A June 2004 trip
to Davis by Idler
Quote: For hikers, rafters, kayakers, mountain bikers, campers, rock climbers, anglers, spelunkers, and nature lovers in general, West Virginia can’t be beat.
The latest enticement fell from the sky: Rain. Lots and lots of it. Here was the moment we’d been waiting for: high water on the Cheat River. We’d been ‘cheated’ on the Cheat before, during drought years, but there was no fear of that this time. No, now the question was: Was it too wild for the rafting outfitters to risk running the river?
While the prospect of whitewater rafting roused my husband and son, I had some surprises in store for them: lovely spots I’d discovered on a solo camping trip the previous year. I’d finally get the chance to show them Audra State Park, Seneca Rocks, and some of my other ‘discoveries.’ Then there were all our favorite haunts to consider, such as Blackwater Falls, hikes in Monongahela National Forest, and scenic drives through river valleys.
Kayaking the Cheat River
Invariably we find ourselves drawn to the water: cascading falls, crystalline streams, emerald lakes. Then, too, the vast stillness of the mountains draws us in. At night, there’s the primal comfort of a campfire to keep the mysteries of the forest at bay. Still, when we’re snug in our sleeping bags, the inevitable question arises: Just what is it that snuffling around outside the tent?
We can pile camping gear in the car and be in West Virginia in a mere four hours, which is one reason why we’ve gone there time and again. But aside from its proximity, there’s a sense of euphoria, of adventure, of getting away from it all, that galvanizes us. West Virginia doesn’t easily lend itself to taming, which is just the way we like it. It’s hard to imagine a Walmart or Starbucks ever penetrating some of those mountain hollows.
Instead, on each foray we find some new waterfall or covered bridge, some new swimming hole or overlook that merits coming back to. This last time, already anticipating our next trip, I grilled our rafting guide about good places to kayak. Although we didn’t explore some of the bike trails we’d been told about, there will always be a next time… and a next time.
Audra State Park
Prime time for whitewater rafting on the Cheat is in the spring, but unusually wet springs produce decent rapids into the early summer. Whitewater trips through the Cheat Canyon are challenging; most companies require rafters to be a minimum of 15 years old. A section of the Cheat more suitable for families with younger children runs through the Narrows. The Canyon also calms down considerably later in the season.
Small towns in West Virginia reward the outgoing traveler. Stop in a local diner, gas station, or general store and strike up a conversation. Most West Virginians are incredibly friendly and can provide information you’ll never find in tourist brochures.
Touring by bike is an option, but obviously the hilly terrain poses some challenges for all but the ultra-fit. However, there are several relatively flat areas in Mountaineer Country, such as Canaan Valley and along roads flanking rivers.
Take road signs seriously. When there’s a sign for a hill, it means a steep hill. Grades of 10% or more are not uncommon. A sign indicating curves means sharp curves. Away from the major highways, it can be quite a distance between gas stations, so don’t let the tank run low. Fog in low-lying areas moves in quickly and can seem almost impenetrable, so slow down and take it easy on those winding one-lane roads.
They say you can’t step in the same river twice, but perhaps that isn’t true at Blackwater Falls. That torrent of eerily dark water tumbling over a precipice seems frozen in time, a scene for the ages. This is the impression the falls made upon me when I first visited West Virginia, some thirty-five years ago, and it remains so to this day. I’ve seen countless waterfalls since then, but to my mind none match Blackwater Falls’ serene beauty.
On that maiden trip to West Virginia, my mother and I stayed in one of the park’s rustic cabins set near the edge of a forest. I remember sitting on the porch, watching as the deer emerged from the woods at dusk to forage in the glades. Fireflies were next to make an appearance in the profound stillness before sunset. As darkness fell, owls began solemnly hooting. It all made quite an impression on me back then.
As an adult, I’ve stayed in the lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park several times in the past few years. The lodge is near the edge of a vast gorge, surrounded by densely forested mountains. Wooden lounge chairs dot the lawn that stretches down from the lodge to a broad stone overlook. This is the perfect place to sit with a book and relax, and a good place for lazy birdwatchers, too.
Inside, the lodge has a certain homespun charm, with a spacious indoor lounge and country-style restaurant providing sweeping views out over the lawn. The restaurant is nothing special, though it’s reasonably priced and often has fresh trout on the menu. Still, there’s something to be said for coming down for breakfast and taking in the view out over the gorge while drinking coffee and contemplating the day ahead.
