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Perspectives on Outings: The Joy of Wilderness
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by Dan Soeder, Outings Chair | 2011

We don't call our state "Wild and Wonderful" for nothing!

I’ve been living in West Virginia a bit more than two years now, this time. The last time I lived here was more than 30 years ago, and oh, how some things have changed. Others, not so much. The Morgantown waterfront, for example, used to be nothing but warehouses and railroad tracks in the early 80s. Now it boasts trendy condos, a convention center, nice restaurants and a world class hiking-biking trail. On the other hand, they still haven’t widened University Avenue or Beechurst, and the traffic around West Virginia University is worse than ever.

I wasn’t as “outdoorsy” back then as I am now. I was a geologist and my profession required me to spend a fair amount of time outdoors, but I had little kids and a wife who preferred to curl up with a book, so we didn’t do a lot of outside recreation. We went up to Coopers Rock a few times, and once we went to visit friends down at the Greenbrier Resort, but I didn’t see much of wild, wonderful West Virginia in those days except from the platform of a drilling rig. The views were not all that spectacular.

My children are adults now and live on their own, and I have a different wife who isn’t afraid to walk in the woods, sometimes leading a goat. (She is trying to train them to be pack animals.) I was delighted to learn that this state has National Forests, and some places within these National Forests are designated as wilderness areas! Why is this such a big deal? Because it is not something you expect in the eastern U.S. The last place I lived that had National Forest and wilderness was Nevada, and that state contains 12,000-foot-high mountain peaks and almost five times the land area of West Virginia. Neither Maryland nor Delaware, where I’ve lived previously, have any National Forests or wilderness. When I was the outings chair in the Maryland Chapter, I was amazed at the number of outings being run by Maryland leaders into West Virginia to visit these special places. So being here, with Dolly Sods Wilderness only an hour’s drive from my farm, is nothing less than amazing. Roaring Plains, Otter Creek and Cranberry wildernesses are not much farther.

Dolly Sods is fascinating. It is a high plateau on the crest of the Allegheny Front, which makes up some of the highest mountains in West Virginia. The area was heavily logged for red spruce and hemlock in the 19th Century, and the grassy meadows (“sods”) were used by a family of German immigrants named Dahle for grazing cattle (hence the name). Serious fires ravaged the area in the early 20th century, burning up wood debris left behind by the loggers, brush, the remaining trees and even the humus soil down to the bedrock. Adding insult to injury, the Army then used the Sods as a target range during WWII, and there are still warning signs at the entrances to beware of live artillery shells.

Even after suffering so much abuse, Dolly Sods returned to life simply by letting nature do her work. It became part of Monongahela National Forest in 1916, and was designated a wilderness area in 1975.  The Dolly Sods North tract was added in 2009, making the area half again as large. The Dolly Sods Wilderness now encompasses more than 17,000 acres, with 47 miles of hiking trails. Grassland “balds,” huckleberry plains, cranberry bogs and hardwood forests abound. Red spruce and hemlock are coming back. Beavers have built a dam across Red Creek, creating a sizable pond. Tiny wild blueberries and darker huckleberries are abundant in the summer, along with blackberries, cranberries and even a few “teaberries” that taste just like the famous gum. The only remaining human artifacts in Dolly Sods (other than the occasional mortar shell and rotting wooden ties from the timber railroad) are the trail signs for hikers. Some people object to having even those, but I’d rather not get lost up there.

If nature can restore such a ravaged area, she can eventually restore MTR and strip mines, gas well drill pads, oiled coastlines, abandoned industrial sites, old military facilities and brownfields. Dolly Sods gives hope to us all, and it is metaphorically right outside my window. How cool is that?

See you outside!

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