Into the Woods: Allegheny Front

In 2012, my wife and I spent our anniversary exploring a corner of the Eastern U.S. that we’d never visited before. We found it so delightful that we hoped to return soon. A few years (and a couple of kids) later we were able to return this month with the whole family to Tucker County, West Virginia.

I’m sure this place is beautiful in other seasons, but having only ever visited in October, I can confirm that it is positively magical then. The quality and quantity of fall foliage is blinding—thick forests of maple, birch, and aspen punctuated with the deep green of spruces and firs, or open plains of knee-high blueberry bushes, each outstretched leaf turned to a crimson candle in the setting sunlight.

This time around, because we had a toddler with us, the hiking was limited in both speed and distance, but we still spent plenty of time outside. A few of our favorite spots are listed below.

Canaan Valley State Park and National Wildlife Refuge

This is where we landed when we first visited the area, and we were still taken by it this year. Canaan Valley is a geological curiosity, a nearly perfectly flat depression (give-or-take, 8 miles long by 3 miles wide) on top of a high plateau. Given this, the valley floor is still over 3,000 feet above sea level, which, coupled with its location at nearly 40° north latitude creates a biome more akin to Minnesota than the Mid-Atlantic. Its flat topography lends itself to swampy terrain, with numerous ponds, sphagnum bogs, and tall-grass wetlands lining the meandering headwaters of the Blackwater River.

The state park has a fine network of trails (and cabins and a nice hotel, to boot) along the river and into the hills on the west side of the valley. In the southeast corner of the valley, the park also operates a small ski resort with a respectable 1,000 ft. vertical drop and an average of 200+ inches of natural snow each winter. If you’re there in October, you can ride the chairlift (which we did) to look at the leaves and enjoy great views of the valley.

Much of the remainder of the valley, apart from one other privately owned ski resort and scattered houses and farms, is occupied by a national wildlife refuge, preserving the boggy wetlands for migrating waterfowl. There is an excellent boardwalk for birdwatching in the heart of the refuge, circling through a fir forest, meadows of cotton grass and swampy tangles of wild spiraea. Quiet gravel roads snake through the refuge into Monongahela National Forest, with opportunities for hiking, wild cranberry picking, camping, or just country driving.

Blackwater Falls State Park
If you follow the Blackwater River to the northwestern end of the valley, it drops over a lovely 50′ waterfall and then dives into a canyon on its way down to the Monongahela River basin. The spectacle of fall foliage in the canyon rivals any show I’ve ever seen anywhere (and, seeing as our anniversary is in October, we’ve witnessed peak fall color in quite a few parts of the country over the years). You just want to sit and soak it in for hours.

We didn’t do any real hiking here this time around, though there are plenty of trails. The kids found some trees to climb and made leaf piles to jump in and throw at one another, and we enjoyed the (rather crowded) walk down to the falls.

Dolly Sods Wilderness and Bear Rocks Preserve
The thing that drew us to WV in the first place was Dolly Sods, which I’d read about on other hiking blogs—a place of mystery (including unexploded WWII training bombs!) above the clouds, a vast plain where the virgin forest was clearcut and fires seared the soil so that the trees may never return fully. Whatever the origins, the current state of the place is sheer, inexpressible beauty.

We only had a fleeting moment to visit this time (due to a sewage issue that forced us out of our AirBNB and cut the trip short, another story altogether—par for the course on our family vacations!), but happened to be there near sunset. All I can say is that the pictures speak for themselves. For someplace so close to civilization (ca. 2.5 hours from Washington, D.C.), it is as otherworldly as any spot this side of the Rockies. There are dozens of miles of trails zigzagging the wilderness, some of which we hiked last time, but we took a toddler-paced, restful amble this time.

Seneca Rocks
The only spot we hit on this trip that we didn’t last time was Seneca Rocks, a tourist photo-op standby and rock climbing Mecca. We managed to hike to the observation platform (a steep trail gaining 600+ feet in 1.3 miles) with the whole family, and then the older two girls coaxed me up to the knife-edge ridge for a better view and a dose of adrenaline. Well worth the visit.

We’ll be back again sometime, I’m sure. I’ll leave you with one obligatory New River Gorge Bridge shot to invite you to try it out as well. This is a state hard hit by centuries of environmental destruction and decades of economic devastation (it’s the only state in the U.S. with fewer people than it had in 1950), but there is a wealth of beauty and sparks of resilient community around the state. We’ve grown to love it, and hope others will, too.

