Highland Outdoors | Fall 2022

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304.368.1123 • marioncvb.com

Enjoy the fall hues and perfect seasonal temperatures in Marion County. Spend an afternoon walking along a scenic rail trail lined with beautiful foliage. Or gear up your bike and head to Valley Falls State Park for a ride along the rolling mountain terrain.

Plan your fall trip to Marion County now.

The Middle of


5highland-outdoors.com TUCKER COUNTY TAKE IN FALL From winding trails with awe-inspiring overlooks to scenic driving loops across the county – every direction in Tucker County leads to phenomenal views of our autumn landscape. Add in our diverse arts community and tasty, local brews and you have the ultimate seasonal escape. Fall comes early here, so start planning your trip now. canaanvalley.org#gettuckered|304.259.5315 LIVE YOUR ADVENTURE


Normally when something reminds you of something else, it’s because the object of which you are being reminded is para mount to the object initiating the compar ison. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous people compare West Virginia to the West, whether in terms of mountainous terrain, mountainous weather, or mountainous culture. They connect these elements of West Virginia to the Western elements they prefer, dreaming of bigger moun tains, sunnier days, and hipper mountain towns. And sometimes, they do it in a way that makes it seem as if they want to be there, not here. Which, of course, is fine. Not everyone wants to be here, but I sure do, and I hope you do, too, whether you’re a resident, a visitor, or just passing through.

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I had a recent discussion with a friend about a landscape reminding you of another geographically separate landscape. This, naturally, focused on folks often stating that a natural milieu somewhere in West Virginia reminds them of another moun tain-exotic locale. Hell, I’ve done it many times myself, proclaiming that a moss-cov ered spruce forest reminds me of Oregon, that the treeless balds of the Eastern Conti nental Divide remind me of Idaho, that the long cliffs and talus fields of North Fork Mountain remind me of Montana, that the familiar scents of pine duff soil on a bonedry day remind me of forests in Colorado. While this, at least in my mentions, was done with the most endearing of intentions, my friend and I questioned the preferential ordering of places during these proclama tions. Why don’t we flip the script? Why should West Virginia remind us of other far-flung locales instead of the other way around? After all, West Virginia is my home; why can’t other places remind me of West Virginia?Inhis1969 book Down the Tatshenshini: Notes from a Cold River, deceased author and militant environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, “The [Alaskan] country looks more and more like Idaho, less and less, as I had thought in Juneau and Haines, like West Virginia.” I read this passage soon after the conversation that sparked this editor letter, and was amazed that Abbey, an waschian-native-turned-Western-desert-lover,Appalareminded,atleastforamoment,of

6 HIGHLAND OUTDOORS FALL 2022 ForresterNikki

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While I hold a special place in my heart for the American West, in my eyes, West Virginia is paramount to the grandiose locations in my previously mentioned comparisons. Turns out, those places make me think of home—not the other way around. So, from now on, I hereby vow that whenever I’m travelling and notice any semblance of a connection between some where and here, I will proudly state that said place reminds me of West Virginia. And if I’m momentarily reminded of some where else while in West Virginia, well, I suppose I’ll take mental note of my error, smile, and keep my mouth shut. w

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West Virginia while on a river expedition in the rugged wilds of Alaska.

Copy Editor Amanda Larch

Brooke Andrew, Madison Ball, Meghan Fisher, Nikki Forrester, Brian Gratwicke, Mariah Lee Hibarger, David Johnston, Dylan Jones, Chad Landress, Karen Lane, Nate Lavender, Cam Moore, Liz Pavlovic, Brian Sarfino, Brice Shirbach, Ven Smith, Tabitha Stover, Jesse Thornton


Climber Lindsey Frein places gear on Indian Summer (5.10d) on the rocky shores of Summersville Lake. Photo by Karen Lane.

By Karen Lane

36CLOUDWALKING Misadventures on North Fork Mountain



By Dylan Jones


By Brooke Andrew

By Nate Lavender

By Mariah Lee Hibarger




30CRYPTICGIANTS The Search for the Eastern Hellbender

Sue Haywood searching for loam, pg.

By David Johnston

By Nikki Forrester

7highland-outdoors.com CONTENTS 24SHOOTINGSANDSTONE

14THERE WERE NO FLOWERS Ethical PhotographyNature

Burke-Spolaor thinks that when the two galaxies collided to form Abell 2261, the two black holes gutted out the center, flung out stars, and then merged. “It’s not a black hole that’s sitting still. We think it’s one that’s whizzing around in the galaxy. It’s a billion times the mass of the Sun and the size of our solar system—that’s what we’re trying to image with JWST.” Even though it should be there, scientists haven’t been able to find it with the Hubble Telescope or previous technologies.


According to Jeffrey Byard, WVSTA pres ident and ALT section 2 coordinator, the WVSTA has been working with volunteers and officials from the Greenbrier Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest to complete a slate of projects, including trail treadwork and updates to existing shelters and bridges.



By HO Staff

The recent deployment of NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is making it possible for humans to venture even further into the cosmic realm. Launched in December 2021, the JWST is the largest and most powerful telescope NASA has ever constructed. The first images were released in July 2022, stun ning scientists and the public with unprec edent views of the cosmos.

“We’re piecing together a shelter system for the whole length of the trail,” Byard described. All existing shelters along the ALT were updated with new walls, flooring, aluminum roofing, paint, and

The ALT has been an ongoing project since the WVSTA was formed 40 years ago.

Scientists in West Virginia are hoping to use the JWST, which detects infrared light that is invisible to the human eye, to complement data collected from the Green Bank Telescope. Sarah Burke-Spolaor, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, uses the Green Bank Telescope to study pulsars, fast radio bursts, gravita tional waves, and black holes. “I’m a radio astronomer, but you can’t only look with one eye open, you have to look at the whole spectrum,” she Burke-Spolaorsaid.recently submitted a proposal to use the JWST to search for binary black holes that form when galax ies collide. “Black holes are one of those things that always catch the imagination,” she said. “They influence the way that galaxies are developed and they shape a

Burke-Spolaor wants to use the JWST to look for two black holes in the center of a massive elliptical galaxy called Brightest Cluster Galaxy Abell 2261. Unlike our galaxy with spiraling arms, an elliptical galaxy resembles “a big, fluffy ball of stars,” she said. But Abell 2261 is relatively unique in that it doesn’t have a cusp of stars at its center, which scientists expect to see when there’s a gigantic black hole pulling stars into the galactic core.


By HO Staff

within it. The further away a galaxy is, the longer it takes for that light to reach us on Earth and the redder it appears in images. For instance, if it takes 10,000 years for light from a certain galaxy to travel to us, then we’re seeing that galaxy as it was 10,000 years ago. The first image released by JWST was a Deep Field image that captures thousands of galaxies, many with red hues. Some galaxies in the image appear as they did just 700 million years after the Big Bang, which occurred more than 13.5 billion years ago. “JWST is going to image the point in time where we are seeing the formation of the first galaxies,” said Burke-Spolaor. “We can explore so much further by launching telescopes into space. I can just sit in my office on Earth and observe a billion years back in time. It’s just incredible.” w


The WVSTA also has plans to construct a new ALT shelter near the rural hamlet of Glady. “We’ve got section coordinators

On a broader scale, the JWST paves the way for a new understanding of how our universe came to be and our place

site improvements. The first shelter they tackled was the Wildell Shelter near the defunct logging town of Beulah on the West Fork Rail Trail in Randolph County, about three years ago. “It was actually one of the toughest ones that needed the most amount of work,” he said. The most recently refurbished shelter was John’s Camp Run Shelter, also located in Randolph County near Gaudineer Knob.

Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. In the middle, you can see two galaxies merging, sending star-forming gas and dust into space.

Hikers, rejoice! The West Virginia Scenic Trails Association (WVSTA) has been hard at work making improvements to the Allegheny Trail (ALT), West Virginia’s longest trail. The ALT runs 287.81 miles from its northern terminus on the MasonDixon Line at the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border near Bruceton Mills to its southern terminus with the Appalachian Trail on Peters Mountain at the Virgin ia-West Virginia border.

lot of the dynamics of the stars.”

Until then, Dolly Sods can be accessed via two main routes from the east. Visitors can access Red Creek Campground by taking U.S. Route 33 to Jordan Run Road to reach Forest Road 19. Those looking to visit Bear Rocks Preserve can take WV Route 93 to Jordan Run Road to reach Forest Road 75. The Red Creek Trail head remains open with limited parking and is only accessible via Jordan Run Road to the east. To alleviate potential parking issues, the USFS is asking the public to avoid the Red Creek Trail head altogether until the temporary bridge is in place.

and volunteers starting to get knowledge of carpentry work,” Byard said. “It’s going to be a great learning expe rience not just for our association, but also for the Forest Service folks we’re working with.”

