Friday, May 27, 2016

Risk, Rescue, and Recovery: 5 Longreads

Kayaking trips down the Congo and Nile Rivers. Hikes and adventure races through back-country Alaska. Rescues in the mountains of Colorado and in the rugged expanse of Iceland. Month-long search efforts in the Costa Rican jungle... these are stories of lives saved and lives lost in some of the most unforgiving terrain around...

Why take the time to compile articles about risk and rescue? My first, candid thought is because of the excitement, the adventure, the danger. Is this not partly why these stories are so widely told? In reading them, don't we get a chance to see a world that most of us will never experience firsthand? That sounds like decent content for a blog post, right?

Yes, perhaps, but I don't want my consideration of these lives and experiences to stop at the flashy, at the surface-level. These are stories of people who have died. These are stories about the toll these deaths have on loved ones and stories about the toll on those who take it upon themselves to try and prevent such deaths. Beyond the glam of exotic location and beyond the hyped personalities and accomplishments, these are harrowing experiences. Instead of knee-jerk admiration or dismissal here, I want to reach for an acknowledgement of life in all its complexity and uncertainty...

Why do we idolize people and then repeat their mistakes?

Why do we repeatedly put ourselves into danger?

Why do we choose to write stories / buy books / see movies / compile lists of articles about people in extreme situations while perhaps ignoring other, seemingly less 'glamorous' or less 'relate-able,' peoples' stories? I say this because, of the four articles that deal with individual's stories, all of these individuals can be considered white and male and likely of European ancestry (if you'll permit me to nudge them into groups)... This bears examination. Such exclusion is on me as much as anyone else: my search for articles was admittedly a bit rushed.

We can learn here--about the complex relationship between being human and being risky. We can do better on the trail, on the river, and on the page; but, only if we ask the right questions of ourselves and others.

Whose stories are we (am I) missing?


Lost in the Jungle: The Search for Cody Roman Dial
>>By: Damon Tabor; Men's Journal.

A family that thrives on adventures, and on pushing the limits of what their bodies can achieve, loses one of their own in the jungle. Cody Roman Dial, son of adventurer Roman Dial, disappeared in 2014 while on a trip through one of the most rugged jungles in Central America--Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park. Recently, remains thought to be Dial's have been found in the park.

"Through May and June, Cody ticked off an enviable list of adventures: diving with whale sharks in Honduras, riding a dugout canoe into the remote Mosquito Coast. In Nicaragua, he spent two weeks surfing and began researching a trip through the DariĆ©n Gap, a notoriously lawless patch of jungle between Panama and Columbia."


>>By: Grayson Schaeffer; Outside

Hendrik Coetzee spent much of his life guiding and riding the whitwater on some of the most dangerous rivers in Africa. Running such powerful rivers is risky in itself, but the areas that Coetzee was moving through were also part of decades-long civil wars and home to large populations of hippopotamus and crocodiles. This article offers a look into Coetzee's life and quotes some of the paddler's own journals as it ultimately leads us through his final, fatal river journey.

"The Nile high season ran from May to August, and when it was over Coetzee would pick up and head to the next swelling river or just go on walkabout. During one break, around 2001, he stole away to Mombasa, Kenya, and began a solo trek south along the empty coast, carrying a small backpack, intending to walk 1,500 miles home to South Africa."


The Man Who Saw Too Much
>>By: Hampton Sides; Outside

A celebrated wilderness and emergency first responder, Michael Ferrara, affectionately known as Mongo in his Aspen, CO home, opens up about his struggles with PTSD. Here we get a look into Ferrara's experiences--the adventurous, the horrific--and the mental consequences that come from being the one that constantly tries to save others from the teeth of tragedy.

"In all [Ferrara's] years of training, no one had ever impressed upon him the notion that rescuers themselves might need rescuing from the cumulative stress of their job. Like those in many ski towns, Aspen's subculture of mountain athletes and first responders is a rarefied and often hypercompetitive world that places a high premium on toughness and takes note of every stumble." 


>>By: Nick Paumgarten; The New Yorker

Known for its rugged beauty, Iceland is also home to a network of first-responders who have a penchant for rescue and large vehicles. The article follows one team during an posting in Iceland's Landmannalauger  region and gives some perspective on the origins of and the necessity of such a citizen-powered rescue service.

"The news among the rescuers I met my first day was of two ill-equiped Czech climbers who'd got stuck on a cliff the previous night while descending Mt. Esja, near the capital. To spend time in the company of a rescue crew is to see the country as a grid of horrible accidents and comical false alarms. Life is rescues."


