“Staza” does the navigating, and he follows the lead as this “man-and-his-dog” partnership float their way down Big Wheeling Creek.
“Water recreation is definitely an asset we have here in the Wheeling area, and that’s not to mention that the Division of Natural Resources does stock Big Wheeling Creek with tons of trout, and you can fish from the kayak, or you can go up on the shore and fish from there,” insisted Jesse Mestrovic, the director of park and strategic planning for the city of Wheeling. “I think it’s easy to see what areas would be great for fishing, and when I went kayaking last weekend, I saw fishermen everywhere along the creek.
“I also saw two or three different groups of kayakers, so I believe the word is getting out there,” he said. “And on April 22 there will be hundreds of folks kayaking on Big Wheeling Creek because a local group from Benwood is having their annual float that day, and they have a lot of fun. They don’t go the whole way to Wheeling, but it’s an event that started with only a few people and has grown a lot in the past six years.”
And that means the popularity of canoeing and kayaking on local waterways, including the Ohio River, is increasing in the Wheeling area. It was a tough sale not too long ago, however, when Mountain Mama’s was open on the corner of 14th and Main streets in downtown Wheeling. The business was popular, but not to the masses, and it closed a few years ago.
“I’m not sure why this has not been popular on Big Wheeling Creek for a long time, but the popularity is picking up; that’s for sure, “Mestrovic said. “I also believe that if better signage is put up, that would help. I am working on identifying the best places to get into the creek and to get out, and I would like to see the signage because it will end up promoting that activity.
“It is a growing sport, too, because it’s really an inexpensive activity. Once you buy the kayak, the paddle, and the life jackets, then there are no more costs other than what supplies you choose for your trips,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that, and that’s why I think the city should do what it can to promote it so more people can get involved.”
Signs reading, “Wheeling Water Trail,” are in place at this time near the Patterson Athletic Complex in Elm Grove, near the confluence of Middle Creek and Big Wheeling Creek near the Monument Bridge, and also along the shoreline behind the baseball and hockey complex at Tunnel Green. Mestrovic has been working with the DNR to improve more access points within the city and also at locations in Ohio and Marshall counties.
“If people can be confident in safe places to get into the water and get out when their trip is complete, then I believe we’ll see more people on the creek,” he said. “Since it’s not been that popular in the past, most people don’t know where to go and how to be prepared. I’m working to improve that because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great way for me to get outside and enjoy being in the outdoors.
“There are areas along Big Wheeling Creek that remind me of being in southern West Virginia because of how beautiful it is,” Mestrovic reported. “I just want more people to experience that, and once they do, I think they will be on the creek more often.”
He owns two kayaks, one for the rapids of New River Gorge and a “flat” model that is more suitable for Big Wheeling Creek.
Kayaks come in a plethora of different colors, and there are models that allow for sitting on top of the craft or in a cockpit.
“The ones I have allow me to sit on top of the kayak, and I like that better because then I get stick my legs in the water to cool off on those rally hot days,” Mestrovic said. “But the cockpit style is much more popular because of the feeling of control, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“People should be sure they are comfortable. That’s what it’s all about,” he continued. “And there are kayaks out there that even come with a holder for your fishing pole, so it’s all about what someone wants to do while they are floating.”
But from where?
“When I go kayaking, where I begin and where my float ends really depends on the water level,” Mestrovic explained. “If the level is pretty good, I really like to start near Viola because it’s one of the best locations to put-in. And then, once you’re on the creek, you have plenty of choices as far as how long you want to be on the water.
“Some people go down to where the old Electric Flag Bar used to be, but a lot of people decide to go even further,” he said. “There are great locations to end your trip near the Patterson ballfield, on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit, near Kroger’s on Mount de Chantal Road, or at Tunnel Green before you get too close to the mouth of the Ohio River.”
The creek’s depth, as far as Mestrovic is concerned, is what determines his course most times when he is preparing his trips in the Wheeling area and elsewhere.
“If the depth of the creek isn’t that high, then we like to do the Wheeling section,” he explained. “We’ll put-in at Patterson and go to either Kroger’s or Tunnel Green, and that’s a very nice ride, as well. It really depends on how long you want your trip to be.