Visitors can contact the MNF Petersburg Office at (304) 257-4488. MNF officials will post updates at www.fs.usda.gov/ mnf and at www.facebook.com/MonongahelaNF. w

When discussing the change of seasons in West Virginia, one must not forget the ephemeral and ethereal season sand wiched in between summer and fall: fog season! Although the foggiest place in the U.S. is the aptly named Cape Disappointment in Washington state, the West Virginia highlands truly hold their own when it comes to moody mists, cloud-crowned forests, and socked-in valleys. So, naturally, it should go without saying that we have the best fog East of the Mississippi. From July through October, our slice of Central Appalachia is by far the foggiest region in the country. So, where does it all come from? Highland fog generally forms from two processes: radiational cooling and upslope winds (which also bring our famed upslope snowstorms in winter). The process of radiational cooling begins at dusk, when the day’s heat is released from the ground back into the troposphere, causing air at ground level to cool and condense into fog. This dense fog then sinks from mountain tops and collects in valley bottoms, enshrouding our hills and hollers under a thick blanket of white mystery. Explaining upslope fog, though, requires a nerdy digression into the climate of these verdant mountains. In the Köppen climate classification system used around the world, the West Virginia high lands region is considered either a “warm oceanic climate” or a “temperate oceanic climate.” These are the same climatic zones found in the coastal mountains of the Pacific Northwest and are typically used to describe mountainous regions with an ocean just to the west. When winds blow from west to east, the moisture-laden air rises and forms fog, rain, and snow across peaks and ridgelines. You might be asking, “But Cam, where is our ocean?” Well, let me tell you. Here in West Virginia, our “ocean” is the vast Mississippi watershed, of which we are positioned, of course, to the east. This includes the mighty Missis sippi, the omnipotent Ohio, and many other titanic tribu taries, along with the venerable inland oceans of the Great Lakes to our northwest. Our upslope fog forms when winds, rich with moisture captured from those rivers and lakes, collide with the fortress-like wall of the Alleghenies and condense into that beloved mountain valley fog. So, when the beauty of a fog-filled valley surrounded by the bril liance of late summer flowers or the rusty tones of peak fall foliage takes your breath away, take a second to thank our mountains and our vast, inland ocean of rivers. w

Along with shelter improvements, the WVSTA replaced the deck boards on the walking bridge that crosses Glady Fork. The team also plans to build a handhewn log bridge by the shelter that crosses Daniels Creek.But“The Gap,” a proposed 20-plus-mile section just north of Peters Mountain on the WV-VA border, remains incomplete. Byard said work on completing The Gap continues slowly, and he encouraged interested individ uals to contact him to find out how they can help build momentum to finish the project.



The WVSTA is always on the lookout for volunteers. “Come out if you want to help, even on the administra tive side,” Byard said. “We have a place for people who might not be willing to go out and do a lot of physical work but who can help out with everything from T-shirt and merchandise design to fundraising.” To learn more, visit www.wvscenictrails.org. w

Cam Moore is a resident of Canaan Valley, the highest large valley east of the Mississippi, and lover of all things West Virginia.

East of Mississippithe

Leaf peepers and wilderness lovers beware: the Laneville Bridge over Red Creek, which provides access to the Dolly Sods Wilder ness via the Red Creek Trailhead and Forest Road 19, is closed until further notice due to safety concerns identified during a routine inspection in July.

Only local traffic is permitted on Laneville Road. The United States Forest Service (USFS) asks that travelers avoid Laneville Road unless you are a visiting a Laneville resident.

The USFS is currently working with the WV Department of Highways to design a permanent replacement bridge that will be funded by the Great American Outdoors Act. The USFS plans to remove the existing bridge and install a temporary bridge about 50 feet downstream of the current bridge that will remain in place until the permanent replacement bridge is completed. Monongahela National Forest (MNF) officials are hoping to have the temporary bridge in place before winter.

By Cam Moore



witches, for the first-annual Witches and Warlocks Paddle, an annual event hosted by the Historic Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).


As we gathered in the parking lot above the frothing Fayette Station Rapid, there was a quiet excitement building against the stunning backdrop of the New River’s golden corridor. Laughter filled the misty air as we hugged and checked out one another’s boards and traded costume items. I kept thinking my outfit would be better with a cape, but noticed that no one else had cam-strapped a straw broom to their paddle, so I felt adequately prepared for the magical outing.

here’s a witchy window in West Virginia when autumn’s golden glow sweeps across the mountains, when nights become cool and crisp. The wide ribbons of deciduous forest that cover our wrinkled landscape explode from their homogenous green into a radiant display of fall color. Most mornings, mysterious fog rises from rivers and valleys while mist ascends from the transforming trees that blanket our corner of the Appalachian Mountains.Thenotoriously unpredictable weather patterns that rule the New River Gorge during winter, spring, and summer become somewhat more predictable.

I’ve always loved getting on the river early in the morning, when the fog is still rising from the water and the trees. On one such misty late-October morning in 2019, I found myself on the banks of the New River assembling my witch costume. This was not another ordinary day on the river, but rather a quite extraordinary one. I was gearing up, alongside my fellow

By Mariah Lee Hibarger

As schools reopen and summer’s frenzy quiets down, one might think we have turned in for the season, but don’t be fooled. Fayetteville in the fall is an outdoor junkie’s fairy tale. There is nary a moment when something doesn’t beckon you to get outside and play.




With costumes assembled and SUP boards fully inflated, we slipped off into the New River and paddled upstream into the moody mist. The gorge looks stunning no matter the season, and this morning was no exception. The walls of the ancient canyon were vibrant, an explosion of burnt oranges and blis tering yellows, flaming reds intermingled with deep purples and pinks. Thanks to the calm nights and low flows, the river was crystal clear, a welcome change from summer’s turbulent brownDriftingwaters.upstream on a New River fall morning with my fellow witches was surreal, erie, calm, and beautiful. There

I caught up with my friend Julie Jones about her daughters, one of whom was my former student and is now a fellow river guide. Julie just so happened to have the perfect witch’s cape for me because, like a true mom, she brought extras. That’s how small towns work: someone will always have something right when you need it. I also caught up with my friend Mara Petre tich, and noted that her daughter Rose seemed much taller since the last time I had seen her. Time seems to fly by and stand still all at once around here; the kids always grow up too quickly.


have right here in our backyard,” she said.



were giggles and drifting conversations. There were quiet moments of solitude interrupted by bursts of laughter that rippled across the water and echoed their way upstream. Past the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge, we coalesced and circled around each other in a big eddy. It was magical floating there together in our capes and pointy hats. It felt like a private river party with an inclusive and open invitation: You are welcome here. Dress up. Bring your PFD and a pointy hat (and a cape). Inclusion is just what Tabitha Stover had in mind when she envisioned a Witches and Warlocks SUP gathering at

Fayette Station. Stover shared the idea with Meghan Fisher, a local SUP guide and owner of Mountain Surf Paddle Sports, and Melanie Seiler Hames, a local river guide and executive director of Active Southern West Virginia. Fisher and Seiler Hames loved the idea and jumped right on board to help organize and spread word of theAccordingevent. to Stover, that commu nal willingness to get together and get outside is the norm around here. “We are a community of people who simply are not going to grow up. We are going to put on our witch hats and enjoy the magic that we

The three spread the word through their respective media channels so people like me knew where to go and what to bring. Fisher and Seiler Hames leveraged their professional experience as local outdoor guides to make sure all interested partic ipants had adequate skills and access to the appropriate equipment. That’s “smalltown” Appalachia for you—good to the last drop.As we floated through the long, quiet pool back down to the take-out, I sensed the cold coming, that familiar snapping bite in the morning air. I felt the shift from


The 2022 Witches & Warlocks Paddle is currently planned for Sunday, October 30th. Depending on river levels, it will be held at Fayette Station on the New River or at Kanawha Falls on the Kanawha River. You can find out more information at www.visitfayettevillewv.com.

13highland-outdoors.com 304.866.8680AMY BARB, bestofcanaan.comBROKER WE HAVE THE PLACE TO STAY NO MATTER HOW YOU PLAY Canaan Valley, WV ⁞ Blackwater Falls ⁞ Timberline Mtn

summer to autumn settling into my bones. I turned my gaze, trying my best to savor every drop of Mother Nature’s annual party, complete with her own leave-no-trace confetti leafs capes. Autumn in the New River Gorge is bittersweet beauty beyond belief. And once again, it’s just about time to dress up in costumes and float through long, misty pools on the second oldest river in the world. w

Mariah Lee Hibarger is a teacher, traveler, and professional guide who splits her time between Fayetteville, the Grand Canyon, and Latin America.

Park. A few years ago, he ventured out to one of his favorite spots, a remote location he knew would have an awesome display of flowers against a mountainous backdrop. But when he got there, he was stunned, albeit in an unexpected way. “There were no flowers,” he recounted. “Everything had been trampled.”Reflecting on what had happened, Stensland realized that he himself had contributed to the area’s degradation. He had photographed it many times, published his images, and described the location in various media postings. Not surpris ingly, other photographers and members of the public were eager to experience the scene and photograph it for their own portfolios. While attempting to share the majesty of a special place, he had inadvertently introduced it to herds of others who would eventually overwhelm it.

Stensland’s experience was the genesis of Nature First, a grassroots movement of photographers committed to practic ing their craft in a way that avoids contributing to the degra impacts.preventthenotheFirstwithInbyphotographedhighlands,WestscenepristineintheVirginiaastheauthor.accordanceNaturePrinciples,haschosentodiscloselocationtofuture

Erik Stensland is a prominent Colorado-based photographer specializing in the stunning vistas of Rocky Mountain National




By David Johnston


Ever since the advent of photography, photographers have been taking and sharing pictures of the astonish ing beauty of our natural world. Early photographers of the American West, such as Willian Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins, influenced the establishment of our first national parks, and 20th century photographers like Ansel Adams helped make the protection of natural areas part of our national fabric.

But in the age of social media, pandemic-driven pilgrimages to the wilderness, and the ubiquity of affordable-yet-sophisti cated cameras that put the ability to make fine images in nearly everyone’s hands, nature photographers face new ethical considerations about how to obtain, share, and promote their images. These factors combine to make the use of photography as a tool of conservation—and not exploitation—more import ant than ever.

Our goal to use nature to express our artistic vision is a privilege, not a right. “Getting the shot” should never have priority over respecting the integrity and preservation of natural features and ecosystems that sustain them. The very reason we are nature photographers is to support nature. Everything we do should be consistent with that, and nothing in the process should contribute, even indirectly, to harm of the natural world. This is the core concept on which the subsequent principles are built.

Also note that not all impacts are physical. Actions such as flying a drone, blocking trails, creating noise, or light painting may nega tively affect the experience of other visitors, and can even influence the behavior of wildlife. Thinking through the potential outcomes

Educate yourself about the places you photograph


dation of natural areas while actively supporting preservation of the environment. Nature First has grown from a small group of photographers into a volunteer-based nonprofit organization with 4,700 current members throughout the U.S. and 70 countries.

Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography

Out of the discussion evolved the Nature First Principles, a frame work for applying key considerations to various aspects of nature photography. Similar in concept to the seven principles of Leave No Trace, these core concepts are meant to guide responsible photogra phers toward developing sustainable, low-impact practices that will help preserve the natural world and avoid actions that could lead to further restrictions on photography. They can be applied by profes sional photographers, avid amateurs, and even casual vacationers sporting a smartphone. Their scope is not limited to any geographic area and they are just as useful in deserts, mountains, aquatic envi ronments, and the rugged hills of the Alleghenies.

While trampling sensitive plants has an immediate impact, not all consequences of your actions are as obvious but can still be harmful. Keep in mind that your pictures will influence others—both photogra phers who may want to replicate your image and others who just want to visit the location. Your actions by themselves may be innocuous, but the cumulative effects of others doing the same may add up to real harm. Keep that in mind when setting up or posting a photograph.

Stensland joined with other photographers who shared obser vations and experiences about how photography, sometimes their own, had contributed to the spoiling of natural areas. Convinced that nature photography could be compatible with a light touch on the environment they consulted with the National Park Service and other land management agencies about how the physical and cultural impacts of photography could be reduced.

Being aware of the characteristics and processes at work in the places you visit not only helps protect them, but informs your photography as well. Some areas are more sensitive than others and may require special considerations; other areas may require complete absence of human visitation during certain periods such as nesting seasons, flower blooms, or specific weather conditions. Designated wilderness areas have a special need for care and sensitivity to preserve the natural environment with minimal evidence of human presence. Knowledge about your environment is essential to both stewardship and photographic communication.

Reflect on the possible impact of your actions

We have all experienced the certainty that the perfect composition is on the other side of that fence, or just beyond that “Restoration Area” sign. It’s tempting to break the rules just a little, with the rationalization that it’s just one time, and the perfect picture will advance appreciation of the natural area. But the reality is you probably aren’t the only one, and doing so leads other photogra phers to assume this is normal and accepted with consequential cumulative impact.

Use discretion if sharing locations

Photographers can play an active role in sustainable tourism throughout West Virginia. We can make sure our own practices don’t contribute to the degrada tion of the natural environment, and share our images in a way that doesn’t lead to sensitive locations being overrun. And we can follow in the footsteps of our predecessors, using our photography to spread the word about the impor tance of preserving our natural areas. You can start by visiting the Nature First website (www.naturefirstphotography.org/), reviewing the principles in more detail, and becoming a member by affirming your commitment to them. w

This is particularly true for federally designated wilderness areas, which are set aside to allow natural processes to carry forward with as little evidence of human presence as possible, and to be enjoyed as wilderness by visitors seeking immer sion and solitude. The original legislation and supporting regulations for wilderness prohibit mechanical equipment and motorized transporta tion, including the operation of drones. As enticing as it may be to get a never-before-seen perspective on a wilderness, drones are inherently incompati ble with wilderness, affect the experience of both other visitors and the natural residents, and cannot be legally operated within wilderness boundaries.

Just like all visitors to natural places, photographers should know and apply the seven principles of Leave No Trace (LNT.org). Prepare for your visit so that your own safety, as well as the integrity of the envi ronment, is not compromised. Travel lightly, on durable surfaces where possible, and avoid expand ing already-disturbed areas. Avoid manicuring the site by removing branches or moving rocks. Respect the habitat of the resident plants and animals, even

West Virginia’s landscapes have been exploited for their natu ral resources to the detriment of the original inhabitants, natural features, and ecological processes that make them unique. We are on the cusp of a new economic model, one which leverages our natural resources to attract visitors and their economic activity, but also supports the natural environment in a more sustainable manner.


Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them

In the age of social media and instant sharing, consider how and when to post or publish images and their locations. Your pictures of a new and photogenic place could spread rapidly. Once a loca tion is revealed, it may be overwhelmed with visi tation beyond its ability to withstand and recover. Your visit may have had little impact, but that of many visitors (not all of them as careful as you) may be catastrophic. Consider not disclosing the location of sensitive areas, or giving only general geographic reference, unless the area is already well-known and unlikely to be impacted. Be mindful of seasonal effects, such as flower blooms or fall color, and consider a strategic delay in posting your image to avoid fueling a trend-driven rush.

the ones you can’t see, and be mindful of the reaction of animals to your presence when photographing them.

Actively promote and educate others about these principles Nature photographers have a unique opportunity to support the beautiful places they love. Their images can help build appreciation of special places and enhance support for preserving them. Their messaging can help educate the general public about sustainable visitation considerations for natural areas. And more directly, photographers can promote Nature First Principles to other photographers.Historically,

of your actions, including those resulting from a chain of events, is one of the keys to photographic stewardship.

Camp with as little impact as possible, foregoing a fire or burning only small-diameter, dead and down wood. Don’t disturb rocks to make rock stacks or camp furniture—many critters live under them. Respect the privacy of other visitors, and don’t impact their experience of the outdoors, or that of the animals that live there. Collect only photos, but consider going a step further by packing out litter or debris left by others.

David Johnston is an avid photographer of the West Virginia highlands, coordinator for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards, and tries to walk on air above blueberry bushes.

A photographer violates the “Know and follow rules and regulations” principle. Photo courtesy Nature First.

Know and follow rules and regulations

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Words by Dylan Jones Photos by Brice Shirbach

An Ode to Loam

h, loam, everyone’s favorite form of dirt. This beau tifully mixed soil composition is not only ideal for gardening and other agricultural uses, but also for constructing good ol’ fashioned mountain bike trails. Just mention the word and any mountain biker within ear shot will perk up like a terrier hearing its master shout, “SQUIRREL!” But for dyedin-the-wool mountain bikers, those societal misfits who prefer to spend their fleeting existence flying through the space-time continuum aboard two knobby-tire’d wheels, loam is much more than a soil type or a trail base: it’s a motto, a state of mind, a way of life.After a summer of seemingly endless mountain bike outings on a plethora of loamy trails, featuring flecks of filth smeared upon my face—sometimes even adorning my front teeth due to the shit-eating grin I sport when flying down a particularly flowy section of singletrack—I felt inspired to offer up a few words of praise about this most hallowed of Earthly substances. Be prepared for prose, for poetry, for a literary smattering of soil like a skunk stripe upon your proverbial pantaloons. This is my ode to loam.


But first, we need to clear the air. Just what, exactly, is loam? Technically speaking, loam is the term for a fertile soil consist ing of roughly equal portions of sand, silt, and clay. Artistically speaking, loam is the holy trinity of raw ingredients for trail builders. When I initially set out to write this piece, I was going to wax poetic about the types of trails typically found in spruce and hemlock forests. But Zach Adams, a friend and professional mountain bike trail builder based in Canaan Valley, quickly corrected me. Turns out, I was mistaking what I thought of as loam for duff: the aerated, soft, partially decomposed layer of organic material sandwiched below the leaf litter and above the mineral soil layer comprising a forest floor.

A self-portait of Brice Shirbach floating above the impeccable loam of the Big Bear Lake Trail Center in Preston County.

While natural features like rocks and roots and streams typi cally define West Virginia’s notoriously rugged singletrack trails, the dirt that lies in between is just as important. Modern trail builders like Adams are opting for an all-of-the-above strategy, embracing the gnarled terrain of Appalachia while also moving massive amounts of dirt to craft delectable sections of flowy riding in betwixt Mother Nature’s myriad obstacles. Because loam compacts so well and holds up to abuse, it can be morphed into a dizzying array of berms, jumps, table-tops, and rollers. A skilled rider can turn a well-thought-out, purpose-built trail into a play ground, pumping through the trail features to maintain speed with nary a peddle stroke.

In fact, just writing about loam makes me realize I’d rather be out cruising on my vélo de montagne, so I think I’m going to throw in the towel and head out in search of some evening loam. This piece of prose, however, needs a conclusion, so I’ll leave you with this contrived bit of philosophizing.

