle for a custom Friends of the Cheat and river themed fire pit. Folks can donate $5 for one chance or $20 for 5 chances to win, and a winner will be announced on Tuesday, May 26th. This year’s festival t-shirts, which feature John Victor’s beautiful artwork, are also still available for pre-order through Memorial Day. The t-shirt printing company, SustainU, has recently reopened and is ready to safely print shirts. Once shirts have been printed, FOC will coordinate pick-up and delivery with buyers.  Finally, FOC always invites folks to show their sustained support and become members! 

One more big thank you to the festival sponsors. Without them, cancelling the in-person festival would have had a much larger financial impact on Friends of the Cheat. Their support, through rain, shine, and pandemic is truly valued and appreciated. Thank you to Caddell Mountain Ranch, Don & Susan Sauter, Highland Outdoors, Bliss Bliss Bliss, Green Rivers & all of our 5K and Down River Race Sponsors: PCPaRC, Mundell Financial Group, Heather’s Original Philly Cheesesteaks, Chrissy Zeltner & Haven of Healing Arts, Padlz Canoe & Kayak Rental, Dan Dascani & Morris Knowles & Associates, Darren Burton, and Blackwater Outdoor Adventures.