Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Walk in the Woods (but not just any woods)

A killer is stalking them—okay, granted, it is just a tiny bug, but still it kills them. With their existence threatened, I didn’t want to wait very long to go see them again. When I found out that Anna had never been to Cathedral State Park, I wanted her to see this majestic old-growth hemlock tree forest before it was too late. Anna was a Knight of the Golden Horseshoe (a West Virginia state history award for 8th graders), so she knew all about Cathedral State Park, but had never had the chance to visit there.

We left Morgantown and headed for Preston County. We stopped for lunch at Monroe’s Restaurant in Kingwood. It is an interesting old place that is on the list of 101 best restaurants in West Virginia ( We parked on the courthouse square and walked around a bit exploring the town.

Back in the car, we left Kingwood and headed downhill to the Cheat River, where we turned right onto Route 72. We paralleled this beautiful river for most of this trip, including views of the Cheat Narrows where we recently had kayaked. Beyond where our whitewater trip had started, we came to the town of Rowlesburg. This is a bigger town that I had imagined. I remember reading about the damages there in the big flood back in 1985—it must have been devastating.

Further upstream from Rowlesburg, Route 72 meets U.S. Route 50. Taking a left onto Route 50, we continued running alongside the rippling rocks and waters of the Cheat. Finally, the road veers left, leaving the river for an assault on the mountain. Up and up you go, through many a curve until you finally reach the top. In the era before Interstate highway travel was common, highways like U.S. 50 were major thoroughfares, carrying a lot more traffic than they do today. I’m glad on this particular day we didn’t have to follow any 18 wheelers up the hill.

We soon arrived at Cathedral State Park, parked the car, and headed for the trails. Cathedral is one of the last stands of virgin hemlock forest left in the state. Much of eastern America was covered in hemlock forests when the white man arrived and cut most of them down. Hemlock trees had become the dominant species over time, because they grow so high and block the sunlight, plus their bark and needles that they shed helps to make the soil more acidic, which they enjoy but others don’t. There are a number of trees in the park that are more than a hundred feet high. Some of the tree trunks are 20 feet in circumference. A babbling brook meanders along its way. It seems like a magical forest!

We hiked around most of the trails in this small state park (133 acres). One that I had never been on before near the park boundary had a long straight downhill section that was “sunken.” We wondered if it had been an old trail or road at one time, but I saw on-line where it had been a “log slide” from when the neighboring property had been timbered.

Fortunately, the trees in Cathedral were never cut down. The last private owner, Mr. Brandon Haas, sold it to the state in 1942 with the provision that it never be cut down. We all owe Mr. Haas our gratitude for sharing his trees with us! It should be noted that there are other small pockets of virgin hemlock on private lands around the state. Another place where one can see them is on the TreeTops Canopy Tour near the New River Gorge Bridge. I’ve “zipped” on their zip line tour a few times through their hemlock trees and they are also a sight to behold. Unfortunately, a little bug from Asia called an adelgid sucks the sap of hemlock trees until they die. Let’s hope that scientists are able to preserve the hemlocks from this invasive pest.

Rather than re-trace our route back to Morgantown, we continued heading east on Route 50, and soon crossed into the bottom corner of western Maryland. We turned left onto U.S. Route 219 and ventured north (alongside a mountain ridge topped with wind turbines) to Oakland, the county seat of Garrett County, Maryland. It is a quaint old railroad town. We continued north to the Deep Creek Lake/Wisp ski resort area, which is a big vacation destination for some eastern city dwellers who want to get out of the Baltimore/Washington heat and head for the mountains. Our original plan was to eat at one of our favorite restaurants there called “Canoe on the Run” but then we remembered it is only open for breakfast and lunch. If you are ever in that area during those times, it is a great place to eat.

We drove into Friendsville and checked out the rafting companies and the public whitewater access for the Youghiogheny River (for future reference). Then we jumped onto I-68 for the short drive back to Morgantown.

Finally, perhaps I should mention that Cathedral State Park is located adjacent to the community of Aurora, West Virginia. With the recent tragedy at the cinema in Aurora, Colorado, we reflected on this terrible loss of innocent lives. Aurora is such a neat name for a community, but it is a shame that a mad man can give one another angle to think about when you hear the word. I hope the victims rest in peace.

Hugging a hemlock tree in Cathedral State Park.