Into the Woods: Seven Islands Birding State Park

With gathering indoors but a happy memory these days, it’s a great time to get out and hike. We’ve done our fair share over the past few months, but it’s been a while since I’ve posted any trip reports. Some of this is because it’s been a family affair, and carrying a 2-year old limits both how far you can walk and how many pictures you can take while doing it. We’ve hit some of our old favorite spots (Huckleberry Knob), some new ones (Conasauga Snorkel Hole), some farther afield (Hawksbill Mountain in Linville Gorge Wilderness), and lots of walks close to home (Tennessee Riverpark, Chickamauga Battlefield, and Enterprise South Nature Park).

A couple of weeks ago, though, I had occasion to be in Knoxville, and the weather coaxed me to spend some time outdoors. I don’t care much for hiking in the lowland South in the summer—too hot, too humid, too many bugs, snakes, and poison ivy. That week, though, a fading tropical storm working its way up the East Coast pulled some drier, cooler air around its west side, making July in East Tennessee a trifle more bearable for a couple of days. When you’ve lived in this part of the world for a few decades, you know better than to let those opportunities slip by—it might be months before another really nice day comes along.

I opted to take advantage of this particular day to check out a spot I’ve seen signs for but never visited—Seven Islands Birding State Park. I’d read that it had access to the French Broad River, so I went initially with the aim of fishing, but found a lot more.

For starters, this place is beautiful. The River defines the space, looping around the whole park, and there is a very nice footbridge connecting the main path to one of the islands. Due to its open, meadowy nature, the views are also impressive. The Great Smoky Mountains rise just a few miles south of the park, and from one of the hilltops, the whole ridge (including Mount LeConte) opens into view. There are also a few ponds and marshes dotting the area.

Beyond that, the park lives up to the “birding” part of its name. There are birds everywhere. In just a few hours, I saw hawks, herons, and ducks, along with a bevy of songbirds like goldfinches, indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, several different warblers, and other more common species. I heard, though did not see, a few bobwhite quail, too. This was a treat. It was so common to hear their tell-tale whistle in rural Georgia in my childhood, but populations of these ground-dwelling birds have plummeted in recent decades due to habitat loss. In fact, preservation of prime quail habitat is the park’s key goal. There was plenty of non-bird wildlife, too. I saw dozens of deer, hundreds of rabbits, bullfrogs, bugs, a muskrat, and a field mouse.

I did fish (as is often the case, to no avail—with either flies or spinning lures), but the evening light lured me to spend a couple of hours exploring the trails, most of which are wide-mown paths through a tallgrass prairie ecosystem. This plant life was just as impressive as the animals. In a part of the country that is largely comprised of forests, farms, and urban development, it’s not often we get to see native grasses and field plants have their day. I’ve read that pre-colonial indigenous land management practices made extensive use of fire and other methods to cultivate Southeastern prairies as way to increase herds/flocks of game, but these practices haven’t been preserved, leading to a false ideal of “wilderness” that actually eliminates crucial habitat. This little state park is a testament to the wonders of restoration.

I probably rambled about 5 miles over the course of the afternoon, but barely scratched the surface of available trails. I’ll be back, and you should check it out, too. The park is just 5 minutes off I-40 (at exit 402), but a world away.

Unmapped

“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”
—Wallace Stegner

You were floating by fast when I caught you,
Gave you a place to anchor and watched you
Begin to call your home into being.
All you needed for it you brought with you,
So I left you to it, and before I knew it,
We were cemented together here,
Securely as the roots of the mountains.

I wonder where you came from and
Where you might have gone without me.
I wonder what great ships you could
Have beached somewhere else, though who knows
What our children’s children might see
Come to pass right here, in this place
Where we’ve been set, accreting life.

A little carbon and calcium
Is all it takes to move heaven and earth
Around ourselves and find a niche that works,
Amid vast, acidifying oceans.
But of all the polyps in all the reefs
In all the world, just this spot was prepared
For your unmapped geography of hope.

Image: Crystalline Iceplant, Santa Barbara County, Calif., June 2019.

The Art of Home

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.

Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.

More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.

The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.

It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.

The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.

To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.

Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.

During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.

The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.

Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.