The very sound of the word "Shenandoah" is tinged with romance, and perhaps a bit of sadness. It is a beautiful word, evocative of haunting melodies, sumptuous natural landscapes, chivalrous warriors waging righteous battle, and the whoosh of pure water flowing from mountain streams to converge within a river touched by mystery and legend. One of those legends maintains that the Shenandoah was formed from the tears of an Indian maiden in mourning for her lost love. I like this particular legend. It suits the dramatic landscape of the river’s watershed, and it suits the region’s inherent nostalgia.
The Shenandoah is part of my life. As the crow flies, it lies within 4 miles of my front door in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle—not quite walking distance on most occasions, but near enough to entice me into a very personal and lengthy courtship with my legendary neighbor.
When I head northeast out my door, I end up on the banks of the Shenandoah near Harpers Ferry, about 6 miles away. Here I can find any number of places within the national park where the river is immediately accessible, not least of which is along its banks down from Shenandoah Street—virtually at the Shenandoah's confluence with the Potomac. This is where Harpers Ferry literally joins the river during the floods that periodically overwhelm the town. Here the water course is wide and littered with large, flat-faced stones that test the skill of those who love to run the river in kayaks, canoes, and oversized rubber tubes. Along the river as it approaches Harpers Ferry are the remnants of the town’s industrial past. Solid rock walls survive—some on the bank, some actually jutting out into the water—competing with the trees and undergrowth that have returned and providing refuge for wildlife.
Four miles to the southeast, my favored destination, it’s possible to follow the river from a spectacular horseshoe bend; along a wide, well-carved channel; and on to a broad, shallow expanse of river lined on one side with tiny, tree-shaded inlets. This is where I usually go when feel like photographing the river, attempting to record the many aspects of her character. The banks along this stretch of river are partly public and partly private property. This means that my access to the river is often restricted by a succession of "no trespassing" signs. Confined to the shoulders of a public roadway, I strain across narrow stretches of privately property to find a good angle for my photos. In growing frustration, I challenge the abilities of my zoom lens and the limits of my own imagination. When I’m very lucky, an owner will see my dilemma and invite me to walk past the signs and down to the water’s edge. I really hate those signs, but I understand them—so many people regard this beautiful river as a refuse dump.
Local owners of riverside property seldom build anything permanent near the water—the danger of flooding is simply too great. Instead, they turn the riverbank into a series of private parks complete with docks for small boats, hammocks, benches, barbeque pits, and traditional West Virginia outhouses. Each area is different—some strewn with underbrush and wildflowers amid trees of all sizes, others with inviting lawns amid mature trees, and still others with all the bells and whistles to allow an RV to take up residence at the owner’s pleasure. Some of these riverside parks are extensions of a property across the road, where houses have been built at a safe distance from and height above the river. Others are tiny tracks, sometimes narrower than the roadbed they border, returned to as time and inclination allow by largely absentee owners.
Moulton State Park on Bloomery Road (Charles Town) combines a series of public camp sites and stream access along the river’s edge into an area that is less frustrating in terms of access, but generally less inspiring, at least in terms of photography. Here most of the trees, most of the wildflowers, and virtually all the natural character of the river bank have flattened under too many careless shoes and shovels. Nonetheless, the views up, down, and across the river are as fine as one could want. And this is also a good place to study the faces of children with fishing poles and an outdoor attitude. The channel of the river is deeper here and less inviting for wading. That sport of princes and princesses of all ages is better practiced further down along Bloomery Road, where another (but unnamed) public access point has a gently sloped bank that invites wading. It also invites adults with fishing poles to dangle their feet from inflatable chairs, allowing them to fish in rather decadent comfort.
Over the years, I’ve learned to know and appreciate the Shenandoah’s moods and her charms in all seasons and in types of weather. These lessons involve:
~ Walking her banks in the warmer months and spying wildflowers and berries, learning their names and uses—and wondering how I could have waited so late in life to acquire this knowledge.
~ Watching the antics of the wildfowl drawn to her waters—graceful predators that glide, dip, and dart to snatch their sustenance from the river through all the seasons of the year.
~ Wading her shallows in summer and watching in amazement as schools of tiny minnows nip at my ankles and toes.
~ Sunning myself on the wide, smooth rocks that lay bare when the water is low. Among my special memories involves sitting on one of those rocks with a friend after the death of my father. It was a warm day in November, and the waters of the river help to soothe the sorrow and replace it with memories of a happier sort. Now that friend is also gone, and I cannot go to the Shenandoah without remembering her and how her support helped me through a difficult time.
~ Watching with admiration (and perhaps a touch of envy) as young men and women rush through her rapids in flimsy-looking conveyances of all sorts.
~ Being chastened by the river’s power when particularly heavy rains swell her banks to overflowing with swift brown water that looks like liquid soil.
~ Delighting in summer over how the river attracts children, who literally laugh out loud at the chance to dangle their toes and their fishing poles into the water.
~ Appreciating the fragile beauty of the nearly frozen river in the heart of winter.
~ Mourning the thoughtlessness of those who dump their trash in isolated inlets along her banks, leaving cans, bottles, large plastic bags filled to bursting, and even the occasional sofa or discarded tire to pollute the water and spoil the view.
I know and appreciate my good fortune in sharing time with the Shenandoah. In its way, it helps to keep me grounded. Too often, the natural cycles that govern life along the river are allowed to creep into the background of modern life, skewing our view of the "real" world. My long courtship with the river gives my life a needed balance, a perspective that is missing from a world dominated by schedules, meetings, shopping centers, parking lots, and computers. The river serves as a reminder of things more governed by the natural order, and it provides a metaphor for life itself: For all its power, the Shenandoah is fragile and in a mode of constant, perceptible change. These are lessons worth the learning, from a teacher worth the heeding.