But there’s really nothing like a good rip on a proper loamy trail. Unlike the cushy nature of duff, which can zap your speed and reduce pedaling efficiency, loam compacts into a hard and smooth riding surface that drains water effectively and can even have a pavement-like quality to it. This reduction in rolling resis tance translates directly to an increase in speed. When loam is dry but not-too-dry, it becomes quite tacky, making knobby tires stick like glue to this revered surface. Blasting through the woods at breakneck speed on loamy singletrack, you can lean into a turn—further than you think—and then lean a little bit more, simultaneously maintaining traction and that aforementioned shit-eating grin on your mud-splattered mug.

Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors. He likes to ride bikes, both with friends and a-loam.

Brian Sarfino maintains focus on rough terrain in Blackwater Falls State Park while hoping for loam in the near future.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love duff. With its rich, fluffy texture, duff is the mountain biking equivalent of skiing powder. You can tap your rear brake lever and drift around a corner, pump your pedals and spring out of the exit, catch a smidge of air, and land softly back on terra semi-firma.

At the end of the day, a bike ride is a bike ride is a bike ride. Regardless of how sandy, silty, or clay-y a trail is, I always have a great time—unless, of course, I crash or bonk. In the pursuit of the best loam, much like the pursuit of happiness, we must often muddle through undesirable conditions to reach just what it is for which we search. Whether it’s a stretch of tedious house chores or a section of silty clay loam, the struggle is often worth it, because life, much like a bike, is all about the ride. w

I did some research and referenced a USDA soil composition chart to painstakingly recreate an incredibly nerdy version of my own in Microsoft Paint.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of soil variance among various combinations of sand, silt, and clay. Ending up with too much of one ingredient tips the scales of loam’s precarious balance. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of ripping around the full spec trum of trail surfaces. After greasing through slimy clay right here in West Virginia, washing out my front tire in sand in West ern Colorado, and dusting myself in glacial silt in France, I know quality loam when I see it.

Brice Shirbach exhibits style and poise in a self-portait at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette and Raleigh counties.

Morning light hits dirt Ribbon snaking through the trees Focus, flow, love, loam.


Loam, a haiku

Over the years, I’ve heard—and even uttered—my fair share of groaningly bad loamy puns. The “loam ranger,” “loam wolf,” “loam officer,” “loam thugs-n-harmony,” “loamstar state,” and “chillin’ with my loamies,” are just a few verbal infractions that come to mind. In an attempt to spare you any further grammatical pain, I have made a concerted effort to class up this joint and elevate the dirty discourse with the following loamy poems.

A loamy limerick

For when the day comes that we must journey home, We find peace with the miles we rode.

If we must ride, be it on tacky loam And not upon silt, clay, or sand.

For other trail types on which we must roam Make for rides of the type we can’t stand.

There once was a man from Nantucket Who found a dirt jump and wanted to huck it. But with mud and no loam, He crashed and went home With his bones and his bike in a bucket.

Bernadette Merriman and Megan Hutton bounce through perfect duff at the Snowshoe Bike Park in Pocahontas County.

Jason careensCyroff a natural wall ride deep in the backcountry.CountyTucker

Make haste for today, for there’s mud to be sprayed, May we all shred until we are dead.

Through silt, through clay, through sand, and through loam, The ingredients for this, my ode.

If We Must Ride: a loamy sonnet

Thanks for reading, dear friend, if this sonnet you like, Put this mag down and go! Ride your bike!

If we must ride, let’s not do it alone, Place your helmet upon your wary head.

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Words and Photos By Karen Lane



ock climbing in Appalachia has historically been a more niche endeavor compared to more popular outdoor sports like rafting, fishing, hunting, and mountain biking. While we don’t have the 14,000-foot peaks of the Rockies or the granite faces of Yosemite, we do have some of the best sandstone in the world in the New River Gorge region. What we lack in sheer verticality, we make up for in pure quality. The striking cliffs of the Nuttall sandstone formation were sculpted over millions of years by the incessant friction and raging energy of the New, Meadow, and Gauley rivers. Each exposed foot of the legendary Nuttall took thousands of years to erode into perfect, climbable stone.

The same factors that make the New River Gorge a worldclass climbing destination also conspire to make it a unique photographic challenge. The gorge is an important biodiversity corridor that creates its own weather, offering a unique terrar ium for flora, fauna, and fungi to mutually thrive. Thick stands of pine and deciduous trees carpet the base of the cliffs, while thickets of greenbrier, blueberry, and rhododendron tunnels choke the tops. Photographing a tiny climber in this intimidat ing vertical landscape is a project of its own. Most clifftops are entirely too thick with vegetation to hike in and rappel, making my work as a climbing photographer all the more stimulating.

document climbing movement, one has to be at the same level, if not higher than the climber, and for me, the most fun way to get up there is to actually climb the route I intend to photograph. Climbing the route allows me to know the line and understand the difficult sections, body positions, and potential hazards. This practice also helps me connect and empathize with the climber I’m shooting. I photograph climb ers from above to capture the full gamut of unique movements, raw emotions, and intense moments only the climber experi ences—details viewers on the ground can only imagine.


Somewhere along the cliffs of Summersville Lake, Liz Haas takes a sunset lap on one of the most classic deep water soloing lines in the U.S. The thin strand of a rope swing hangs behind her.

I picked up photography in high school as just another creative outlet. I stole my dad’s crappy stock Nikon rig and lugged it around on climbing trips; messing with it at the crag gave me something to do when my arms and fingertips were terminally exhausted from climbing. Hours spent photograph ing my friends developed into a passion for creating visual art focusing on climbers, who are often graceful artisans in their own

Photographing a moving climber while dangling in a harness from a moving rope poses its own challenges. Paying attention to so many details requires me to be a more conscious observer. Working with natural light, framing a shot, and thinking about angles remain at the forefront of my mind while switching lenses 100 feet above the ground and moving up and down my rope. I also make a concerted effort as a photographer to never get in the way of the climber, to never break their flow and focus. I want them to ascend the route in confidence, though sometimes I can’t help but cheer them on.

Previous: Katja Zoner is currently one of the New’s most stoked and talented climbers. She’ll climb from sunrise to sunset, and just when you finally want to go home for dinner, she’ll give it one last go and send it in the dark. Here she is styling the infamous arête of Satanic Verses (5.13c) at Endless Wall.

Right: Katja Zoner goes full-extension to snag this sloping hold on Skylore Engine (5.13a), a steep and technical route in The Cirque.

Center bottom: While not in West Virginia, the stunning quartzitic boulders of the Marble Yard in Natural Bridge, Virginia, are worthy of mention in any Appalachian climbing tale. The heinous hike up to the top of the Marble Yard makes it a less-trafficked climbing destination, but for folks that make the effort, the field of sheer white boulders is littered with potential classic lines. Here’s Parker Reed during his first ascent of Rhomboidal Renaissance (V6).

Above: Kerry Scott rounds the corner on the crux (hardest part of a route) of Mango Tango (5.14a) in the Lower Meadow River Gorge just north of Fayetteville. Kerry has climbed some of the most difficult routes in West Virginia and continues to travel back annually from Colorado to continue pushing the boundaries.

Center top: Amanda Smith exhibits laser focus during a late-summer repeat of Freedom Tree (5.13d), a notoriously difficult line that ascends the full height of The Cirque. Considered the official proving ground of the New River Gorge, The Cirque features some of the best—and hardest—rock climbs in the eastern U.S. Always eager to climb and try hard regardless of the conditions, Amanda earned her first ascent of this route in the dark.

Right: This wall is always orange, but at sunset, the iron-patina surface gets quite the saturation boost. Climber Nathan Eggleston shows his strength and flexibility on Welcome to Conditioning (5.12d) at the Fern Buttress crag in the New River Gorge. I was even able to frame my silhouette in a rare moment of cosmic alignment—or was it photoshop magic?

I mostly climb with people who identify as women. Photographing them on routes I could never imagine myself climbing is one of the main reasons I do it. A photo of a badass woman climbing, hair blowing in the wind, muscles straining, trying hard; I don’t think there’s anything more validating than that. These women prove it’s possible, sometimes even making it look easy, and I am there to record their attempts, failures, and successes. Cheering on a friend as they climb to the top of a route makes the mosqui to-bitten ankles, numb legs, and harness rash worth it every time.

Ultimately, I want the climbers in my photographs to see their power and feel inspired. I want the image to make them see and love themselves a little bit more. And I want others who look at the images to feel the same way. I want this representation to reach the little girl in the climbing gym, who only just started, to know that she can climb anything. That she, too, can eat a Tudor’s biscuit while driving over the New River Gorge Bridge through the fog and instantly feel at home among the rhododendron and sandstone, ready to climb, just like I once did. w

Karen Lane is a climber, designer, and photographer living in Fayetteville, WV. The breadth of her work includes photographs of her good friends climbing to documentation of life in the New River Gorge.

For me, climbing photography isn’t just about nailing an interesting shot, it’s also about representation. Seeing people like yourself doing things you’ve never done before inspires support and validation. Representation via photography reduces stereotypes, challenges misconceptions, and diversifies perspectives—particularly for underrepresented and marginalized groups.

Above: Lindsey Frein shows the infamously hard crack route Indian Summer (5.10d) who’s boss. Tucked in an alcove along the seemingly endless cliffs of Summersville Lake, this line is only (safely) climbable when the lake drops in the fall. Indian Summer is one of the few true “splitter” cracks in the region—the dead-vertical crack is all you get for hand and footholds to the top. This deceivingly difficult and highly sought-after route makes for a unique photo op.


