Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Honoring the Hunley

I’ve always known which side I supported during the Civil War, even before I learned that a few of my ancestors had fought with the Union Army. I am a West Virginian first and foremost, and West Virginia won its independence 150 years ago because we wanted to be Americans, not Confederates.

However, I can still appreciate some of our honorable, albeit misguided, brethren from the south. One particular facet of the Confederate war effort that had long fascinated me was the story of the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in combat. I’ve always appreciated scientific advances, and the Hunley was indeed cutting edge technology for the mid-19th century. The 40 foot long submarine had a crew of seven, and relied on power from the arms of the men turning a crankshaft.

Although it blew up a Union blockade ship outside the Charleston harbor, the Hunley sank during its return and was never used again. In the late ‘90s, its location was discovered on the sea floor, and it was eventually recovered. A movie was made about the same time, which further captivated my interest in the sub.

When I heard that a full-scale replica of the Hunley would be on display during Civil War Days in Putnam County this past weekend, I decided to check it out. The replica had been created for use during the filming of the movie. Side panels could be removed for easy viewing, but otherwise it was very true to the original. The crew sat on a bench on one side, while the hand crank ran down the length of the other side. The crankshaft was connected to the center-mounted propeller shaft (complete with flywheel) via a chain drive—not a roller chain like on a bicycle, but a standard linked chain—with sprockets designed so that the alternating links fit precisely in place as the sprockets rotate.

There was a complex “plumbing system” to allow water to be pumped out from the forward and aft ballast tanks (which were open at the top on the inside of the sub), as well as bilge pump. There was a foot powered pump to remove carbon dioxide that would gather at the bottom of the sub, because it was heavier than oxygen. Horizontal diving planes could be angled to help the craft submerge or resurface. These are just a few of the many technological features that had to be created and tweaked to make this early submarine feasible.

While I found it to be fascinating from a technological standpoint, the display also included the story of each of the men who had went down with the sub, including some of the personal effects that they were carrying. It must have been terrible to have perished inside this iron coffin shortly after they accomplished their mission.

Overall, it made for a very informative presentation about an intriguing chapter from the Civil War. To actually see the physical size of the sub, to better understand its working components, and to actually place my hands on the crank and rotate it are things that I will always remember—and would not have fully appreciated, had I not made the effort to visit Putnam County’s Civil War Days. I may not agree with the political motives of those behind the Hunley, but I can certainly admire their efforts to advance our scientific knowledge. R.I.P., submariners!

A look inside this "steampunk sub"--the bench is on the left, with a rod controlling the rudder underneath and the pipe from the aft ballast tank near the floor. The crank is obvious on the right side, perfectly staggered to maintain a steady pace. The dark semi-circle in the forward wall is the opening into the forward ballast tank.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Falls of Fayette

I think waterfalls are wonderful, and Fayette County is a good place to find them. Not only are there many interesting waterfalls of various types and sizes, but several of them are readily accessible from roadways.

A few of my favorites are very easy to visit. Driving from Charleston along Route 60, the first to see is the wide Kanawha Falls (with a small park and boat ramp) at Glen Ferris. Just a bit further (after crossing the Gauley River and then the train tracks) is the tall Cathedral Falls, with its own parking area and picnic tables. After climbing Gauley Mountain, one eventually comes to a junction where Route 60 veers left and Route 16 goes straight on down the hill. By taking Route 16, you cross the New River on a low bridge and then begin climbing up towards Fayetteville. On the right side of Route 16, Laurel Creek is plunging its way down to the river, and includes a large waterfall easily seen from a car (but unfortunately, there is no pull-off parking).

Those three nearby waterfalls are well-known and easily viewed. However, there is another nice waterfall in the same area, which can also be seen from your car, albeit on a narrow dirt road. It is the twenty-foot waterfall on Mill Creek near Hawks Nest State Park.

Most people don’t know about Mill Creek Falls, but they do know about Hawks Nest, one of West Virginia’s most well-known spots. Visitors have been coming to its overlook for generations. Its rocky outcropping provides an oft-photographed view of the New River Gorge. In addition to the main overlook (which is along Route 60 a few miles beyond where Route 16 splits off), the park consists of a nice lodge and restaurant, as well as a tramway to take you to the river below. At the bottom is a nature center, marina (where you can ride a jet-boat upstream to see the New River Gorge Bridge), and some hiking trails.

To drive to the marina, turn left as you enter downtown Ansted, follow the signs, and work your way through a tunnel under Route 60. Soon you will see parking for the Ansted-Hawks Nest Rail Trail, which formerly was a narrow gauge railroad line from the coke ovens at Ansted down to the main C&O rail line along the New River. This hiking and biking trail immediately crosses Mill Creek over an impressive refurbished wooden trestle, with beautiful views of the creek. I hiked the trail to the bottom of the gorge and back a few years ago, and enjoyed it very much.

While the trail goes down the far side of the creek, the narrow road follows the creek down to the river on the near side, all the way to the Hawks Nest Marina. It is primarily one lane, but with numerous wide spots where one can pull off if meeting on-coming traffic.