Rooms at the lodge are a bit on the cozy side, though not cramped. There are larger suites available for those wanting something a bit more upscale. The rooms face either the parking area in front of the lodge or the overlook; ask for the latter when making reservations. Be sure to specify a non-smoking room, too, as we once had the misfortune to come on the spur of the moment one weekend when a non-smoking room wasn’t available and, boy, was that ever a smokey room. It was so badly kippered that we kept the windows open despite the autumn chill.
In one section of the lodge there’s the inevitable arcade room, a board game room, and smallish indoor swimming pool, but these are only rainy-day distractions. It’s the outdoor activities that are most appealing here. There’s boating, swimming, fishing, horseback riding, bicycle rentals, cross-country skiing, volleyball, basketball, tennis, baseball, a nature center, and 20 miles of splendid rhododendron-lined trails. But the main attraction is dramatic five-story-high Blackwater Falls, the water tinted a dark amber color from the tannic acid of hemlocks and spruces. Each time I visit this timeless place, I feel revitalized.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 27, 2004
Mountain Jewel: Blackwater Falls State Park
P.O. Drawer 490
Davis, West Virginia
Attraction | "Seneca Rocks & Seneca Caverns"
There are over 350 different climbing routes up Seneca Rocks, making it something of a climber’s mecca on the East Coast. Several climbing schools located nearby make full use of the wide range of technical challenges. There’s an impressive visitor center at the base of the rocks, and along its terrace telescopes have been set up so that climbers can be observed. I’ve never really understood the appeal of rock climbing, but watching the climbers gingerly positioning themselves on the sheer face of Seneca Rocks provides an agreeable ‘thank-god-I’m-not-up-there’ sensation.
Eight miles to the east along Rt. 33 lie Seneca Caverns, one of several major caverns in the area. Smoke Hole Caverns are nearby, not to mention the numerous non-commercial caves popular with spelunkers. While Seneca Caverns arent as impressive as Luray Caverns located just over Virginia border, they’re not nearly as crowded.
I visited early one summer morning, arriving before tours started. I went over to log-cabin-style Seneca Caverns Restaurant, hoping to get some coffee, but found it wasn’t open for breakfast. As I turned to leave, a waitress opened the door and invited me on in. Two employees were having breakfast and soon I’d joined them, wolfing down freshly baked biscuits smothered in sausage gravy – down-home cooking at its best. Hummingbirds were zipping around the feeder just outside the window as I was regaled with the tale of how one of the men had shot the black bear holding pride of place in a corner of the dining room. I was charged a token fee of a couple bucks for this "only in West Virginia" breakfast.
The caverns themselves were very much the standard issue, winding through a series of artfully lit chambers, one of which, "The Grand Ballroom," was admittedly quite impressive. The tour was conducted by a sweet-faced middle-aged woman who had obviously memorized the tour script word-for-word. Speaking in a peculiar sing-song cadence, she pronounced every indefinite article with a long "a" sound – "Here is A column formed by A stalactite and A stalagmite" - like a child reading aloud from a book. What fascinated me most was that she would lapse into normal speech whenever I asked her a question that derailed her from the script. But she’d always pick up the thread of her script again, switching back to the stilted sing-song recitation. I was so intrigued by this phenomenon that I asked question after question, just to hear her do this.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 27, 2004
U S Post Offices: Seneca Rocks
Route 33 in the northern Monongahela Nat'l Forest
Davis, West Virginia 26814
Two guides took us through the Cheat Narrows, showing us their favorite spots. We indulged in oar-splashing battles, paddling races, and lazy swims alongside our duckies. One stop at a deep spot by a giant boulder was a big hit with our son, who repeatedly leapt from the rock into the river. Although it wasn’t an exciting trip by any means, we did go through some modest whitewater at a place called Calamity Rapids. It didn’t look that challenging, but I somehow ended up going backwards through it.
During the last few years, we’ve made several whitewater trips out West, the most memorable along the Snake River in Wyoming. Those trips, mostly through Class III rapids, only whetted our appetite for whitewater adventure. It seemed inconceivable that we lived just hours away from some of the finest whitewater rivers in the world and hadn’t yet taken a full-blown whitewater trip there. Not wanting to let another whitewater season pass, we booked a trip on the Cheat again, this time opting for a Cheat Canyon trip.