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The eastern hellbender is listed as near threatened, and the Center for Biological Diversity is currently pushing for the species to obtain endangered status. Knowing where hellbenders occur can help guide conservation efforts to protect these enormous salamanders. “Dams are detrimen tal to hellbenders because they prevent movement through


o more than three minutes after Dylan and I pulled out of the driveway, we realized we forgot our wallets and headlamps. After going through the mental checklist of other items we surely forgot and a brief stop back home, we turned the car around and headed toward Seneca Rocks. It was a cool, drizzly day in the mountains. Slate-blue clouds sank into the folds of towering ridges. Torrential downpours and dense fog obscured dark trees and Seneca’s hulking fin of Tuscarora sandstone. The rainforest aura of the Appalachians never ceases to amaze me, but it did leave me wondering whether our plan was actually going to work.



By Nikki Forrester


We were en route to search for the elusive eastern hell bender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis), the largest salamander in North America, and third-largest in the world. After passing Seneca Rocks, we continued toward the Green brier River to meet up with Madison “Maddy” Ball and Lisa Maraffa of Friends of the Cheat (FOC), a nonprofit commit ted to restoring, preserving, and promoting the Cheat River

watershed. Maddy, FOC’s Conservation Program Director, started her quest for hellbenders in 2020.

These aquatic animals can grow up to two feet long and live in cool, clear mountain streams throughout West Virginia and the eastern U.S. They have broad heads, flat bodies, stubby limbs, and slimy, wrinkled skin—character istics that have changed little over the past 150 million years. But since the early 1900s, nearly 80 percent of the eastern hellbender population has been lost due to sedimentation, habitat loss, and other human impacts. “With a species that’s disappearing across its range, it’s really important to under stand where they are still doing well,” Maddy said.

yses because there’s a bunch of their DNA floating in the streams if they’re present in that area.” When hellbend ers lay eggs during their spawning season, even more DNA is released into the environment. Instead of having to visually locate hellbenders, scientists can collect envi ronmental DNA (eDNA) samples from a river and test it for hellbender DNA to determine whether the giant sala manders are present or absent.


Maddy, sporting a snorkel mask and wet suit, entered the frigid river, while Dylan and I set up our camp. Thirty minutes later she returned, deflated and dismayed. Hell benders are picky about their homes. They live under large, flat rocks that are enclosed on three sides. When their habitats are disturbed, their rock homes can become less stable or filled with sediment, causing hellbenders to flee, or in some cases, die. Recently, a large tree was cut at the campsite, which could have altered Jimothy’s home by changing the water hydrology and filling the rock crevice with sediment. While Maddy doesn’t think it was a fatal incident, Jimothy was nowhere to be found.

out the river and isolate populations from one another. They also impound sediment and can increase the water temperature, which isn’t great habitat for hellbenders,” Maddy

Along with potentially disrupting the homes of hell benders, it’s challenging to conduct surveys in big, fast-flowing rivers like the Cheat. “There are boulders the size of your house and so many different areas they could be living in that you can’t access,” Maddy explained. Some of the best data FOC has obtained about hellbenders comes from accidental captures by anglers.

Hellbenders are cryptic creatures. They hide under large rocks during the day and rarely move beyond their home range, which is roughly a quarter the size of a basketball court, when foraging for crayfish at night. Scientists seeking to document where hellbenders occur often conduct snorkel surveys or flip rocks that hellbend ers might live under to look for them. “The latter approach has become more controversial. We want to understand their populations and collect data, but are we causing more harm by doing that?” said Maddy.

Maddy Forrester.Photohellbender.findinginsnorkelconductsBallasurveyhopesofabyNikki

But in 2012, scientists discovered a way to detect elusive, aquatic species without ever seeing them. “Hellbenders are super slimy creatures that constantly shed their outer layers of skin into the water column,” said Wineland. “It makes them really suitable for environmental DNA anal

hellbenders occur throughout West Virginia can also provide insight into the health of our rivers. “The Monongahela National Forest is the last stronghold we have of healthy hellbender populations in West Virginia,” said Sean Wineland, who studied hell benders during his master’s degree at Marshall Univer sity. “They’re a keystone species, kind of like a unicorn showing us that the water quality is really good.” When hellbenders are absent from a river due to poor water quality or habitat loss, it can have consequences for all the other species in that environment. But in order to protect hellbenders and the ecosystems where they reside, scien tists must first find them—a monumental task even before their populations began declining.

As we continued toward our destination, the rain began to lighten and the sky began to brighten, giving us an ounce of hope that we could not only collect samples, but also document the process. When we arrived at the campsite, Maddy and Lisa had already sampled the river for eDNA to evade the ominous forecast and avoid contam inating the river while conducting a snorkel survey (with out flipping rocks) to look for hellbenders. Maddy found a hellbender at this site several years ago that she affection ately named “Jimothy.” Since then, she’s successfully relo cated Jimothy five times, and was confident in confirming its presence again during this trip.

While it may sound like a magical approach for finding hellbenders, it can still be challenging to collect accurate eDNA samples. There’s always the possibility of contami nation, particularly from the people doing the collection. Researchers must also time up their sampling window with the spawning season to increase the likelihood of detecting hellbenders. And, of course, unrelenting rains can overwhelm the watershed and damage technical equipment, preventing scientists from collecting samples.

Later that evening, under a hazy night sky, we employed another sampling method in hopes of spotting a hell bender prowling for food. We walked down a trail and crossed through the woods back to the river. Delicately stepping along the bank, we shone our headlamps and flashlights into the water in search of a cryptic giant. Without dipping a toe in, we craned our necks to see under rocks and inundated logs, but the chocolate milky water enshrouded all underwater activity. After twenty minutes of staring into the turbid river, we threw in the towel and wandered back to our camp.

The next morning, we woke to surprisingly pleasant weather given the forecast. We drank coffee by the river, made a quick breakfast of grits and fresh chanterelles, loaded up our gear, and departed for our first sampling site of the day: another spot in the Greenbrier watershed.

When we arrived, Maddy recorded the date, time, and location, while Lisa, FOC’s Program Assistant and Events Producer, measured the water pH, temperature, and conductivity. Then the two set up a pump system on a floating, neon-green kids’ sled to force water through a sterile filter. Maddy turned on the pump, waded into the middle of the river, and gently placed the filter into the current. Lisa, donning nitrile gloves, patiently watched from ashore, hands outstretched to avoid touching anything until Maddy returned with the sample.

As water flowed through the filter, it caught fragments of eDNA from aquatic wildlife, algae, sediment, and other debris. “It’s got all the answers right here,” Maddy said. Once the pump filled a bucket with five liters of water, Maddy shut it off and precariously brought the filter back to shore. Lisa gently tweezed the filter out of its holder, folded it, and placed it in a plastic bag with silica to dry out the sample. The bag was then labeled for storage until all the remaining samples could be collected and sent off to Missoula, Montana, for eDNA analysis.

Because hellbenders are known to occur in the Green brier, this sample was meant to serve as a positive control to which Maddy, Lisa, and their colleagues could compare samples from the Cheat, a separate watershed. For instance, they could look for differences in the number of samples that tested positive for hellbender DNA and compare water quality measurements. If we could success fully locate a hellbender at the site, then this sample could

But our quest was not an utter failure. The day’s precip itation treated us to an astounding array of mushrooms scattered across the forest floor. Droplets of rain dangled from each tip of the hemlock and red spruce trees, glis tening in the fleeting light of my headlamp. On my way to turn in for the night, I just happened upon an Eastern red-backed salamander beneath a wet clump of leaves and a dusky salamander tucked behind a piece of flaky bark.

From top to bottom: Maddy Ball collects site data; a waterproof meter measures water temperature, pH, and conductivity; Maddy places a filter in a West Virginia river to collect environmental DNA. Photos by Dylan Jones.


I had no expectations of seeing a hellbender on this trip, or ever in my life, for that matter. After a few minutes, I walked back to chat with Lisa and Dylan, and prepared to move onto the next site. But Maddy was determined. She continued searching up the river, stabilizing herself as she dove into a region upstream with a stronger current. Then we heard the gleeful shout, “I found one!”

Maddy and Lisa will collect 30 eDNA samples over the following month. With the first samples successfully collected, Maddy once again donned her wet suit and snor kel gear to search for a hellbender in the shallow water. With her face in the river and flashlight in hand, Maddy gracefully moved up the stretch, carefully peering under rocks without disturbing them. I walked along the shore, matching her unhurried pace and taking photos.

Along with determining whether hellbender DNA is present or absent from a site, eDNA tests provide infor mation about the strength of that DNA signal. Specifically, DNA is extracted from each filter, then tested three times for genetic sequences unique to hellbenders. If only one of those three tests comes back positive, then there’s a weak signal for hellbender DNA. If all three come back posi tive, then there’s a strong signal, which suggests that the researchers either sampled close to a hellbender or there were several hellbenders present at the site. Alternatively, if a sample comes back negative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a hellbender isn’t there, it just means that the researchers were unsuccessful at capturing hellbender DNA on their filter.