Monday, July 23, 2012

West Fork Kayaking

Yesterday we took our kayaks to Worthington, West Virginia (along U.S. Route 19 between Fairmont and Shinnston), for a trip on the West Fork River. In the 1800s, there had been a mill at Worthington, and the mill dam still restricts the waterflow there, creating a pool of water about five feet higher than it would have been. There is a small park in Worthington that provides access to the West Fork River, as well as a scenic view of the old cut stone dam.

A year or two ago, I had bicycled the entire West Fork Rail Trail, which parallels the river between Shinnston and Fairmont for nearly 17 miles. Based on what I saw that day, I had thought that the riverside park at Worthington would be a good place to park a vehicle and try some kayaking. Unfortunately, access to the upper pool is limited to a few muddy paths down the bank, some lined with poison ivy. [It would be nice if some elected officials were to put just a little effort to develop this park to attract flat water kayakers.] There is a boat ramp of sorts for launching fishing boats below the dam, but I felt the extra depth gained by the dam would make the upper pool a better bet for us. Plus, I wanted to paddle upstream at the start, and then we could get assistance from the current on the way back. That is much better than starting downstream and then fighting the current to get back to where you parked your vehicle.

Not long after putting in at the dam, we saw riffles in the water as we paddled upstream. The pool above the dam doesn’t last long before you are digging your paddles hard to make progress upstream. We were able to get by this first test, but fought against a detectable current most of the way. I didn’t expect the West Fork challenge us like it did, but the recent rainfalls probably increased its strength. The extra depth may have helped us go further, though, because there were several places with riffles that were just deep enough to work our way through. Part of the fun of kayaking is trying to read the river to choose the best path to take.

We passed about half a dozen bridges (or remnants of bridges)—some for cars and some for the trains that formerly serviced the coal mines in this area. Usually there was one pier that seemed to collect the most flotsam, as if it had magnetic powers over the driftwood that floodwaters bring to it. One bridge, with fading white paint indicating it was part of the old Western Maryland Railway, had a huge tree trunk about six feet wide that turned out to be hollow.

We stopped a few times to rest and enjoy the scenery. Occasionally we would see a fish jump, but the recent rains had made the water too cloudy to really see anything in it. There was one tributary creek that we were able to go up for a short distance. We enjoyed “chasing” a large blue heron up the river. This bird stood more than three feet tall, and probably had a six foot wingspan. Whenever we would get close to his waterside perch, he would spread his wide wings and majestically fly low up the river a short distance, only to need to move again as we continued our upstream trek.

We made it about three miles upstream to Enterprise, West Virginia, before deciding to turn around. The trip back was much more relaxed than the trip up, and probably took less than half the time. It made for an enjoyable day, directing our kayaks up and down the river, while soaking in the sunshine as well as West Virginia’s natural beauty.

[By the way, I should also mention that we made a stop on this trip at the Poky Dot restaurant in Fairmont, which has been featured on the Food Network and is on the list of the state’s 101 best restaurants. I didn't take any pictures on the river, but I did take the shot below of a couple of "patrons" who reign over a couple of chairs at the bar of the Poky Dot. It gives you an indication of the light-hearted atmosphere in this long-time local landmark.]

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Heights and Depths Named Seneca

A view of Seneca Rocks

I prepared myself all week for an adventure that would really test my abilities. I had read about the “Via Ferrata” (Italian for “iron road”) at Nelson Rocks in Pendleton County, West Virginia, and had wondered if I should give it a try. Nelson Rocks is a privately owned rock cliff area south of the famous Seneca Rocks. Besides traditional rock-climbing opportunities, the owners have installed a long series of metal rungs with adjacent safety cables so that even novice rock climbers can easily get the experience of transversing a rock face.

I have what I consider to be a normal fear of heights, but after successfully completing the New River Gorge Bridgewalk a few weeks ago, I was ready to try a new challenge. The Bridgewalk takes tourists on the narrow “catwalk” underneath the bridge surface that was originally intended for maintenance workers. It was easier to look down on the rapids of the New River nearly 900 feet underneath you when you know you are wearing a harness and are clipped into a safety cable. Perhaps that same reassurance would allow me to scale the sheer cliffs at Nelson Rocks.

I drove to Nelson Rocks yesterday for my “Via Ferrata” adventure, but unfortunately, the intermittent rain caused it to be cancelled. [Although it messed up my plans, I know the farmers needed the rain.] I did get to check out their operation, and I was impressed with their professionalism. We talked for a good while and I got to drive up to the base of the rocks.