When we called to make reservations at Cheat River Outfitters, we were told the river was running so high that no rafts were running that day, but they were probably going to run the next day. This was Father’s Day, and we were delighted at the prospect of high water and a whitewater action for our Father’s Day family outing.
Gearing up, paddling down
It was downright chilly the morning we assembled at the rafting center. Many of the rafters wisely chose to rent wet suits. Not being particularly susceptible to the cold, I opted just for quick-drying synthetic clothing and a nylon jacket. After signing waivers, we were given a safety spiel, during which it was repeatedly emphasized that the river was going to be rough that day. It was so convincing, in fact, that one couple decided to bail. The rest of us were issued life jackets, helmets and paddles. Then we were divided into four groups, six or seven to a raft along with a guide, and given further instructions.
Six outdoorsy German students made up one group, while another group consisted of a group of four French tourists and two nervous-looking middle-aged women. The third boat had a mother-daughter team and two couples. Our boat consisted a very game and fit family of four from Philadelphia and us. Hoisting our rafts, we made the short trek to the river.
Having been on several rafting trips, we pretty much knew the drill, but it’s always interesting to see how each river guide manages his group. Our leader, Mike Wohleber, was the head guide and a seasoned pro. He quickly sorted us out and had us paddling together as a team. It helped, too, that everyone in the boat had been rafting before.
The river was a roiling, frothing muddy brown, quite unlike the clear dark teal beauty I remembered. The strong current carried us along, so we paddled only to maneuver. The first few rapids were purely warm-ups, Class III and fairly exciting but not threatening.
Commercial rafting companies generally don’t take customers through anything high than Class V rapids. Class VI is for experts only, while Class VII rapids are completely unrunable. During high water, the Cheat River Canyon's normal Class III-IV rapids—Decision, Big Nasty, Even Nastier, Fist, Tear Drop, High Falls, Maze, and Coliseum—become very challenging Class IV-V rapids
"Stay in the boat"
As we approached our first Class IV rapid, dubbed "Big Nasty," Mike gave us a final word of advice: "Stay in the boat." This was delivered half in jest, half in earnest. He’d already instructed us on what to do when (not if but when) we fell out or capsized.
Through the rapids, the most important thing, we were told, was to keep paddling, no matter what. Some folks, awestruck by the daunting rapids, simply stop paddling and start looking for something to hold on to. They forget that they’re not mere passengers. Trouble is, in order to get through serious rapids, you have to paddle like hell. Otherwise, the boat can be pinned to a rock, swept into a "hole" (a swirling mass of water that entraps or flips a raft), or left to the mercy of the river.
From my position in the middle of the raft, I couldn’t see what was up ahead as well as my husband and son perched in the bow, but I could sure hear it, a raucous roar that left little doubt about what was in store. Mike had us paddle a few strokes to position the raft, and then as soon as we hit the rapids, he yelled for us to paddle for all we were worth. It seemed like mere seconds, but it was probably longer, before we emerged from Big Nasty, jubilant. We "high fived" our paddles, then made our way to an eddy to watch the other three rafts successfully negotiate the rapids.
It was still early innings, though, and next up was "Even Nastier." "If we’re going to flip on the river today, this will be the place," Mike predicted. "If that happens, make for the shore immediately or you’ll be swept right into another set of rapids."
Even Nastier was true to its name, but by paddling all out, we made it through. No sooner had we done so, though, than the two rafts behind us came to grief. The first was pulled into a churning, whirling, whitewater ‘hole’ and spun about madly before finally capsizing. At that moment the third raft swept in right on top of the hapless rafters still trapped in the whirlpool. Chaos ensued.
A group of onlookers on rocks jutting out into the river quickly helped out, tossing rescue lines and shouting encouragement to those swimming for the shore. We struck out to intercept people being swept downstream, pulling one, two, three, four sputtering, gasping rafters from the water. The people we’d rescued were shivering and blue-lipped from the combined effects cold and shock. It took a while for everyone to regroup on the riverbank downstream; incredibly, all the equipment had been recovered and no one had been seriously hurt, though there were a number of cuts and bruises.