>>By: Diana Saverin; Outside

Perhaps the most (in)famous contemporary story of risk and the wilderness is that of Chris McCandless. Here, Saverin pays a visit to the Alaskan region where, in 1992, McCandless lost his life. The trail and the stranded Fairbanks City Transit bus where McCandless' body was discovered have become a destination for a large number of hikers--many of whom end up in emergency situations of their own:

"The troopers told me that 75 percent of all of the rescues they perform in the area happen on the Stampede Trail. “Obviously, there’s something that draws these people out here,” one of the troopers, who asked not to be named, told me. “It’s some kind of internal thing within them that makes them go out to that bus. I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand. What would possess a person to follow in the tracks of someone who died because he was unprepared?” "

Friday, May 13, 2016

High Water: The 2016 Cheat Festival Down River Race

A muddied, rain-swollen section of river rapids flows around large boulders. Trees just coming into leaf can be seen on the opposite bank.

Some people shy away from the rain. And still more have no desire to spend an afternoon standing next to a swollen river--let alone a desire to slip into that river in a small craft to pit themselves against the force of the water. This isn't to say that one group is more admirable than the next, no. It's just a matter of how we each get our kicks.

And so, last Friday, I stood next to a muddied Cheat River in a light, intermittent rain and waited...

In the week previous the area upriver from where we stood had seen close to three inches of rain, and the river at our feet showed it. Saplings, some I'm guessing usually stood three or four feet above the rocky bank, were barely grasping air as the darkened water tossed them. Overhead, swallows wheeled and dove, black against the clouded sky. It was easy to just watch them cut about and forget I was here to photograph paddlers of various stripes as they ran through this turbulent section of the river known as the Wind Rapids.

A group next to me said it was a matter of logistics, this waiting. Because of the high water, the race had been moved miles upriver from its usual venue within the confines of Cheat Canyon. Hence the delay while the racers were wrangled at the new put-in upstream and eventually sent off in a mass start.

We stood along the banks of a stretch of the Cheat called the Narrows: a less strenuous piece of water than the Canyon, but one that still offers its fair share of class II and III rapids. The Wind Rapids, in particular, are rated class III--"rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe."

Scenes like this one swamp me lately. The young, vibrant green of the trees. The clouds that lid the valley like a muffled terrarium. The realization that I am here, in a often belittled part of the world, and yet I am seeing a moment that is wholly unique and celebratory and simple. For years I've tried to tell myself that I need to leave Appalachia. And I have had multiple opportunities to do so. Yet still, here I am--with this moment, and its good kind of contentment.

Here I can learn. Here I can create. Here I can find what I need to find.

As the time neared, traffic picked up behind us on Rt. 72, and more people made their way down the the slick, gravely slope to find a perch to watch the racers from. Coozied beers were had by a few. A man beside me told two kids about the hard stretch of rapids that tossed him overboard that day. Plastic baggies of gorp were passed around, and every so often someone would take a phone out to video the ever-rushing water...

Annie Dillard said, "how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing." Maybe that is the point here--for our own reasons this riverbank is where we chose to be. This is what suited us in one way or another.

Each little group had their boulders and tree trunks to sit or stand on. They each had their friends they expected to see running the rapids. Or they simply saw fit to spend their Friday evening observing and photographing strangers do a thing they enjoy...

I want to know what brought them here, this crowd. I look back, now, and feel that I should have gone and spoke to them all. But it's fine, I guess, that I couldn't bring myself to. That's another essay in itself.

So together, and alone, we waited. It started to sprinkle rain. Umbrellas went up and jackets were held overhead. The rain stopped again. The swallows were still above us.

And we urged on the paddlers as they came around the bend to meet the rapids.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hiking along the Edge: North Fork Mountain Trail and Chimney Top

Honestly, it is nice when all of your hikes are full of clear-blue skies, breathtaking views, and challenging terrain.... but two out of three, in this case, ain't bad at all.

Twisted pine trees, exposed rocks, and a distant horizon viewed from North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

Not too far from the scenic standbys of West Virginia's Potomac Highlands--Dolly Sods, Seneca Rocks, and Spruce Knob--stands the monolithic ridgeline that is North Fork Mountain. 

North Fork Mountain, proper, stretches like a tuscarora sandstone spine some 30 miles. It begins at the North Fork Gap, near Petersburg, WV and heads south to Dry Run Gap. For about 24 of these miles--from the North Fork Gap until the point where US Route 33 crosses the ridge--the North Fork Mountain Trail climbs to and runs along the crest. A solid set of topo maps for the entire trail can be found here.

Think of it as walking along the cusp of one long westbound wave--one side is moderately sloped with a dry yet lively forest and the other, sometimes only a few strides of the trail, is a rocky, windblown face that lets you see miles of rolling Appalachian hills.

It's also relatively secluded: along the whole stretch of trail there are only three access points other than the terminal trailheads. During my four Saturday-hours on the trail I saw only a handful of groups. At Chimney Top I saw no one.