So after leaving Nelson Rocks, I went to my backup plan—caving. A few miles up the road is Seneca Caverns. Going underground was a good thing to do on a rainy day. Seneca Caverns is a typical tourist cave, complete with colored lights in some areas. They have done a good job making it interesting. When we got to the end at the back exit for the caverns, it was still raining, so their policy is rather than make folks walk outside in the rain, we got to reverse course and make our way back to the main building via the cave. As we neared the entrance, we ran into the “Traveling West Virginia” television crew from channel 8 and 11 in Charleston, who were videotaping a segment on Seneca Caverns.

My tour inside Seneca Caverns

My tour of Seneca Caverns was nice, but I wanted something more. Fortunately, they have opened up a new cave adventure further down the hill called “Stratosphere,” which is operated as a wild cave. I had to try it, too! The only lights are attached to your helmet. There are a number of tricky inclines to traverse, aided only by a rope. I got back to the log cabin main office just in time to purchase my ticket for the next tour that was getting ready to leave.

My trip through Seneca Caverns had been with a group of about 15. However, for the “Stratosphere” wild cave tour, there was only one other couple (they live and work in DC, but have bought a small cabin in West Virginia for weekend getaways) besides myself and our guide. It is very different experience to be in a large cave with only a light on your helmet. The guide did an excellent job answering our questions and pointing out amazing features—such as the couple of delicate mushrooms growing in total darkness inside the cave.

The hike itself was moderately challenging, but I recommend good hiking boots, because unlike Seneca Caverns, there is no designated footpath that has been conveniently covered in gravel or has nice steps built to make climbing easy. Much of the floor of the Stratosphere cave is moist, slippery clay—with a few rope “bannisters” to provide something to hold onto. It is primarily downhill to the lowest point of the cave (and the feature that gives this cave its name), and then a return trip uphill to the entrance.

It was an interesting adventure—and best of all, the rain had stopped upon emerging from the second cave. After cleaning the mud off my shoes, I got in the car and headed north to Seneca Rocks. This iconic West Virginia landmark (which some had mentioned for the back of the West Virginia state quarter) is a huge rock cliff that juts skyward from the valley floor. I hiked the 1.5 mile path to the top (a vertical gain of 1000 feet) in just half an hour. The view from the top of Seneca Rocks is absolutely incredible! It is as if you have hiked into the sky. I have visited here numerous times over my lifetime, but its scenic vista never fails to amaze.

So I got to experience the lowest point below the earth’s surface within Seneca Caverns as well as the highest point on Seneca Rocks. Both of these destinations owe their names to the Seneca Indians, who primarily are associated with living in upstate New York. However, like other Native American tribes, they frequently came south to hunt and visit in West Virginia, thus lending their name to some of our locations.

I finished my day trip by driving north to Morgantown via two-lane roads through Harmon, Parsons, Rowlesburg, Kingwood, and Masontown. I even got to view the section of the Cheat River that we kayaked last weekend. It was a beautiful trip through the West Virginia countryside, and was much better than backtracking westward across Rt. 33 through Elkins to Weston, and then taking I-79 northeast to Morgantown. Even though I had to change my plans, I had a very memorable day in wild, wonderful West Virginia!

That last step is doozey!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Forgotten River

Don’t confuse the title above with “The Lost River”—West Virginia already has one of those (, and maybe someday I will write about that state park and the river that disappears into the side of a mountain.

This essay is about a forgotten river; the Cheat River. It is the river where I had lost my whitewater virginity in my very first rafting trip back in 1983 while at WVU. However, I had not returned to the Cheat until this past weekend. It wasn’t that I had a problem with the Cheat River, because my initial raft trip was such a great experience that it inspired me to make dozens of more trips over the years. I’ve covered all sections of the famous New and Gauley Rivers. I’ve done the Shenandoah and the Potomac in the eastern panhandle. I’ve rafted the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania as well as the man-made ASCI whitewater course at Deep Creek, Maryland. But I had never got around to returning to the Cheat River where it all began.

I guess it was one of those things where since I could already claim to have done the Cheat, it wasn’t as important to run it again. I always knew it was there and felt I would get around to running it again, especially since the big flood of 1985 had totally changed the river. This past weekend was finally the time to head out to Preston County to try the Cheat.

There are actually two sections of the Cheat River—the Cheat Canyon (downstream from Albright) and the Cheat Narrows (upstream from Albright). The big whitewater is in the Cheat Canyon, but it is primarily run during high water levels of the spring. The Cheat Narrows is a tighter, more technical stretch of smaller rapids, which can be fun in an inflatable kayak (known as a “duckie”). Even though the water was running low, we wanted to give the Narrows a try.

We arrived at Cheat River Outfitters less than 45 minutes after leaving Morgantown. I had selected this outfitter because they have a permanent presence in Albright, West Virginia. There are other outfitters who run the Cheat, but they are part-time “satellite” operations of outfitters based at Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania on the Youghiogheny River. I wanted to reward a full-time West Virginia business with my money.

The folks at Cheat River Outfitters (CRO) are very nice, and are quite competent at what they do. However, if you are expecting some of the high end furnishings you might get from some of the top New and Gauley River outfitters in Fayette County (Class VI, ACE, etc.), then you might be a bit disappointed. The helmets and lifejackets are functional, but slightly faded, beginning to show their age. Even without the glitz and glamour of the big operations, the "heart and soul" of CRO is there to safely provide you with a good time on the river. And a good time was had by all on the day we were there!

As with other outfitters, an old school bus takes you upstream from their headquarters, and you get to see the glimpses of the river for most of the trip. Route 72 parallels the Cheat during this section—instead of the trains you see and hear when rafting the New River, you sometimes catch coal trucks or motorcycles passing by. However, for the most part, all you see and hear is the beautiful West Virginia wilderness—steep green hillsides, blue skies, gray rocks, and dark water, periodically punctuated with frothy whitewater. It was wild, wonderful West Virginia at its best!

The Cheat Narrows may be a bit boring for a hardened whitewater veteran, but I’m able to have fun wherever I go. It is tame enough for beginners, but skill and experience can be very helpful in the challenging sections. I would compare it to the section of the Youghiogheny River above the falls that is known as the Middle Yock. The Cheat is not as broad as the Middle Yock, so you need to hit the right line to get through properly, thus making it seem more fun to me.

It seems to me that the Cheat River should get more attention for its outdoor potential than it does. Morgantown has been growing by leaps and bounds, seemingly unaffected by the recession impacting most of the rest of the state (and nation). Albright’s proximity to Morgantown should cause it to draw more customers than it does.

However, much of the state’s efforts to promote whitewater tourism centers on the New and Gauley Rivers, in part because they are located well within West Virginia’s borders. Tourists who come to Fayette County are likely to stay and do other things within West Virginia. With Albright located so close to both the Pennsylvania and Maryland border, outdoor enthusiasts may well come to the Cheat and then run off to Deep Creek, Maryland, or Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, for the rest of their vacation.

Still, I would like to see more folks consider giving the Cheat River a try. I regret waiting so long to return to this forgotten river, and I hope to return again soon. Too often people overlook what lies in their own backyard, knowing that the nearby activities are always there when needed, but never seeming to get around to actually doing them. If you are interested in exploring the Cheat (or other activities such as rock climbing, paint ball, or caving), check out the good folks at Cheat River Outfitters at Don't forget about the Cheat River!

One of the CRO guides wades over to help a woman stuck on a submerged rock. Notice the large dead tree stuck on top of the biggest rock visible downstream--it was apparently stranded there from a previous flood.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My West Virginia "Stay-cation"

I enjoyed a West Virginia “stay-cation” over an extended Fourth of July holiday weekend (in spite of the derecho storm that knocked out power around the area). I’ve probably done two dozen whitewater trips on various rivers over the years, and rafting is always fun. One of the outfitters (ACE Adventures near Oak Hill) was offering half-price deals on July 4, plus a “Big Air” contest afterwards (more on this later), so I had made reservations.

The hot summer weather had the New River running lower than normal, but we still had a great time. It is hard to beat a day on the river! It is especially beautiful to float down the rapids underneath of the New River Gorge Bridge. Once we got back, our attention switched to the lake at ACE, which has a white sandy beach and lots of floating inflatable devices (trampolines, sliding boards, etc.) and other activities to prolong your fun after the whitewater has ended.

The “Big Air” contest involved “the Blob”—a big partially inflated airbag below a tower. The idea is for one person to sit at the end, while another person jumps off the tower. Upon impact, the airbag bulges out, thus launching the person sitting at the end. The contest was to see who had the best “ejection” from the blob. Given my size, I served as the launcher rather than the launchee. Although we didn’t win, it was a fun thing to try. I have a new respect for stuntmen who routinely use these airbags when falling from buildings and such.