Rescue at "Even Nastier
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
Ahead lay "The Big Five": Fist, Teardrop, High Falls, Maze, and Coliseum. Fist sent me sprawling, and for a moment I was sure I was going overboard, but at the last split second I grabbed onto the guy behind me and managed to stay in the boat. Teardrop shook loose the petite woman seated next to Mike, but he fished her from the water with a practised, seemingly effortless, scoop. At High Falls, the raft bucked so violently that I was thrown backwards, my torso and head nearly in the water before Bob, the man behind me, once again saved the day and grabbed the arm I’d flung up. Amazingly, we all held onto our paddles.
Some weren’t so lucky, however. What we’d begun to call "the unlucky boat" flipped again, this time rather spectacularly in a treacherous spot offering little chance for a rescue. One man was momentarily trapped under the raft, while several others were swept through a relentless set of rapids. One woman managed to pull herself onto a large boulder, but she was the luckiest. When we pulled one of the victims out of the water, he said he’d broken his leg. We paddled to shore where Mike examined the leg, which, indeed, seemed to be broken. After the leg was in a split and the injured man made as comfortable as possible in the center of the raft, though, there was nothing for it. The only way off the river at that point was through one more set of rapids.
When we finally emerged from Coliseum Rapids, I glanced at my watch and was surprised to find it was nearly four in the afternoon. I’d been so intent I hadn’t noticed the hours slipping by. A rescue squad had been called and was waiting at the take-out point for the man with the broken leg. Soaking wet, bone weary, and giddy with relief, we hauled our raft up onto the riverbank. I realized I’d been lucky that day, having emerged with only a few calluses.
Perhaps it was foolhardy, but I was certain of one thing: I’d be back someday to do it all over again.
Now, I’m not all the fond of groundhogs, but I’ll say one thing for them: at least they don’t keep me awake at night. Like any good camper, I have my share of stories to tell about the animals I’ve encountered in the woods or around the campsite. In Vermont, on my first solo camping trip, I set my tent up in a wooden sleeping shelter, safely off the forest floor, only to be kept awake for hours by some rodent persistently gnawing under the floorboards.
Then there was the time in Rhode Island we heard what sounded like a large animal stomping around just outside our tent. Aiming a flashlight through the tent flap, we immediately saw our noisy intruder: a skunk. Needless to say, we stayed right where we were and turned off the light. The skunk, meanwhile, happily rummaged through the campsite before settling down to demolish a sturdy, zipped fabric-covered cooler, tearing into the packet of Chips Ahoy inside. (Stupid of us to have left out the cooler, I know, but this campground was so far from anything resembling bear country that we’d been lax.)
The following morning, surveying the scattered remnants of Mr. Skunk's all-night cookie binge, I vowed not to leave a thing out that would interest him the following night. Trouble was, when he showed up again, the absence of Chips Ahoy seemed to piss him off. He stomped persistently around making irritated, threatening sounds that no doubt meant "Where the hell have you hidden the cookies?"
Living in the country, I’ve developed a live-and-let-live philosophy to undomesticated animals. Note that I don’t say "wild," but "undomesticated." To my mind, truly wild animals stay as far away from humans as possible. Mountain lions, wolves, and eagles are what I’d call wild, whereas coyotes, squirrels, Canadian geese, and other species that can stand being anywhere near us are not. Truly wild animals go into decline as soon as mankind enters the equation. The ‘undomesticated’ ones, on the other hand, sometimes thrive. Deer are a case in point.
I once tried to tame a feral cat by leaving out food for it. To my chagrin, all I ended up ‘taming’ was a cantankerous old possum. Each night he’d visit the food bowl on the stoop, making such a racket that I’d come out to drive him away. "Shoo," I’d say. "Go away." He’d look up with myopic indifference. I didn’t want to get too close as possums can deliver a nasty bite, so I’d grab a shovel and prod him with it. "Go on," I’d admonish, "back to the woods with you." No dice. He was too intent on scrounging Meow Mix. It took a fairly decent shove to send him on his way. It made me feel like nothing more than a lowdown, dirty possum abuser.
One animal that’s carved out a nice little man-tolerant niche for itself is the raccoon. Of course, you rarely see a raccoon during the day (and if you do, watch out, because it may be rabid), but at night they’re all over the place. When it comes to brazenness, raccoons take the cake.