As I mentioned, for much of the North Fork Mountain Trail you are privy to an unusually dry Appalachian ecosystem: the positioning of the taller Allegheny Front directly to the west causes weather systems to drop most of their precipitation before they reach the mountain. As a result, forest fires occasionally occur. Some readily-seen evidence of this are the charred portions of stumps and standing trees periodically found along the trail.

Charred tree trunk surrounded by mountain laurel.

Detailed view of charred tree trunk. Embedded spider web can be seen.


Starting from the northern end there is a small parking lot on the right hand side of Smoke Hole Road (CR 28/11). From there the trail steadily climbs along a handful of switchbacks.

One of the unique things about this stretch of trail is the ability to see the change in forest type as you climb the mountain. Initially the forest is hardwood dominate, oaks and such, and at this time of year very little underbrush. 

I was treated with few splashes of color from some wildflowers. Below are the Shooting Star, Carolina Spring Beauty, and Wild Stonecrop.

Three fully opened blooms of a purple Shooting Star.

Two full blooms of a Carolina Spring Beauty. Petals are soft white with thing lavender stripes.

Three long clusters of small, white, Wild Stonecrop blossums.

Next up is the transition to a mix of pines and hardwoods. Some mountain laurel starts to creep in and take over patches of ground, and, in parts of the higher elevations, fluffy bunches of pale green and white "reindeer" lichen seem to foam up from the ground.

A narrow trail winds through mountain laurel and various kinds of hardwood and pine trees. North Fork Mountain Trail, West Virginia

Narrow, rocky footpath climbs up and to the right through mountain laurel. North Fork Mountain Trial, West Virginia.

Trail climbs over larger, moss and lichen covered rocks. Dense mountain laurel thickets flank the path. North Fork Mountain Trail, West Virginia

After around 1200' of elevation gain from the trailhead, the first expansive, overlook opens up.

Foreground shows rock outcrop with small trees. In the distance is the rocky crest that makes up the northern side of North Fork Gap. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia.

Distant view of cloudy Appalachian hills in the background is framed by small, hardy pine trees and a rocky outcrop. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

Even before you can see the views, you can hear something up ahead. The wind here, this close to the wide open North Fork Gap, was relentless. Imagine constant highway traffic or the roar of a waterfall. Yet, oddly, you couldn't feel the wind unless you were right out on the overhanging rocks. Just five or ten feet into the tree cover and the air was almost completely still.

From this point, the trail turns south with some rolling climbs and descents. However, in many places you aren't more than a few strides from still more expansive, 180-degree views.

Photo from a rocky outcrop looking south along the crest of North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

As you follow the trail for a bit more, keep an eye out for a sharp rise in elevation on the western edge of the ridge. Around 1/2 mile from first outlook, there will be a trail leading up and to the right. Take this and you will be rewarded with the geologic feature known as Chimney Top.

Small, hardy pines on top of a wall of exposed sandstone. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

A high wall of exposed sandstone and that ends in the forest slope below. In the background are rolling hills and a partly cloudy sky. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia

Small tree grows out of a crack in a stone overlook. Rolling hills and a cloudy sky in the background. North Fork Mountain, West Virginia.

Looking south here, you can see that the mountain ridge continues on in much the same way: a dramatic wall of exposed sandstone.

Scraggly trees and exposed stone in the foreground. North Fork Mountain extends south into the background with its characteristic wall of exposed sandstone. West Virginia


So, yes, the lighting could have been better, it could have been a little less grey and a little more green, but what are you going to do? This is spring in West Virginia after all--we must expect some clouds. But, I will honestly say that this is one of the more rewarding hikes I've been on in a while. The effort put in to climb up North Fork Mountain is more than paid off by these relentless, expansive, and secluded views.

Keep in mind, too, that on this particular hike I only just scratched the surface of the North Fork Mountain Trail. For those less inclined to tackle the 1000+ foot climb from the northern trailhead, easier access is available on the southern end at US Route 33.

So, as long as you're not too terrified of heights (and even if you are, you don't have to go right to the edge, you know) put this one on your to-hike list as the weather starts to turn and you plan your next adventures.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Search for What Remains: An Iron Furnace and Some Flowers

West Virginia has long been a source of natural resources: timber, iron, salt, coal... desirable materials, for better or worse. Nearby, in Coopers Rock State Forest, we have a remnant of the time when the iron industry dotted the hills and hollows in this part of the state--the substantial stone structure known as the Henry Clay Iron Furnace.

Built around 1836, this particular furnace was "the first steampowered blast furnace in Western Virginia." The pig iron produced here was transported down-stream to the Jackson Ironworks located along the Cheat River at Ices Ferry (with the creation of Cheat Lake in 1925, what remains of the ironworks is now below water).

