July 5, 2010
Jacqueline and I made a long-overdue return trip to Pocahantas County, West Virginia last week, and it really was "wild and wonderful," as the Mountain State's slogan goes. The main objective was taking a ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad, which we had just missed the last time we were there a decade or so ago. This time we timed our trip just perfectly in terms of the weather, which was clear and very mild. (Today the temperatures are in the upper 90s. ) We took the full 11-mile ride to the top of Bald Knob, elevation 4,824 feet, though the train actually stops at a point about 150 feet below the summit. Along the way we made two switchbacks, where the train pauses and then goes the reverse direction on the other leg of a "Y" intersection. On steep slopes, it's the only practical way to build train tracks. There was a rest stop at the old logging camp of Whittaker, after which we resumed the uphill climb. We passed the abandoned town of Spruce, WV, named for the red spruce forests that used to blanket the entire highland region -- until the buzz saws did their work, that is. It's remarkable passing from one ecological zone to another in such a short time span, as though we had gone 500 miles north into Canada. We learned that the piston-driven, coal-fired Shay steam locomotive was designed especially for use on steep mountain grades; this one was built in 1923. It certainly spewed forth a lot of smoke and ash. After stopping to fill up the water tank, we continued on to the destination near the peak. The view toward the north, east, and south was superb, and the conditions for taking photographs could not have been better for this time of year. See for yourself at the newly-updated Summer 2010 photo gallery.
After the train ride, we toured the museums next door, and learned all about the history of the logging industry in the West Virginia highlands. The Cass train shut down commercial operations in 1960, because it was no longer profitable. They didn't say so explicitly, but I assume that means they had cut down nearly all the old growth red spruce trees, and there weren't enough trees left to make the train trip worthwhile.
The next day we went to the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area (see pocahontascountywv.com), and spent a couple leisurely hours strolling around and observing the unique habitat. Because of its high altitude, moist conditions, and flat terrain, it is the southernmost area in which cranberries and other northern bog plants naturally occur. We saw a variety of wildflowers, including orchids and Rhododendrons. To prevent the sensitive plants from being disturbed, they built a half-mile-long boardwalk, with strict rules against anyone straying from it.
In the afternoon, we drove along the Highland Scenic Highway, which is a lot like the Blue Ridge Parkway, in that there are no towns and no commercial truck traffic. It follows the crest of Black Mountain, descends abruptly into the Williams River valley, and then climbs again. We stopped at several overlooks, one of which features a boardwalk through a wooded area that was burned out in a forest fire several decades ago. Red spruce and Mountain ash trees are the dominant forms of vegetation, along with Rhododendrons. At the end of the boardwalk was a fine view of the impressive-looking Big Spruce Knob, which is actually lower in elevation than Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. The latter is surrounded by higher land, however, which is why it doesn't stand out quite as much. Anyway, we then drove past the Snowshoe ski resort, went through the town of Cass again, and stopped at the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory just long enough to take a photo of the huge radar dish, which we had also seen from the summit of Bald Knob. Then we headed home, arriving in time for me to play a game in the local church softball league. After all that exertion, it took me all weekend to recover my energy!
I recently bought a field guide to butterfies, enabling me to identify some species that I had photographed previously but wasn't sure about. Take a look at the new photo gallery page for Butterfies.