“If you start out near Viola and travel all the way to, say, Kroger’s, you’re going to be on the water for a few hours unless you’re really paddling for a good workout, but if you are just enjoying the views while you float, then you’ll spend a few hours,” Mestrovic continued. “There have been times when we have started around 11 a.m., and if we go all the way into the city, we’re traveling until the mid-afternoon unless we stop along the way.”
On occasion, he and his friends do have to carry their kayaks along the creek’s shoreline because of the water depth, but Mestrovic often is able to avoid those situations thanks to online monitoring.
“There are ways you can check the water levels other than with the naked eye,” he said. “A very good indicator is the meter that the U.S. Geological Survey Commission has in the Elm Grove area of Big Wheeling Creek, and that can be checked online.
“If that meter says that Big Wheeling Creek is close to two feet deep in the area of Bridge Street Middle School, it’s definitely going to be floatable for most of your trip,” he explained. “And I can tell you that I usually cap it at three feet deep for recreation because it does get very swift and because the new bridge that was opened recently is pretty low when it comes to kayakers and canoes getting under it when the water is that high.”
Safety a Must
It’s a state law.
Anyone choosing to float on a West Virginia waterway must possess a life jacket. The individual doesn’t have to wear it, but the preserver must be present when the individual is checked by a DNR officer.
“And it doesn’t matter if you are only on a tube; you still have to have a life jacket with you,” Mestrovic reported. “While the law does not mandate that you wear the life jacket, but I would recommend it because there are sections of Big Wheeling Creek that are usually pretty deep, even when the water level is low. That’s because of past construction of railroad abutments, and interstate, and things like that.
“And, if you are going to canoe or kayak or even fish in the creek, I would recommend not going barefoot. You really should wear water shoes or an older pair of tennis shoes because the bottom of the creek can be slick and some of the rocks do have some sharp edges,” he said. “You also want to take water and definitely sunscreen and ChapStick. And, if you think you’ll want a snack or something, taking that is always a pretty good idea.”
Mestrovic warns of one area of Big Wheeling Creek that all floaters need to recognize. A remnant of a former Elm Grove business, he said, supplies a big surprise for those unaware of an old dam along the waterway.
“It’s right behind Wintersville Cut Flowers, the building that most people know was a Norteman’s Meat Packing for a lot of years,” he said. “In that area, you want to stay to your right while you are floating down, but if you are little nervous about that, you can take your kayak out of the creek and walk it past that area.
“And the largest rapid we have in Big Wheeling Creek is behind Dairy Queen in Elm Grove, so if you can handle that, you can handle any stretch of that creek,” he said. “There are areas that are deeper than other areas so, unless you can see the creek bed or you are near the shore, it’s best to stay seated and just keep on floating.”
While the current of Big Wheeling Creek will push along a floater for most of the trip, Mestrovic explained that kayaking or canoeing can be utilized as exercise.
“Honestly, you can put into it what you want,” he said. “But if you just want to relax and steer a little, you’ll have the water flow in your favor if you are traveling from Marshall County into Ohio County and then to the city of Wheeling.
“But if you really want a workout, though, perhaps the best thing to do is to put-in at the Wheeling Island Marina and kayak the back channel of the Ohio River. It’s often as still as a lake would be, but there are times when the current will make you work to get back to the north,” Mestrovic continued. “The best part about the back channel is that it is a no-wake zone, so you don’t to worry about any of the boats causing you any problems. Now, if someone wants to float on the main channel of the river, the best thing to do is to stay close to the shore to make sure you’re not in the way of any barge traffic.”
Mestrovic’s duties with the city of Wheeling involve renovating the municipality’s playgrounds and parks while also identifying outdoor activities made available simply by nature and the region’s terrain. He is intrigued by the stair systems constructed by the city several years ago that once allowed those living atop Wheeling Hill to gain access to the downtown district, but since that area has changed from public housing to residential living, the steps were forgotten until now.
And Big Wheeling Creek, he believes, delivers a different reason for local residents to leave the comforts of home to enjoy what makes the state, “Wild and Wonderful.”
“And it’s right there flowing down the middle of our city,” Mestrovic said. “For some residents, the creek is literally right there in their backyards, and for far too long our residents have only paid attention to it when there’s been a threat of a flood. I hope to see that change.
“I can try to explain the experience, but I think, for people to realize what we have, they need to experience it for themselves,” he added. “Once they do, they’ll be hooked.”
(Photos provided by Jesse Mestrovic)