Walking through this part of the forest now, it can be hard to believe that the area around the iron furnace once supported 50-75 workers who, in addition to their personal dwellings also had a school and a church. The only readily visible evidence of this past use of the land is the stout iron furnace seen above.

This got me curious about what else might be hiding along the streams and in the thickets of Coopers Rock--particularly some other remnants of these old furnaces. At one point, there were multiple iron furnaces along Clay Run and Quarry Run that supplied the ironworks along the river. So, I put it on myself to see if I could find any traces of this industrial past.

After two different hikes along these two streams, I largely came up empty. No vine covered ruins of other furnaces, no obvious evidence of homes or communities that would have existed to support the industry.

But, since this was mid-May, wildflowers and other flora were out in force and mostly made up for the otherwise fruitless search.

Let's start out with the whites and greens:

    -- Fleabane --

    -- Foamflower --

-- Jack-in-the-Pulpit --

-- Solomon's Seal --

-- Cinnamon Fern -- 

Now for the browns:

-- Squawroot or American Cancer-root -- 
(parasitic plant that takes nutrients from oak and beech trees)

-- Morel --

And the belles-of-the-ball, the violets and pinks:

-- Common Blue Violet --

-- Wild Geranium --

-- Azalea --

-- Pink Lady's Slipper --

During my search, I walked along Clay Run up from the furnace, and I walked the adjacent hillsides in search of old foundations, rusted tools, or and others signs of life... nada. I also walked a large portion of Quarry Run (which, interestingly enough, literally disappeared underground and I walked on a rocky stream-bed for some time before the stream reemerged).

It should be noted that this was a visual search. I was not about to create any major disturbances or tear up any ground to find any remnants.

It's interesting, I guess, that I am so eager to find what some might simply call 'trash' from 180 years ago while, when, as I mentioned in my Cheat Canyon post, at other times the sight of refuse along the riverbanks or out in the woods kinda makes my blood boil. Why does this (see picture below) not make me as irritated as would a pile of old tires?

Tough to see here, but the black, rock-looking chunks among the roots are the byproduct of the iron-making process. Yes, this is evidence of human activity, what I had been looking for, but this is hardly as intriguing, hardly as 'human,' as an old stone chimney or a foundation. At first glance, the forest floor near the furnace looks relatively normal, but in many places, if you brush away the leaves and such, you'll find this glassy slag in abundance. 

Maybe I am intrigued by the mystery surrounding this type of human activity--I know old tires and VHS tapes, they are of my time, so I don't like to stumble upon them during a hike. But, I am not familiar with iron production nor with 19th-century life. But, other than age, is there a difference between these two types of litter?

This experience brings to question the impact of our activities large and small;

It brings to question nature's relative ability to grow over our disturbances; 

And it brings to question where we draw the line between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' changes to our environment.

Friday, May 15, 2015

First Trips into Cheat Canyon

As much as I daydream about traveling the world, it is still wonderful how the places close to home can continually amaze.

The Cheat River truly is a treat. Whether it is whitewater rafting or a slow Sunday drive along WV-72, the river and the canyon in particular offers the caliber of views that one often associates with the mountains of West Virginia. 

So, when news came around last year that, through the efforts of The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund along with the estate of Charlotte Ryde and numerous other organizations, over 3,800 acres of the Cheat River Canyon between Albright and Coopers Rock were now open to the public I was eager to explore.

It is heartening to see the effort taken by all the groups that made the preservation of this section of Cheat River possible. Hopefully this preserve is only one in a growing list of places that will not only set aside parts of our state for future relaxation and recreation but that will also work to reverse the unfortunate practices that have threatened the diversity and the beauty that West Virginia has to offer.

Okay. On to the experience:

The southern trailhead is located just off Route 26: a little bit north of Albright.

I made my first two trips to the canyon in December 2014 and early January 2015. It was chilly as the high rim of the surrounding hills blocks the sun quite early on these winter days. But, even before I got into the heart of the new wildlife management area, the views of the hills, river, and sky were well worth the chill.

The trail is, for the most part, a graded gravel road, so the going is pretty easy.

But, if your are *slow and cautious*, venturing down to the rocky riverside offers some impressive, and noisy, views of the rapids.

And, from this vantage, you can also take in the sometimes sheer sides of the canyon which, during the January trek, were sheeted with ice in places.

On top of a large riverside boulder I came across some rather odd ice patterns.

Unfortunately, a common sight along the banks was trash. Tires, barrels, rusted shopping carts... even the odd VHS tape.

Despite the trash, or perhaps I have simply seen it all too often on this and other streams and roadsides around the area, the trips into the canyon were still very worthwhile. I was startled by a grouse, watched raccoon scurry across the trail, and ate lunch along the river while a pair of bald eagles flew from rim to rim. Yes, there is work to do. But, this is a wonderful start.

So, here's to reflection and preservation...

and here's to exploration.