In 2020, eight of the 28 samples FOC collected came back positive for hellbender DNA. The following year, 27 of the 55 samples came back positive. While scientific studies suggest these salamanders prefer cold mountain streams, Maddy and her colleagues have detected tons of hellbender DNA in the Cheat, a warm-water river. “Seeing them in the Cheat is a slam dunk for our restoration efforts,” she said. “There were probably some reaches hellbenders were extirpated from based on how poor the water chemistry was, but seeing the data come back positive, especially in the lower Cheat, shows that they’re either back or held on long enough for us to turn things around.”

also help the scientists determine how close they need to be to an individual to get a positive result.

We grabbed our gear and rushed to meet her. She sat up, purple-lipped and shivering in the freezing water. I put on a snorkel mask and jumped in, my excitement over powering the cold. “It’s kind of tough to spot,” Maddy said, pointing me toward the rock under which the hellbender was hiding. I dunked my head in, Maddy right beside me, shining the flashlight toward the hellbender’s home. Water flooded in through the top of my mask, blocking my vision and disrupting my breathing. I had to come up for

top to bottom: A filter collects environmental DNA, sediment, algae, and other debris; Lisa Maraffa carefully removes the filter to process it for DNA analysis; Maddy and Lisa label a sample. Photos by Dylan Jones.

As I waded out of the water, Lisa took my place. Within just a moment of putting her head in the river, she spotted the hell bender’s slimy skin—her first hellbender sighting. Not long after, the chilly water sent her back to the sunlit shore. I ventured back into the river with a new mask suctioned to my face. Maddy was ready to guide me to the hellbender once again. It had ventured a little further out of its home, perhaps curious to see what all the commotion was about.

A minute later, I came up for air and gave Maddy a gigantic hug, thanking her for making this encounter possible. Maddy dove back down again to snap a photo with an underwater camera as I retreated to the bank. After at least an hour in the river, she returned to shore, and we all packed up to move on to the next sampling site.

As scientists, we strive to understand the natural world and how our actions affect the species around us. We are supposed to be objective, and most of us are when it comes to designing exper iments, collecting data, and analyzing results. But we also love the Earth and the amazing organisms that call it home. After all, this very attachment is often what inspires us to pursue science in the first place. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that attach ment is by listening to what the data tell us. Hellbenders grace our West Virginia rivers, but they’re also vulnerable to the profound pressures we place upon them. I’ll never forget that hellbender face, but when I truly listen to the data, I hear its one resounding message: some stones are best left unturned. w



She handed me the flashlight as we dove down again. With an extra push toward the bottom of the river and water staying outside my mask, I finally saw the broad, speckled face of a hell bender and its small, glittering eyes staring at me. It was the most adorable, pebble-like creature I’ve ever seen. My childlike fasci nation with animals came flooding back as I screamed underwa ter with pure joy. Even though I knew the hellbender was there, I never considered what it would actually feel like to see one.

Nikki Forrester is co-publisher of Highland Outdoors and, like a hellbender, loves spending her summers searching for crayfish in the mountain streams of West Virginia.

Left: A hellbender eating a crayfish, photo by Chad Landress. Right: The beloved hellbender I spotted, photo by Maddy Ball.

During our drive to Shavers Fork, I bounced between feeling euphoric about seeing this majestic, ancient giant and feel ing guilty that my excited scream scared it. I never meant to disturb a hellbender. The experience left me wondering about the impact I have when I venture into the homes of other beings. Was it right to impose upon an animal that has been in this river far longer and more permanently than I will ever be?

I tightened my mask, swept away my unruly hair, and tried again, but the only thing I saw was water inside my mask. The cold started creeping through my neoprene clothes as Maddy patiently sat by my side, shivering and smiling. Her snorkeling looked so effortless. It wasn’t until I tried to spot a hellbender myself that I realized how skilled she truly is at exploring the underwater realm. I scrambled to keep myself stable in the current and worried about displacing rocks. But now I was determined; I couldn’t let Maddy’s efforts be for naught. I dove down at least six more times, each time achieving the same result. Eventually, I gave up and decided to try another mask.


brother-in-law who works at a local hospital, initially hatched a simple plan: a one-night backpacking trip on the 25-mile North Fork Mountain Trail (NFMT). To sweeten the deal, a few of his doctor friends volunteered to meet us at the trail’s halfway mark— something we’ve dubbed the Midpoint Oasis—where

“Can this thing make it off the hill?” we anxiously ask. After dropping off the shuttle vehicle on the NFMT’s northern terminus, we wind along the South Branch Potomac River through twisted country.

As with much of West Virginia’s back country, the NFMT is rugged. It begins with a mild incline beneath a hardwood canopy. As the path grows steeper, the footing gets wilder. The uneven, rocky trail follows the eastern edge of the ridge line, sloping both upward and sideways. Tucked safely in the rain shadow of the Allegheny Front, the NFMT, famous for

“The doctors have bailed,” Caleb says in the front seat, sliding his phone back in his pocket. He takes a pause before turning to face the backseat. “And yes, it’s definitely gonnaCaleb,rain.”my

outstanding vistas and predictably dry weather, is considered one of the best hikes in Appalachia. A significant portion of the trail’s mileage traverses vertical cliffs that float high above Seneca Rocks and other river knobs of the Germany Valley to the west. It’s a perfect play ground for those seeking no-frills adven tures, rough terrain, gratifying miles, and unrelenting views… usually.

eavy fog already crowds the wind shield of our buddy Taylor’s truck as the six of us wind through the Monongahela National Forest. The ridge line of North Fork Mountain, an area of West Virginia’s eastern backcountry known for its consistently dry climate, is accumulating ominous formations. The driest trail in the region is about to be covered in clouds.

“I need some air,” says Luke, clawing at the back window. “If 100 percent is puking, I’m at 70 percent.”



“Who among you doesn’t love a soggy sufferfest?” I ask, but no one responds.

“She’s truck enough,” Taylor says. He pats the dash, ignoring the steam coming off the front brakes.

“So, maybe it’ll be a sufferfest… I’m okay with that,” Caleb says, doing his best to convince the group. “It’s a better story.” We nod along in the backseat.




they would greet us with a raging fire, steaks on a grill, and bourbon poured directly into our mouths. But their sudden cancellation means our attempt at a cushy, effortless backpacking getaway is rapidly dissolving into something else. With the Oasis off the table and heavy rain inevita ble, the plan is taking major blows.

We stagger down the fire road just before dusk. We’ve reached the halfway point. The campsite isn’t much, but it’s near the NFMT’s only water source, an unreliable mountain spring situated at mile 12. We pitch the tent in the powerline clear-cut that intersects the fire road—our first sight of flat ground since striking off from JudyWeGap.rush

“We didn’t realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.” -A. A. Milne OUTDOOR EDUCATION / Davis, WV appalachianexpeds.org

We wake to eerie twilight with fog drooping around us. The pitter-patter on our tent throughout the night has given way to Caleb and Luke peering into the cloudy void.

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“A bold strategy,” I tell JJ, who is strapping a pistol to his thigh. He drove all the way from Florida to join us for his first backpack ing trip. “No chance you wear that even two miles.”

As if in response, thunder rumbles in the distance. The clouds above the adjacent mountains boil upward, churning on angry currents. Only slivers of sunlight remain between the ground and the rapidly forming cloud wall. A solid, gray block looms in the west, dense and trembling, its dome arcing into the sky above us. Exchanging nervous glances, we hoist our backpacks. With new motivation, we leave the ridgetop views behind.

“I drug the hammock out here, I wanna use it,” he says, notic ing his audience, but only the drops of rain on the trees convince him to stop. One by one, the six of us stuff into a four-person tent, bracing for the storm as we try to fall asleep.

Preston, our friend and missionary guide home from Zambia, leans past the edge, his toes balancing on air. “Okay, I’m 40 percent puking! 50!” Luke shouts, averting his eyes.

to get a fire going. Darkness comes quickly, dragging in cold air as it sweeps over the ridgeline. We power through a ramen soup and dehydrated mashed potato mixture we call Ramen Bombs. Pouring hasty drinks, we toast to making camp before the incoming cloud consumes the mountain. But the relief is fleeting; we know we won’t stay dry for long. We all watch JJ attempt to set up a hammock along the edge of camp, gun still attached to his leg.

“Forgot you don’t like the heights,” Preston says, leaning out further. “Quite the drop.” A pebble slips and plummets into tree tops hundreds of feet below.

Just getting to the southern trailhead on Judy Gap has been harrowing. We arrive with groans of relief at a poorly marked pull-off along U.S. Route 33. We gear up on the road’s shoulder, lifting our backpacks and lighting cheap cigars like it’s the 1924 Tour de France, trying everything we can to keep our spirits high as dark clouds close in around us.

Exhaling smoke, he says, “You’re on,” and cinches the strap downMilesharder.in,we stop on one of the many west-facing overlooks that drop abruptly to the Germany Valley floor. “Soak in the sights while we got ‘em,” Caleb says, his eyes covered by drone goggles. He stares blankly ahead, his back to the mountains sprawled along the gray horizon. Through the goggles, he pilots the drone in first-person on a stomach-turning flight down toward trees before floating back up along the cliffs.

Standing on Chimney Top is ghostly. It is a temple among the clouds. Quartzite pillars line the summit like statues. They seem to balance on the haze, foundationless, float

a steady roar. We scramble to get our sleeping bags out of the puddles growing in the corners. Making coffee in the vesti bule, staring out into clouded chaos, we prepare for the shock of going from dry to drenched in an instant.