After taking our showers by flashlight (the electricity still had not been restored at ACE), we headed to Fayetteville for a late dinner. Unfortunately, nothing was open yet because of the continuing power problems. This was a big week for many small businesses related to the tourist industry, so it was sad that they were not able to take full advantage of the delicious eateries there because of the storm aftermath. [By the way, check out this story about the Fayetteville storm aftermath by a Pittsburgh journalist--]

The next afternoon, we set off on another adventure—this time to cross the New River Gorge bridge, via the catwalk underneath. We arrived at the BridgeWalk headquarters near the National Park Service Visitor Center, and put on the necessary safety harness. Soon we were clipped to the safety wire and walking out onto the catwalk, which is only about two and a half feet wide (but with sturdy railings on both sides). A family from Alabama was ahead of us and a husband and wife from Indiana were behind us as we made our way across the 3300 foot span. Our guide provided lots of interesting information about the design and history of the bridge. It was quite a spectacular view! Plus, we even got to see one of the peregrine falcons that make their home under the bridge!

After dinner at Pies & Pints in Fayetteville (a great place, and one of the only Fayetteville restaurants that had reopened as of July 5), we headed out for a little hike to the Long Point overlook. The National Park Service has developed a lot of nice hiking trails around the gorge, and this particular trail takes you to the point of rocks across from the New River Gorge Bridge with a scenic overlook. It is only 1.6 miles from the designated parking area, and the view is stupendous when you finally arrive. We got there as a thick white fog was rising from the New River while the sun was beginning to set in the west. It was an absolutely beautiful vista!

Friday and Saturday were spent kayaking in several locations. Summersville Lake is known for its rock cliffs and clear water. Supposedly, it is one of the best places to scuba dive in the eastern United States. It was great to paddle along the rocky coastline, and gaze into the coke-bottle clear green water. My only complaint is that it was so popular that weekend, with lots of boaters and jet skis enjoying the water. Kayakers must have a good sense of balance with all the boat waves, plus the “echo” waves bouncing back from the rock cliffs.

Another kayaking destination was the area just below Kanawha Falls. There is a small island in the middle of the Kanawha River below the falls, and I had always wanted to explore it. I beached my kayak and walked around—it felt good to be “king” of my own island! Maybe it is a result of watching “Gilligan’s Island” as a kid, but I have always been fascinated with islands. By the way, if you have only viewed Kanawha Falls from the small parking lot off of U.S. Route 60, you really haven’t experienced Kanawha Falls. It is such a wide expanse, and much of it is hidden from view unless you are in a boat or perhaps riding the New River Train ( on the opposite shore (as we did last fall, and were amazed at viewing the falls from this different vantage point).

We also transported our kayaks to a small park in Gauley Bridge between Route 16 and the river. We first headed for the big rocks in the river across from where the Gauley meets the New to form the Kanawha River. One of these rocks has an old bus perched on it that has been converted into a house. The bus house on the rock has captivated me since my childhood days of traveling Route 60 to visit relatives at Norfolk for our annual vacation. I am not the only one captivated by this island home—I also remember that West Virginia Public Television did a story about this local landmark years ago.

Perhaps the biggest surprise while exploring the initial stages of the Kanawha River was the huge carp that we often scared away. They seemed to be well over three feet long, if not approaching four feet. We paddled upstream into the New River, past the Sunoco Station and the campground that has been there for years. The river narrows between two major rock outcroppings near the railroad bridge across from Cathedral Falls. It took some hard paddling to get through the current at that point, but we were able to keep going all the way to the old hydroelectric plant before turning around.

The Gauley River was our final place to explore. The water is exceptionally clear, and it was interesting to see the varying terrain of the river bottom (sometimes quite shallow, only to give way to a deep hole), as well as the number of 1-2 foot smallmouth bass. I was particularly interested in the old cut-stone bridge pier that remains in river, above both the train and the Route 60 bridges. It looks like it might have been around during the Civil War, as a lot of action took place in the Gauley Bridge area. In fact, my thrice-great-grandfather fought for the Union in this area, and he may well have marched over the bridge that this remaining pier supported. I’m sure he had no idea that 150 years later, his great-great-great-grandson would be paddling around in a plastic boat near that bridge pier.

After going as far up the Gauley as we could without getting out to drag the kayaks, we drifted back towards the town of Gauley Bridge. A church bell tolled out that it was 3:00 PM, but then continued with a variety of patriotic tunes. Apparently this Gauley Bridge church has a bell carillon, and was doing a special set of songs for the July 4th weekend. This patriotic salute as we loaded up the kayaks was a great way to end our Independence Day weekend stay-cation in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

The beautiful view from my kayak, looking down the New River towards its confluence with the Gauley River.