As flatwater paddling grows, volunteers contribute expertise to an upgrade for Star City’s riverfront.

Mary Wimmer and Vaike Haas sit across from each other at a Terra Cafe table on day in early May, a laptop open between them. Pictured on the screen is a renovation plan for Edith Barill Riverfront Park, which sits only 500 feet away, just across the Caperton Trail.

“There is not a blade of grass along the riverfront,” Wimmer says. “They used to kill the vegetation purposefully, and of course, things started eroding.” Tree roots and concrete foundations protrude from the ground. Rocks litter the muddy bank. The dock is small and broken. But the preservation and renewal of natural spaces is a passion for Wimmer, and she’s got a long track record to prove it.

While working for 38 years as a biochemistry professor at WVU, she dedicated countless hours to the West Virginia Sierra Club, served as a founding member of the Coopers Rock Foundation, and worked with the West Virginia Environmental Council. “I have a fair amount of energy,” she says. “I need energy sinks, places to put it. It gives me pleasure to do something that helps the environment or helps people enjoy being outside.”

photo by Carla Witt Ford

Wimmer also serves on the board of the Morgantown Riverfront Task Force, which recently received a $4.1 million grant from the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust to improve the waterfront at the Wharf District. But that kind of funding was not an option for Star City when she took this project on with the Morgantown North Rotary Club. “Star City is small,” she says. “There’s not a great deal of money available. Morgantown got a grant to hire consultants to plan the riverfront, but I really didn’t want to write a grant. So I thought, I’m going to try to do as much as I can up front, pro bono. We had a whole list of at least 15 people who consulted—fisheries people, engineers, landscape architects, the bicycle board.”

Haas took all of this input back to the landscape architecture class she teaches at WVU. Her students came up with five different designs for the park, and the public voted on various aspects of each design. She then synthesized the most popular components into a single, hybrid plan, which she is now showing to Wimmer on her laptop. In less than 48 hours, it will be submitted to Star City Council’s May 8 meeting for approval to cost the project out into phases.

“Like Mary, I also have a lot of energy to burn,” Haas says. She, too, is involved in a wide variety of community initiatives. One of her previous classes looked at the Edith Barill project briefly, but this time, she made it a long-term focus. This allowed the students to receive feedback and draft revisions, showing them how plans can shift and change in the real world while also providing the promise of seeing their work manifested.

“The first time it was more hypothetical,” Haas says. “We got some good ideas, and we liked them. But this round, they dug in.”

Members of the Star City Council liked what they saw on May 8, and the next step will be to break the proposal into phases and cost them out.

But there’s something more expansive to the work of Wimmer and Haas than a simple park renovation. When the work on Edith Barill is completed, the Monongahela will have a 40-mile stretch—from Point Marion to Fairmont—with 11 proper canoe and kayak access points spaced every 5 to 6 miles. This is a major milestone in the Morgantown’s area’s long-term ambition to make outdoor and river recreation a key selling point of life here.

“When people look at West Virginia, they think of whitewater,” Wimmer says. “My real interest is promoting flatwater boating.”

After retiring several years ago, Wimmer spent a fair amount of time kayaking on the Mon with a few friends but suspected that interest was more widespread than it appeared. She cobbled together a list of 82 email addresses from various outdoor enthusiast mailing lists she had access to and asked whether anyone was interested in starting a club. The result was the Morgantown Area Paddlers, or MAP, an all-volunteer paddling club that has taken nearly 100 group excursions since its inception in 2015. MAP has also worked with other organizations to secure grants for the creation and improvement of access points along the Upper Mon Water Trail and created an interactive online map of those points, among other projects.

All of this, Wimmer says, not only makes life in Morgantown more enjoyable, but helps instill the value of the Monongahela in the hearts of residents.

“Getting people outside, getting them to appreciate and enjoy nature, is the only way we’re going to eventually get them to help protect it,” she says. “Once you learn to love a place, you want to protect it.”

written by J. Kendall Perkinson