The trail evaporates behind us, mate rializing again a dozen yards ahead. Pixelated blankness replaces the edge of the cliffs, disguising the sheer drop to our west. Everything is filmy, like fogged-up glasses. Chimney Top, the NFMT’s grand

“Mile 18,” Caleb announces, check ing his watch. The footing here is even steeper, more overgrown. Our rain gear saturates as we scrape past dripping rhododendrons on both sides. “Up there is the overlook,” he says, pointing at a dense portion of Bushwhackingtrail. up the steeps, we arrive at yet another overlook, or what would have been on a normal day. Each time we approach the cliffs, I imagine there will be a break in the fog, a window to finally see the valley, crinkled and folding beneath us. Instead, all we see are clouds.

finale and our final checkpoint, floats unseen in the mist—a world unreachable, a place I hope is warm and dry. Who would hike in weather like this? I wonder, slipping over loose rocks. “Only idiots!” I shout into the static. We are in the thick of it now. With no other option, we scramble onward, six orbs of light lost in the clouds.

Hours later, the rain is still pouring. We’re moving fast, trying to make up for our late start. The ridgeline has trans formed from a typically arid wilderness into a dripping jungle. Our headlamps ping out over swirling vapor. We are walk ing in a cloud.


“High and dry,” I seethe through a mouthful of protein bar, quoting a 2017 NFMT write-up from this very publica tion. No one is moving. The tent door is framed by six men in rain gear, frozen, hoping for something to shift. Outside the vestibule, the forest hisses.

“If 100 percent is puking…” Taylor says. Throwing back his black coffee, he disap pears into the snarl and spray.

We are adrift in a rhododendron thicket when the rain stops. The howling white noise is suddenly substituted by stillness. The air on the ridge drops, pressurizing. Our ears pop in response. Gray particles hang limp in the air. We move through them; they collect like smoke on our clothes.Thetrail ahead is expansive emptiness, nothing but mist. We push into it slowly as if entering murky water—exploratory, cautious steps. Treetops seem to appear at random, suspended on unseen strings. We know the sun is overhead, but little light can reach us. The diffused rays are too weak to penetrate the canopy of cloud and“Waterproofbranch. boots are a double-edged sword,” I say, as we wring out our soaked socks.

Preston tips over his boot and a full cup of water rushes out. “Swimming in that all morning,” he says. The boot gushes as his foot slips back inside.

“Maybe it’s clear up at the top,” I say, unconvincingly. “You know, heat rises and all that,” I continue. Everyone stares. Mumbling under their breaths, they move away from the edge. A little less hopeful, we return to the rhododendron thicket.

Right: Taylor enjoys a brief break in the cloud cover.

ing free. Happy to be on top, we drop our bags and run among the rocks, hopping gaps that we would never attempt if we could see the true distance to the bottom.

Left: Preston among stone statues on Chimney Top.


The way up to Chimney Top passed through the cloud’s thickest layers. But here, at the apex of the hike, the mist thins out. All the gray around us melts into blinding white. With more light spilling in, the air glistens like suspended glitter.

“Just a coupla’ waterlogged boys,” I say as we sit on the edge, dipping our legs down into the vapor that clings to the cliffs. Together we watch the fog roll past. Still with no views, but there is the sensation of floating. The slight movement of the mist makes it feel as if the ridgeline came untethered and is drifting toward the sun. Weightless, we surf on the tide. I imagine if I stepped off, I would be supported by the haze, walking on clouds.


Nate Lavender is a travel writer currently exploring the west in his 90s Airstream. He is writing about the dirt life and trying every day to live better stories.


Blinking away the dream, I rise to my feet. “C’mon,” I say. “We’ve got Yokum’s fried bologna waiting for us in the valley.” We lift wet packs the final time, knowing we have a long descent to the truck. Sopping, sore, and satisfied, we all turn to look out over silver space stretching forever. It’s close enough that we can reach out and touch it. Everything is glowing. Every atom pulsing, perfect andWealive.are lost in the scene, each of us attempting to harness the moment. “Who doesn’t love a soggy sufferfest?” I ask, but no one seems to hear me. w

Words by Brooke Andrew Photos by Brian Sarfino



I’ve always felt tied to water in some way and have long relied on it to help others get to know me by name. Growing up, I’d introduce myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Brooke, like the stream,” which made sense to all those New England folks who call a stream a brook. Here in West Virginia, I have a new and improved introduction: “Hi, I’m Brooke, like the trout.”

Oftentimes, fishing isn’t about fishing at all. When I think about why I keep going back for more, I know it can’t be about catching the Big One, or even catching a bunch of small ones for that matter. What I truly love is getting to see and interact with these beautiful fish. The rod and reel is but a simple tool with which to make that connec tion, even for a brief moment. The brook trout is a stunning creature: the vermicu lations squiggling across the top, the pinkon-black-on-white fins that somehow don’t

Above: The author casting in


clash, and the seemingly innumerable red dots with blue halos scattered across the sleek body all combine to take my breath away. People travel the world to see the kind of beauty that can be seen in just one fish hiding in the tiny streams that carve the deep hollers of West Virginia.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I was the pesky sister that would tag along with my big brother and his friends when they went down to the causeway to do some fishing. I had zero interest in putting a worm on a hook, so hot dogs were my preferred bait. Needless to say, I was far from a purist and I wasn’t very good at the actual sport of fish ing. I wish I could say things have changed for me but after another fishless evening, I don’t think they have.

I guess I’ve always been a big fan of watching fish, more into the concept of keeping them as a pet rather than as dinner. When I was a little kid on a coastal camping trip with my family, I made my brother carry some poor little sunfish in his hands back to our tent to keep as a pet. The poor thing traversed the whole campground in a quickly draining hand ful of water as my brother and I rushed him home into a cookpot for safe keeping. I think we would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for our parents, who were less than pleased that the pot had become our makeshift aquarium. If I can’t keep a fish


When I found myself in West Virginia working in fisheries conservation, I knew it was now or never to learn how to fly fish. It’s a sport I had long admired, but had only made half-hearted attempts to learn. My boss at the time took me out on my first brook trout stream and handed over his fly rod. To this day, I’ve never landed more fish in a single outing, which I’ve realized I shouldn’t admit out loud. Again, I don’t think my fishing has improved since I was that little girl, but at least I’ve upgraded from hot dogs to flies. Although the fly I typically use is called a greenie weenie, so perhaps it’s not that much of an upgrade afterLikeall.countless others, I was hooked ever since that first day of fly fishing. I find the sport to be as dramatic as they come. It’s romantic, exciting, filled with adventure, and funny, but more often than not, it’s incredibly frustrating. Given that most of my time spent fishing doesn’t involve actu ally catching fish, it turns out to be a lot more about just being alone with the river and your thoughts. Just when it starts to feel lonely, one good cast and the subsequent netting of a fish transports me back to bliss.


like you ought to be doing something else, those precious days when you’re completely and fully present. One of my all-time favorite outings occurred with a couple of pals down in the Otter Creek Wilderness. It was a scorching hot summer day, and we just wanted an excuse to hide away in the natural air conditioning along the wild river corridor. Fishing, as it often does, provided that excuse. All we needed for the day were fly rods, hammocks, books, and beers. We bounced back and forth between fishing, reading, and napping. I think only one of us caught a fish that day. Eventually, we all gave up and jumped in the creek, because if you can’t catch ’em, join ’em. But as usual, that magical day wasn’t really about fishing at all. w

Brooke Andrew is a stream walker who doubles as a good swimmer. She is most patient when placed next to a fish tank.

with me to enjoy whenever I please, I guess I’ll just have to keep coming back to the stream for quick visits to say hello.


Although there is by far enough value in fly fishing as a soli tary sport, the extravert in me loves having hobbies I can share with others. Sometimes the sport takes place while standing in a stream, but it can also take place while sitting at the bar with fellow fisherfolk swapping fishtales. I actually went fish ing to get some inspiration for this article because it had been a little too long since my last stream wanderings. It wasn’t until I stopped in at the local brewery to share a beer with some folks, that same cast of characters with whom I’ve long missed sharing the stream, until I felt like I had a story to tell.

I live for the days when you don’t know what time it is and really don’t care to find out, the slow days when you don’t feel

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It was in 2012 when I was home after Gauley season helping my mom out with her property. That’s when Superstorm Sandy hit and 30 percent of the trees in Tucker County unexpectedly came down overnight. The White Grass Ski Touring Center needed assis tance clearing trails even though the ski area wasn’t open for the season yet. The day the roads reopened, I went to White Grass and hopped on the chainsaw crew to help with trail recovery. Right after that I had my vehicle accident.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you get into the outdoor industry?

Tell me about your accident.

During the cleanup effort following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Eric’s vehicle slid out on a snowy road and flipped over an embankment, crushing his torso and severing his spinal cord. In the blink of an eye, Eric became a paraplegic. But he didn’t let his injury slow him down and decided that he would focus on what he could do to stay active and continue enjoying his life to the fullest.