Last year I was camping at Coopers Rock State Park not far from Morgantown, a lovely place that’s popular with hikers. I was on my own, my son at Scout camp and my husband at a conference. I’ve never worried about camping on my own in West Virginia, even at some of the remoter parks, and it seemed like popular Coopers Rock was a safe bet. Little did I know.
I’ve got this cheapie one-man tent that I’m strangely fond of. I think it cost all of twenty bucks but has the virtue of being so easy to erect that I never spend more than ten minutes setting up camp. Thing is, though, it’s tiny. I sleep with my head in one corner of the tent and my feet in the other. I think it may actually be a child’s tent.
No sooner had I set up camp at Coopers Rock than in chugged a big old Ford F-10 pulling the granddaddy of all pop-up campers. Of course, they set up right next to me, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as neighbors can be pleasant while camping. But not these folks. No, they firmly belonged to the "you can take it with you" school of camping.
Out came the grill, the portable stereo, the enormous camp stove, the deck chairs, the lanterns, the big coolers… every conceivable type of outdoor (as well as a lot of indoor) equipment.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the electric bug zapper they set up. Now, this I had trouble comprehending. In the vastness wilderness of West Virginia, these people expected to make a dent in the bug population or something? What a bug zapper does, actually, is draw every moth or June bug in the vicinity. The nonstop crackle of insect electrocution drowns out the very sound of the crickets.
Did I mention that these people had children? Two little girls who, true to form, had brought all their toys, not to mention "The Little Mermaid" to watch. That’s right, they had a TV. After dinner, while the parents were sitting in deck chairs beneath the bug zapper, the girls watched the entire nauseating movie. Lord, how I hate Disney. Truly, madly, deeply.
After the Disney torment ended, I managed to nod off to the sound of the bbbZZZZtt! bbbZZZZtt! of the bug zapper. Relative quiet descended on Coopers Rock campsite.
From a deep sleep, I was jolted awake by a metallic crash. It took but a millisecond to identify the sound, a lid banging against the side of a metal trashcan. Repeatedly. I unzipped the tent and there, visible in the purplish light of the bug zapper, were three raccoons raiding the ‘critter-proof’ trashcan the park had provided.
Now, normally, these trashcans are indeed pest-proof, as they’re suspended off the ground in a swinging metal hoop. A single raccoon would be foiled, but several raccoons working in tandem are more than a match for this ranger-devised stratagem. One raccoon tilts the can sideways in the hoop, while a second knocks off the lid and climbs in. The loose lid then clatters against the can it’s chained to as the second raccoon flings trash out to the third felon.
I had to emerge fully from the tent and brandish my trusty flashlight menacingly before the raccoons abandoned their smorgasbord. They loped off with that peculiarly soundless hunched gait, temporarily vanquished. No sooner was I back in my sleeping bag than I heard a distant crash as they plundered someone else’s trash. Then came a perfectly ghastly sound, like some hellish spawn of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagining, inhuman and fierce: a raccoon fight.
Apparently, there was more than one troop of raccoons working the camp, and the rival groups weren’t on friendly terms. This quiet corner of West Virginia was plagued by gang warfare. All up and down the camp the raccoon gangs ranged, pillaging trash, knocking over equipment, waking campers with their snarling and gibbering. Campers would chase them off, but they’d come right back. After they visited my trash a second time, I used a bungee cord to secure the lid of the trashcan.
From inside my tent, in the eerie light cast by the bug zapper, I watched the hunched shadows the raccoons cast onto the tent as they padded soundlessly nearby. They’d stop at my trashcan, rear onto their hind legs and scrabble ineffectually as they tilted the trashcan this way and that. It seemed to baffle then infuriate them that they could no longer plunder it.
Gloating over my small victory, I fell asleep once again only to be awaken almost immediately by a pitched raccoon battle taking place inches away just out the tent. As the raccoons fought, they buffeted and careened into the side of the tiny tent. It was like being caught in the middle of a dogfight, only much worse with the otherworldly, insane noises the raccoons made. Terrified, I sat up (I couldn’t actually stand in the tiny tent) and grabbed my flashlight, using it to wallop at the raccoon shadows, mostly missing the raccoons themselves.
I got in a couple of good whacks before they finally dispersed, but they didn’t go far. No, then they discovered all the stuff my bug-zappin’ neighbors had left out. The cooler. The toys. The pots. The pans. The dishes. The leftovers.
With a weary sigh, I laid back down. "Go for it, raccoons."