Last month we loaded the family van and drove across the United States for an adventure in the great outdoors of the American Southwest. I planned a circuitous route with our ultimate destination being the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
All told, we spent 15 days together and drove 5000 +/- miles.
With apprehension-inducing thoughts of National Lampoon’s Vacation running through our minds, one 4:30 AM morning we bravely set off with our three children, a 50-quart cooler, travel provisions and enough outdoor gear to outfit a field battalion. We drove across Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado to reach our first High Southwest “basecamp”—a motel room—in Durango.
We experienced some seriously fun times, some true adventure, some not-unexpected “meltdowns,” and all of it through tons and tons of incredible scenery. Then, abruptly, we turned around and trucked back to Virginia via a southern route across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
Safely back home, we were a bit worn out, but have indelible memories.
In due time, as work and other commitments allow, I am going to write a series of articles about the trip for Abingdon Outdoors.
To get started, I’ve put up a first gallery of photos from the trip.
Hiking today with my daughter and faithful hound up on Forest Road 90 and the Iron Mountain Trail amidst the still lush, dark green foliage I saw a few leaves (just a very few, mind you), that seemed to be anxious for the next season.
Most traveling for summer vacations is finished or nearing completion; we are well into the 2012 Summer Olympics; young people and teachers are gearing up for a new school year; and here in Abingdon the Virginia Highlands Festival is in full swing. I can sense a collective sense of just a bit of anticipation all around as we know the summer is slowly drawing to an end. There’s still time to get outdoors and enjoy this season, though, which I encourage you to do.
This month we’ve seen more LOVE on the Virginia Creeper Trail. These are pictures taken today at the trail.
The Virginia Creeper Trail has over the years become one of the main tourism draws in the Town of Abingdon. Recent studies have it rivaling the esteemed Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, in terms of economic impact from tourism.
The LOVE signs, which we Abingdonians have seen some other places around town, are part of an effort to boost Virginia Tourism. The sign usually doesn’t stay for long in any given location, so I wanted to be sure to capture it before the sign is moved. Putting the artwork up in this location was a good idea.
High up on Pine Mountain in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is an area known as the Scales. This June we drove and hiked up to this area.
Basically, it’s nothing more than a grassy, fenced in area used by campers and horse riders. On the other hand, the Scales have been for many, many years the eastern gateway to the high country of Mount Rogers, where ranchers brought their cattle to graze in the summer and then sell during earlier in the 1900s. Livestock was weighed up here (thus the name “Scales”) before the animals trekked back down off the mountain and lost weight (and brought their owners less money when sold).
The Scales are located above 5000′. The Appalachian Trail crosses right above this area. The most direct route from below is Route 613, which is a rugged, rock strewn forest road that requires a high clearance vehicle.
The road eventually crosses a cattle guard. Shortly thereafter the forest opens up to show Pine Mountain and some good views to the north of the valley and ridge mountains in Virginia.
The skies always seem to be a deeper color of blue up here on the mountain.
This summer we’ve started earnestly fishing the South Holston River, a renowned tailwater trout fishery in Tennessee. The clear water comes from deep in South Holston Lake, making for constantly cold temperatures, even when summer’s heat affects the other mountain streams.
The tailwater is 17 miles from Abingdon, about a half-hour’s drive from town. It’s probably the largest trout fishery in the region, and consequently one of the busiest. I’ll write some more on the SoHo in some future articles, but for now here’s some nice trout we caught this weekend. All photos by Karl Thiessen.
In my last fishing essay, I described solitary fishing in winter on small streams. In that article I referenced a book published in 1938 that my mother gave last year me titled Upstream and Down by Howard T. Walden II. Mr. Walden’s book descriptions are as appropriate today as they were in the 1930s. His commentary shows an amazing prescience about many matters related to the outdoors in general and fly fishing in particular.
One of the themes of Mr. Walden is that in the 1920s and 1930s the small streams of the East were becoming more accessible, and that there were fewer and fewer secret streams left anymore.
Some trout streams are important for their trout, almost all for their beauty, a few for their associations and memories. In the last category are the secret streams of the past. Every angler who has been at his sport a score of years or more can remember whispered directions, the pledges of secrecy, the long and tortuous journeys to those segments of Paradise hidden in the back country. Such prospecting and discovery once constituted the most glamorous aspect of trout fishing. But that is gone in the world, now, except in the remote semi-wilderness counties. Most young anglers, casting over their first pools in the nineteen forties [1940s], will not know the high adventure of finding a secret stream. The automobile has accomplished this special destruction along with general spoliation of virgin countrysides. The motoring hordes have found all the streams there are. . . . The State has charted all the likely water, filled it with foreign trout and invited the public to come and get ’em.
And the public comes. Paths have been beaten by many booted feet along both banks of the farm boy’s secret brook and the wild shy native beauties of that little watercourse are disappearing, dying in the hostile company of rainbows and browns.