Whether hiking, biking, or driving, the Mill Creek waterfall is a beautiful site (especially if it has not been dry). Luckily for me, I happened to be “in the neighborhood” last weekend with some extra time on my hands, so I drove down to enjoy this delightful scene. I was able to park the car in a pull-off and reveled in both the view as well as the melodious sounds of this waterfall. With no one else around but the woods and the waterfall, it was wild, wonderful West Virginia at its best!

This waterfall on Mill Creek is a peaceful, serene spot—off the beaten path but still easily accessed.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Winter Games

I’ve not been much of an outdoor winter sports aficionado. I just was never exposed to it that much, plus it seemed you needed all kinds of expensive gear. During my days as a student in Morgantown, I drove out to Wisp Ski Resort one Saturday and watched a beginners’ class on the bunny hill—they didn’t look like they were having all that much fun. So I opted to go to the Garrett County Fairgrounds where (at that time) one could rent a snowmobile by the hour. My motorcycle skills served me well as I had much more fun riding the snowmobile than I would have had trying to learn to ski. That was the closest I got to “alpine activities”—until last week.

This past Friday, I decided to make up for lost time and attempt some winter activities in beautiful Tucker County, WV. A March mid-week snow storm had left lots of fresh powder on the slopes. Canaan Valley State Park had recently opened a new snow tubing park near their ski slopes, complete with a “magic carpet” conveyor belt to transport you to the top of their hill, so I thought it would be an excellent day to give it a try.

During my childhood days, I fondly remember sledding down our neighbor’s steep hill. As I recall (perhaps slightly exaggerated over time), their lawn seemed like a 60 degree slope for the first 50 yards. Unless you bailed out, the hill continued through a rough former pasture field with small saplings and broom sage. If you had a really good run (as in not hitting anything), then you could make it to the forest where the deep brown leaves and lack of snow due to the tall trees would finally stop you. It was quite an exhilarating ride—followed by the long trudge back up the steep hill for the next run (there was no such thing as a “magic carpet” back in the old days!). We were probably lucky we never got injured given the speed and all the obstacles.

I had a good time snow tubing at Canaan, but I must admit it wasn’t the adrenaline rush I had expected (in other words, not a bit like hurtling down my neighbor’s hill). It is perfect for young families—and for keeping the state from getting sued—but I guess I still have enough dare-devil in my fifty-some-year-old body to want more of a challenge.

Since the two-hour session at the snow tube park wasn’t enough for me, I decided to rush over to the White Grass Ski Center to give cross-country skiing a try. I had heard that cross-country skiing might be something I would enjoy. Never having had skis on my feet, it was a totally new experience. My personal instructor showed me the basics, and gave me lots of positive encouragement. After my hour with her, she declared me capable of heading off on my own. Before she headed back to their lodge, she gave me a suggested route from among their criss-crossed network of trails.

I spent the next couple of hours honing my skills the hard way—on my own. During my lesson, I only fell once, and had little trouble getting back up. Later, while by myself, I probably fell four or five times, and for various reasons it never seemed to be quite as easy to get back up as it had been the first time. I soon appreciated how cross-country skiing provides an extensive full-body workout!

The first trail I took was uphill all the way, requiring careful footwork to avoid losing what little progress I was making. I then made it to the next trail she suggested, which went laterally across the hillside, and provided some beautiful views of the Canaan Valley area. I finally arrived at the main perimeter trail, which involved numerous downhill switchbacks through the woods before working my way back to the lodge.

I’m very glad that I tried cross-country skiing, so that I now know what it feels like to be wearing those long narrow skis on your feet, or to shove off with both poles to start your way down a slope, or to snowplow to a stop, or any of the other novel experiences I had that day. My “muscle memory” will make watching the Winter Olympics even more enjoyable next year.

I’m also grateful I finally tried it before I got too old. In hindsight, I wish that I would have made the effort to try it when I was younger. If you have the opportunity (or can make the opportunity) to try new things, I encourage you to “just do it!” I have found life is much richer when you try new experiences.

Here's proof that I actually did it. By the way, my ski outfit consisted of a cheap pair of rain pants and a rain coat over top of my jeans and basic winter layers. Anna's niece knitted my hat as a Christmas present.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Changing My Point of View

With our natural terrain, the Mountain State is blessed with a number of incredible vantage points for sweeping views of our beautiful countryside. One of the most iconic (and most frequented) is Coopers Rock near Morgantown, just off I-68.

I had first visited the overlook at Coopers Rock State Forest as a youth traveling with my parents. Later, as a student at WVU, I sometimes took my books there to study. The expansive vista looking down into the Cheat River Gorge is wonderful, plus you can make out some landmarks of Morgantown in the distance. At one end, the Cheat is still a free flowing wild river, but below the overlook it joins the beginning of Cheat Lake, formed by a hydro-electric dam located just barely on the Pennsylvania side of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Coopers Rock overlook was recently featured (along with the Mountaineer mascot) in a WVU television advertisement.