I had a horrible corporate office job doing finan cial services for a Fortune 500 company and then decided to get into outdoor facilitation, doing the best low-paying jobs in the world. I worked as a raft guide up in Alaska. I got my Wilderness EMT certi fication through [the National Outdoor Leadership School], and ski patrolled at the Ski Bowl on Mount Hood in the winter. In the summer, I’d go wherever the best whitewater was. I guided on Clear Creek in Colorado, the Matanuska River in Alaska, and on the White Salmon in Washington. Every fall, I’d come back to West Virginia to guide on the Upper Gauley during Gauley season.


The first person on the scene said it looked like I had gone too wide in a corner where the pavement had eroded. Because it was still snowy from the storm, the rear of the car likely spun around and I went backwards into a ravine, flipped over, and landed on the roof. The driver-side door pillar that supports the roof crushed me across the middle of my chest. I don’t have any recollection of this, but apparently when emergency response showed up, I identified myself as an EMT and told them not to move me until they were ready for a compro mised-back extraction, so I guess I was certain enough about what was going on. I was life-flighted, underwent spinal surgery, and spent a month in the hospital before being discharged to Cortland Acres in Thomas, where I started a spinal rehab program.

I caught up with Eric over the phone while he was down in Fayetteville after a high-water day on the Upper Gauley to talk about his inspiring life story, his nonprofit, and how we can work together to improve access for everyone, regardless of ability.


Eric Thompson is a West Virginia native who has spent the majority of his life in the outdoor adventure world. From becoming a certified Wilderness EMT and a technical rescue expert to ski patrolling out west and commercially guiding some of America’s most treacherous whitewater runs, Eric is a consummate outdoorsman with a panache and passion for adventure.

Fast-forward a decade, and Eric is as active as ever. He can regularly be found cruising around Tucker County on his handbike and following the seasonal flow of those same classic whitewater runs, paddling class V rapids in his custom Handi-Craft raft. He leveraged his diverse skillset and founded Access On The Go, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access—both indoors and out—for people with disabilities. Most recently, Eric and his whitewater paddling skills were featured on America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, a national series on PBS that explores diversity in the great outdoors.

I grew up in a small house my parents built completely with hand tools in Advent, which is just outside of Charleston, West Virginia. I think they finally got running water and electricity when I was born. We moved to Tucker County when I was four years old and lived there until the beginning of high school. I lived in Hawaii for a little bit, then gradu ated from high school in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I went to the University of Wisconsin and ended up living in Portland, Oregon before moving back to Tucker County.

By Dylan Jones

What’s your backstory?

What can be done to improve accessibility in outdoor recreation?

Tell me about your journey back into whitewater.

Right off the bat, I was learning about wheelchairs, adaptive outdoor equipment, and what it means to have a complete spinal cord injury. I was still in the ICU when I started looking at belay devices for adaptive rock and ice climbing. I didn’t know how things were going to play out, but I knew that I was going to get back out into the outdoors and live as fulfilling a life as possible with my new reality.

Did it take some time to process it all?

What was the genesis of Access On The Go?

We’re working to make sure that people of different abilities can do all the things able-bodied people love to do. Communi ties can support accessible recreation by making basic ameni ties like food and lodging more accessible. I’ve put handrails and ramps in to create accessible public bathrooms. Our wheelchair mobility challenge and stroller-friendly trails project encourage trail builders to think about making bike trails more accessible. It’s often the manmade features, like switchbacks, bridges, and trailheads, that become obstacles. We’re not advocating for paving the wilderness or making every mountain bike trail four-feet-wide, but just acknowl edging that there would be fewer issues if trails were main

No one was doing anything about it, so I decided to be that person—not just for myself, but for everyone else. That’s when I started Tucker Co. On The Go, which quickly became WV On The Go, which now functions as Access On The Go, because we’ll help anybody who wants to improve accessi bility, regardless of geography. I operate Access On The Go on a completely volunteer basis with the help of some volun teers. We’ve probably helped 50 percent of those businesses in Thomas make voluntary improvements. Even small improve ments can make a community much more livable for people who have difficulty going up steps.

As a rescuer, I’ve been on the sides of mountains, helping somebody that’s having their worst day ever. You do what you can to help them, so it’s been ingrained in me to not dwell on how much something sucks, but to think practically about what you can do to make a situation better immediately. When I woke up from surgery, they sat me up and told me that I was paralyzed. My first thought was That sucks, and the second half of that same thought was Now what am I going to do about it?

tained at ground-level like they are at handlebar-level. But one of the biggest shortcomings I’ve seen has been with public river access. Fortunately, there’s been a lot of movement in public lands to remove access barriers.

About six months after my injury, I flew out to Oregon to pick up my van and possessions. My friend and fellow ski patrol ler at Mount Hood had raised money to help modify my van, so I was able to pack up my stuff and road trip back home to West Virginia. After driving across the country, I realized that the worst place I saw for accessibility was right here in West Virginia, even though West Virginia has the highest share of disabled residents in the country. At the time, 22 of 26 store entrances in Thomas had steps. I couldn’t get into businesses; I couldn’t cross the street safely. Before, I didn’t understand how the general lack of access infrastructure within the community negatively impacts quality of life for people with disabilities. After my injury, I realized the whole world of accessibility issues that I was now facing.

Within a few months of injury, I got back into my kayak on a flatwater pool on the Cheat River. I have no abdominal control, so I couldn’t even stay upright. Everything that makes a kayak great no longer works when you can’t control your core. I had to figure out a way to have a chair with back support to hold me up. But for a high-back seat to be effective in whitewater, you have to secure yourself to that seat in a way that’s not going to cause entrapment, because if it flips, you would get caught underneath. I brainstormed with hundreds of whitewater professionals around the world and prototyped different boats, real izing that I needed something I could flip on my own.

Clockwise from top left: Adaptive ice climbing in Colorado; the last photo of Eric standing atop Bald Knob; adaptive skiing at Blackwater Falls State Park; running the infamous Pillow Rock rapid on the Upper Gauley in his modified Creature Craft.



What do you love about West Virginia?

During the 2016 Gauley Season, my friend Cassie Micheli was hanging out with Darren Vancil and the Creature Craft crew. She invited me to join them at Kanawha Falls to see how far we could push the boats under the falls. Darren was immediately on board to let me test an adaptive outfitting system on his craft. I needed to see if I could roll it back upright, which I could even without modifications. After years of prototyping boats, I had already developed a modi fied system, so we put it right into the Creature Craft and it was a perfect match. I ran a bunch of holes sideways to see how stable it was. The design was robust, even when going into something completely wrong. In 2017, I toured the coun try with Clay Carroll and Team Creature Craft, running rivers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado. I hit all the commercial outfitters and adaptive programs to show them what’s possible if they get some of this equipment in their fleets. They would be prepared for somebody in a wheelchair who wants to do adaptive paddling. Since then, we’ve made some adaptive modifications that have also improved the overall design of the boat for able-bodied people.


Top to bottom: Eric’s modified adventure van sporting a rooftop cataraft; handcycling in the WV highlands; running Husum Falls on the White Salmon River, WA; adaptive skiing at White Grass.

What do you want people to know about accessibility?

Just because you get injured doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the things you love; you just might have to do them in a different way. It’s never impossible. If there’s something you can’t do, look around and see who else is trying it. If no one else is trying, then build it yourself. That’s what happened with me and whitewater; there wasn’t anything that worked for somebody in my situation to do advanced whitewater, so I figured it out. I collaborated with my friends across different industries to create a revolutionary advancement in adaptive whitewater for people without core control.

I’ve aid and ice climbed with Paradox Sports out of Boulder, Colorado; they wrote the book on adaptive climbing, which just takes a modified harness. But winter sports, rafting, and biking are my passions. I’ve done some adaptive skiing, but not to the extent that I’d like to. Getting back into downhill is one of my priorities. I’m partnering with Challenge Athletes of West Virginia to help them develop a biking program to get people out on Forest Service roads and state parks. Off-road handcycling is a great way to access more difficult terrain in West Virginia.

It’s got such a wonderful community of people and it’s such a beautiful area. This is my home state, so realizing the lack of accessible infrastructure here moti vated me to make positive changes not only for myself, but also to improve the quality of life for all residents by developing more sustainable, livable commu nities. I want to bring about that positive change and see West Virginia move forward. My long-term goal is to grow West Virginia from a place people with disabilities are avoiding into a destination with world-class adaptive outdoor programs so people with disabilities can access all the beautiful things we love about this state. w

People with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States. We want to go out and do the same stuff everybody else does. As a group we have a lot of annual spending power, so we represent a huge market. Advocating and working directly with local businesses really turns the conversation around. Instead of accessibility being seen as an obligation, the [Americans with Disabilities Act] becomes an opportunity for businesses to get government funding to improve their facilities. Most people don’t know the IRS gives up to $20,000 per year in tax incentives for necessary improvements like ramps, parking spaces, and step removal. Anyone who is interested in making their community more accessible or who wants to make necessary improvements in their business can contact us for free resources.

What advice do you have for others in a similar situation?

What other activities do you do?


47highland-outdoors.com GALLERY

Just east of the tiny town of Gauley Bridge, Cane Creek drops some 60 feet over a series of sandstone ledges, creating Cathedral Falls—one of the tallest aboveground waterfalls in West Virginia. Viewers from the ground level can see about two-thirds of the falls, but the full series of drops can only be viewed from the elevated perspective of a drone. Photo and caption by Jesse Thornton.

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