Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dolly Sods, West Virginia

This is one of my favourite places on earth. My father is an avid gardener and backyard naturalist, and his beard is six times the size of mine. As a child we would frequent the area of Dolly Sods, a high plateau of very unusual geological features and what makes it even more unusual is its Canadian taiga plant life.

At one point this was the eastern most shore of the continent of North America, as is evidenced by the conglomerate rock (its kind of like concrete made of sandstone with large quartzite pebbles) and pure white quartz sand. The headwaters of Red Creek and its beloved hiking trail begin from the cranberry bogs where you can walk on top through marked trails on the spongy earth, and then descending through the Blue Spruce forest and a torrent of waterfalls. To make it even better, surrounding the bogs and the spruce trees is square mile after mile of wild blue berry bushes and they are free for the picking (I argue that West Virginia wild blue berries rival those of Maine and New Hampshire).

So, the day before I was to return northeast after my grandfather's funeral in Johnson City, TN my father suggested that we go to Dolly Sods. I don't know that I had ever been so excited to go, it had been about twelve years since I had been up there, and growing up this was my playground.

The sandstone is carved by wind and rain and the relentless volleys of winter, and looms like castle turrets from the undergrowth of blueberries. While most children were building forts in the woods in their back yards, I had these ready-made forts that could withstand the assault of pine cones, rocks and mud.

I showed pictures once to a friend of mine who lives in Volgograd, Russia. She referred to it as a dismal dreary place. It is true; the plateau does have its own peculiar sullen charm. Clouds can roll in a moments notice, a light drizzle, and a frigid wind. The air is even thinner, sound doesn't travel the same. Its beautiful and spooky at the same time.

This day however that my father and I went to pick blue berries was far from dreary but yet brutal from the sun. I spent a good three hours picking blue berries (I got half a gallon to bring back home) before I realized my sun burn was going to be bad. Really bad. So, while wandering, I found a neat little hollow and saw something brittle and white. I found bleaching deer bones, skull, ribs and vertebrae, likely the victim of the weather and then scavenged by coyotes. Then I made my way to the precipice of Bear Rocks, attempting to find a little shelter from the sun in the many crevices and boulder caves that I used to crawl and climb through as a kid.

The Dolly Sods Wilderness area is free of charge, and is located on Rt. 55 near Elkins, West Virginia in the Monongahela National Forest. It offers spectacular scenery, hiking, wilderness backpacking, groomed camping areas for those who don't wish to "rough it", and just abundant West Virginia wilderness that is simply unrivaled. More specific directions can be found on the Wilderness area's website http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/sp/dolly_sods_wilderness.htm. I strongly suggest sturdy shoes, and dress appropriately for the season. Even in summer the temperature difference between the bottom at nearby Smoke Hole Caverns (another cool spot to visit) and the top of the escarpment can be significant. Other nearby areas of interest are Spruce Knob, Germany Valley (excellent caving), the world class climbers' spot Senneca Rocks, and much much more.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pawtuckaway Boulder Fields

Located in Nottingham, New Hampshire is a phenomenal and not very well known gem called Pawtuckaway State Park. I frequent the area on a regular basis during the late spring and summer months in search of its native orchids (especially Goodyera pubescense), to roam among the boulder fields, rappelling from the Lower Ledge much to the irritation of the rock climbers who feel that they have some sort of superiority over everyone else who wishes to practice the vertical arts, and I just recently located the Devil's Den heading toward the peak of North Mountain.

First of all, and I have to put this as a byline for visiting Pawtuckaway State Park, because I like to go into the less public area (which for now is free unlike the main entrance if you want to go swimming or fishing at Pawtuckaway Lake), please be aware that the road off of Reservation Road is very rough and must be driven slowly. Also, please be aware that it is quite possible that you will lose a tire just as I did shortly before I left for Washington, DC for a week. The locals and other people who feel that because they drive a four-wheel drive vehicle like to drive at a pace that can only be described as reckless, as is evidence by how rutted and torn up the road is. Drive slowly and patiently, please.

The Boulder Field is my favourite place to visit. A glacial cirque that developed as the glaciers tore down the walls of one of the few volcanic mountains in the area, and secondary growth of oak, maple and hemlock trees, the paths are winding and shady, sheltering an incredible variety of mushrooms both edible and poisonous, racing snakes, small rodents and marshland perfect for watching predatory birds, Great Blue Herons and a choir of frogs, this place is captivating, relaxing and well worth the visit.

If you are into the adventure aspect, the boulders offer some convenient and top class climbing, and the lower ledge, a massif of rock overlooking Dead Pond soars 65 feet above a pine needle floor. A trail leading off from the Boulder Field winds its way toward the sullen peak of North Mountain, where right before you start the more serious ascent, the gaping maw of the shelter cave called Devil's Den offers the hiker the opportunity to relax in the cool breath of the mountain as it escapes from somewhere in its depths.

For a map and directions, visit http://www.nhstateparks.com/paw.html