Upstream and Down, at 170-171 (1938). Mr. Walden was generally speaking about streams in the Northeast, in New Jersey and Connecticut. Many of his prognostications, however, are equally applicable in Virginia and throughout the Southeast.
If you read modern fishing magazines and browse outdoor websites, the Twenty-First Century equivalent of the automobile is the advent of the information age: the Internet and GPS technology have amplified the problem (from the perspective of the solitude-seeking angler) of the “motoring hordes.” One man armed with a GPS can post all the location information about a “honey hole” on a web forum page, and you can be sure that within a month or two dozens of anglers will have found the “secret pool.”
And yet, even now, such places do exist in our region:
Lovely native trout continue to exist in Southwest Virginia, too. Here is a young brook trout from the Mount Rogers area I caught in June 2012:
In the most rural sections of Southwest Virginia, there are still secret pools (if not completely secret streams) holding the same native brookies that have lived here for a thousand years.
While our brook trout are no doubt still under pressure, as the map below (and this even more detailed Virginia map) shows, there is good news lately about brookies in Virginia. In the Summer 2012 issue of Trout, Trout Unlimited’s “Journal of Coldwater Fisheries Conservation,” there is an article indicating that Virginia brook trout streams are healthier than they have been in decades. One of the main fisheries referenced is St. Mary’s River in Augusta County (which I visited and wrote about last year, here). According to the article, acid rain deposits, which negatively affect stream quality, have decreased 18 percent between 1987 and 2010, and “acid neutralizing capacity” of the Virginia streams studied have increased 82 percent during this same period.
My own anecdotal experience is consistent with Mr. Walden’s observations 80 years ago: Much of the pressure that can be expected to continue on our native trout streams will still come from the “motoring hordes,” especially those individuals who trample on these treasured resources, leaving their garbage behind while taking their full bag limit (or more) of trout, which can quickly eviscerate these sensitive fisheries.
On one point, however, I must disagree with the esteemed Mr. Walden. While we may no longer be able to readily find entire secret streams unknown to most of mankind, there is still much “high adventure” to be had in our mountain streams (and beyond). We just may have to search a little harder these days for a secret pool and be willing to enjoy the more modest adventure of rediscovery of off-the-beaten-track places that are still, after all these years, quite beautiful. In the future we will continue to know streams most important for their associations and memories, recalling those days of yore when we found that secret pool, or caught that lunker fish, or shared that special trip with a relative or friend, as glamorous in our recollection as were those memories of the fishermen of the past. Because those nostalgic fishing memories—just like the proverbial fish story itself—always seem to grow, and never diminish, with time.
The last two days have seen record-breaking hot temperatures across the Eastern United States, including in Southwest Virginia. Yesterday it was 103 in Kingsport and 101 in Bristol, breaking the record high temperature ever recorded in the month of June in our region. Abingdon was 100, the highest temperature here in any month in 25 years.
It’s way too hot, especially for those of us in the mountains. I’m pining for cooler weather−way cooler weather. Along those lines, the B&W photo I took above shows massive hoarfrost on one of the solitary trees up on Whitetop in 2010, the last real winter we have had in Southwest Virginia.
Just looking at that photo cools you off a little bit, doesn’t it? Wish I was high up on a mountain with snow right now.
Last month the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) released the first elk in Buchanan County, Virginia. The intial planned elk management area will include Dickenson and Wise counties.
This followed an extensive study of the feasibility and impact of elk reintroduction in the Commonwealth. Elk have successfully been reintroduced into neighbooring areas of Kentucky, which now has the largest elk herd (of approximately 10,000 animals) west of the Mississippi. They have also been reintroduced on a more modest scale into the Cataloochee area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Elk were extirpated from our area of Southwest Virginia in the mid-1850s.
The reintroduction of elk in Southwestern Virginia has been somewhat controversial. Some citizens have opposed it asserting that it would have a negative effect on livestock and farming due to grazing and possible communication of diseases. The animals are obviously much larger than deer and would likely cause more damage if struck by a motor vehicle. VDGIF’s own position on elk has evolved, as the agency was originally less supportive of reintroduction to elk than it currently is.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation conducted the first feasibility study and has been the major non-profit organization funding the project, contributing over $300,000 according to its press release earlier this year. The RMEF now has a Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter devoted to the cause. Certainly, the reintroduction of an extirpated species of such magnificence is exciting for outdoorsmen in our area.
Below is the film footage of the first elk release in May by VDGIF:
Today my son and I had the rare trout trifecta: We caught rainbow, brown and brook trout in one outing in the same stream in Southwest Virginia. Here are the photos taken with our point-and-shoot camera to prove it:
A wild rainbow trout:
A 15″ brown trout:
A 12″ brook trout: