Summer Fun: Paddling the Wheeling Water Trail

There is a reason why waterways are a staple piece in cities all over the world. We resonate with them — the serenity of a slow-moving lake, the ferocity of the ocean and the wild curvature of a creek. Wheeling, West Virginia is no different. One of the best ways to navigate our waterways here in the Friendly City is with kayaks on our vast creek system.

Kayaking is an amazing summer activity that encompasses all things Wheeling — making friends, spending time outdoors and appreciating our natural landscape. However, if you are new to kayaking and Wheeling’s waterways, it can be difficult to know where to begin — that’s where Weelunk comes in. We spoke with kayaking leaders in the community who know all the ins and outs of kayaking in Wheeling just for you!

Wheeling’s Kayaking Experts

Ray McKee, owner and operator of Southpaw Outfitters, offers leisurely kayaking tours in Wheeling. With 26 kayaks, eight innertubes and two canoes, McKee is committed to helping others have a fantastic day out on the water.

“I think one of the best things about kayaking the creek is just seeing all the families. You see a lot of them and it’s an activity everyone can get involved with and have a good time.”

Southpaw Outfitters was established in 2019 and supply everything you will need for a day on the water, including a paddle, life jacket, transportation and, of course, a kayak.

With several access and exit points, McKee says he has a few favorites — one of which he admits he is a bit biased on.

“I like the Coalminer’s Bridge. That’s a great access point because there is plenty of room and it’s a very scenic float coming down through the creek,” said McKee.

“It’s a three-hour trip down to our building (Southpaw Outfitters). Obviously, our shop is also a good place. Most people are satisfied with three hours on the water. The Old Firehouse access area is good too and that’s an hour-and-a-half from us.”

While planning your time on the water is important, McKee says safety always comes first when diving into wildlife.

“You’d be surprised! A lot of people get jammed up and lose track of time and you should have a whistle on you so people can find you. Especially if they are in an area on private property. A light is always good to have as well for safety purposes. Any kind of waterproof bags for wallets and keys is also vital and should be kept in a safe spot,” said McKee.

“For safety, I always recommend people follow Creek Yakkers on Facebook and they’ll let you know of any blocked passageways. Just speak with someone who knows the water levels and how to navigate it. There are countless people on there always willing to share their knowledge,” said McKee.

Creek Yakkers
Creek Yakker members enjoying a day on the water. (Provided by Heather Miller)

When it comes to gauging the water levels, McKee says modern technology is going to be your best friend.

“You can download RiverApp and you can find all kinds of waterways across the country. Even on the Ohio River, it tells you the water level, the flow rate and cubic feet per second in real-time,” said McKee.

“It’s very helpful! I use mine every day. Three to three and a half feet and 400 to 500 feet per second is around where you want to be. The flow rate is one thing people underestimate, but they don’t know. They see nice weather, but they get out on the water and you’re not moving at all. That’s why gauging the water is important.”

McKee also asks kayakers to also keep the well-being of mother nature in mind as folks set out into the local creeks.

“Trash is an issue. Even right here, behind our shop, there are two dumpsters and we still have trash nearby that we deal with. We must keep the waterways clean and respect people’s property. Don’t get out and walk-through people’s property or leave trash for them.”

Wheeling’s Kayaking Community

Remember McKee telling us about a page called Creek Yakkers? Justin Ebeling runs the Creek Yakkers Facebook page with over 1,700 followers. The page originally took off in 2005 and has since added additional admins to assist Ebeling in managing the page.

“A small group of us all got into kayaking around the same time and started paddling together. We started seeing more and more people on the water or at popular launch spots, so I created the Facebook page and gave out stickers as a way to connect and plan trips together. We now have about six admins that help me maintain the site. Most of the admins are original members, but as people move away, other active members have stepped in to fill their roles,” said Ebeling.

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While expecting to get wet while kayaking may be obvious, to some it is not, according to Ebeling.

“The main thing to prepare for when kayaking is to prepare to get wet. A common joke is kayaking is just breaks between swims. Even experienced paddlers can hit a rock just under the surface that can tip their boat,” said Ebeling.

“It’s important to never kayak water you don’t feel comfortable swimming. Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD), dress in fast-drying clothing, like wool or synthetic, and have a spare set in a dry bag. Always bring sun protection, a first aid kit, some snacks and water too. Around larger boats on the river or local lakes, bring lights and a safety whistle.”

McKee and Ebeling both encourage yakkers to check the water levels and speed before hitting the water. These few things can truly change your experience for the day, according to Ebeling.

Creek Yakkers
Provided by John Leonard – “The main things I’d like readers to know is to be safe and use common sense. Don’t overload your boat. Avoid obstacles like down trees and dams. Wear a PFD, leave no trace and be courteous to other paddlers, landowners and those fishing,” said Justin Ebeling, creator of Creek Yakkers. Pictured: Members of Creek Yakkers enjoying a break next to Big Wheeling Creek.

“Before a trip, it is a good idea to check the water levels, weather and sunset. Water levels can be found on the United States Geological Survey website (USGS) or using apps like River Flows. Two and a half to three and a half feet is usually ideal for paddling Big Wheeling Creek.”

While safety and being prepared are deeply important for a great day on the water, so are making relationships and memories while you are out there.

Heather Miller, an avid kayaker and admin for Creek Yakkers, says being on the water is not only one of her favorite outdoor activities, but that it also soothes the soul.

“What I enjoy most about kayaking is connecting with nature. I’m an outdoorswoman who grew up in Florida and I was always in the water when I could be. Kayaking the local creeks and lakes is an activity that brings me peace,” said Miller.

“Additionally, I love the opportunity to meet new people and catch up with old friends on the water. I’ve made new friends that I talk to regularly simply because they saw a post in our group about doing a run on the creek and they joined us.”

“I love everything about kayaking — from the friends I’ve made on the water, to seeing blue herons and bald eagles soar above to the low impact workout of paddling,” said Ebeling.

“There has been so much great camaraderie among kayakers — on the water helping drain a capsized boat, collecting items washing downstream after a spill, picking up litter, and sharing food. Off the water as well! When one friend was moving, it was all Creek Yakkers that showed up to help them move. When I was working on my house, it was fellow Creek Yakkers that helped me sand drywall.”

For anyone interested in trying kayaking, Ebeling encourages you to join Creek Yakkers on Facebook and go with someone that knows the waterway. “At first you can always rent a boat at Southpaw Outfitters or borrow a boat,” said Ebeling.

Time to Launch

While all this advice is important to have a safe and gratifying day on the creek, you might need a bit of help finding your access points. Luckily, the City of Wheeling’s Parks and Recreation Department has created an interactive map that outlines several access points along Wheeling Creek’s Water Trail.

If you want to learn more, Southpaw Outfitters and Creek Yakkers welcome newcomers to kayaking or just those that are new to the area. After all, this is the Friendly City!

• With a background in journalism and being a true Wheeling native, Jessica Broverman was destined to work with Weelunk. She holds a degree in journalism with a minor in criminal justice and works with Williams Lea Tag as a legal proofreader. When she isn’t typing away for Weelunk or WLT, she is enjoying a coffee at one of her many favorite spots in Wheeling, spending time with friends, or having fun with her husband Zachary and their two cats, Proctor and Max.