Besides its panorama, another reason for the popularity of Coopers Rock is its ease of access, with parking available less than a hundred yards away. However, there is another rocky outcropping known as Raven Rock within the same state forest that offers a similar majestic view, but requires a three-mile round trip hike. If you’ve been to Coopers Rock, you may have noticed Raven Rock in the distance on the left side of the canyon.

This past summer, we made the hike out the trail to Ravens Rock for the first time. It was a pleasant jaunt through the woods. One reason why Ravens Rock is not as photogenic is because the point where it juts out into the canyon made for a closer crossing of major power transmission lines years ago. So there is a huge tower which allows three wires to droop gracefully in a catenary curve across the canyon. For me, it was interesting to look downriver towards the Coopers Rock Overlook for the first time, where often I had stood gazing at this incredible landscape. [If you go, be aware that unlike Coopers Rock, Ravens Rock is undeveloped and does not have protective railing to prevent you from falling.]

Notice the cables at Ravens Rocks beginning their long crossing of the Cheat River gorge.

However, that is not the only chance I got last year to see Coopers Rock from a completely different angle. On a warm late summer day, I took my kayak to Cheat Lake and paddled upstream, to finally visit a spot I had always dreamed about when looking down from Coopers Rock. It was fun watching the rocks (and the fish) on the bottom become visible, as I eventually made my way from the deep impounded waters of Cheat Lake to the unrestrained flow of the Cheat River. I pulled off at the curve—which is the farthest point one can see the river from Coopers Rock—to take in the scenery from that unique angle, while listening to the sounds of the water flowing over and around the rocks. I enjoyed the view from the river level looking up towards the visitors high atop Coopers Rock—some of whom may have been looking through the old, coin-operated binocular devices at me and my orange kayak down on the bank by the rapids.

Look close and you can see Coopers Rocks on the far hillside.

Now, whenever I see those typical images from the Coopers Rock vantage point, I think of the gorgeous day that I was down there looking up. Changing one’s point of view can sometimes be advantageous.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Bacon and Buckwild

One of the (many) things I like about West Virginia is its small size. Over my lifetime, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet lots of fellow West Virginians from all over the state. It is as if we natives are all part of an extended community, and if given enough time, initial strangers—even if from different parts of the state—can eventually come up with some contacts they have in common. The “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game (based on the "six degrees of separation" concept—the mathematical premise that any two people on Earth are, on average, about six acquaintance links apart) is easy to play among citizens of our state.

Speaking of the Kevin Bacon game, the entertainment industry has not always been nice to our wonderful state. When we hear Hollywood is going to mention us in one of their stories, West Virginians get worried. We don’t like to be stereotyped as dumb hillbillies (or worse). This is why many of us were apprehensive when we heard that MTV was replacing “Jersey Shore” with “Buckwild,” a similar show based in West Virginia.

I must admit, when I heard about the premise of this show, I was very skeptical of how my beloved state would be treated. I had checked out a few episodes of “Jersey Shore” so I had a sense about what “Buckwild” might be like, and I was concerned. I decided to watch it so I could monitor the damage they might do to our reputation, and react if I felt it necessary. [I can be as adamant as the late A. James Manchin used to be if I feel my home state has been dishonored!]

“Buckwild” is never going to be considered as quality television in my eyes, nor by probably anyone else in my age range. However, we are not the targeted demographic group for this mess of a show. Thus, I was not watching to determine if it was going to be good, or to determine whether or not situations are contrived for the cameras (I’m sure they are). It is junk TV—but apparently that is popular with younger generations (I wish they preferred PBS). So I was not watching it as a critic, but merely as a self-appointed monitor.

The good news is that I don’t think our state’s reputation was damaged that much by this show, so I didn’t need to start any protests at MTV headquarters. I don’t condone all the behavior shown on “Buckwild,” but it apparently reflects today’s youth throughout the USA. At least MTV filmed a lot of scenic shots around our beautiful state. It was neat to see many familiar locations on a national television show—Fort Hill, Woodburn Circle, Cathedral Falls, etc.

I must admit that I’ve done a lot of these same activities these young people were doing—4 wheeling, mudding, potato guns, rope swings, and jumping off a bridge into a swimming hole, etc. I’ve never rolled down a hill in a tractor tire, but I have fond memories of strapping on my dad’s old racing helmet and rolling down the back hill in an empty barrel. Although I didn’t have access to a dump truck, I thought using it to make a swimming pool was a great idea. The show proved that you don’t have to live at the beach to have fun—you just need to be creative.

By the way, I mentioned earlier about the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. I recently discovered that I have merely a two-degree separation from Katie Saria, one of the stars of “Buckwild.” It turns out that one of my high school classmates now lives in the Charleston area, and Katie is her daughter. West Virginia is indeed a small world—and I love it!

This is Katie Saria from Buckwild (her mom shared this picture with me). The MTV website describes her this way: "A well-rounded college girl, Katie loves to spend her free time away from school, back with her friends in Sissonville."