Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wild and Wonderful

Last weekend, Will Kryder and I drove out to Dolly Sods, lured by a description in Backpacker Magazine that mentioned "harsh winds, bogs, stunted spruce, and snowshoe hare." In short, it sounded a bit like New England's north country, though the region is actually part of the Monongahela National Forest, which covers much of the rugged Allegheny Mountains. The drive out was long, over three hours, but it was beautiful traversing the valleys of eastern West Virginia. They are mostly too uneven for mechanized row cropping, so cattle and chicken farming are fairly common.

The hike did not disappoint. I've never walked across anything quite like this undulating, tundra-esque landscape. We spent most of the day in the open, striding through expanses of heath dotted with trees. The trail also plunged into dense thickets of conifers and a copse or two of deciduous trees in the midst of succumbing to autumn.

The evergreens peering over the grass give this picture a sinister aspect, particularly because the grasses are bending away from the trees, toward the camera. The weather was grey and windy, with a consistent speckling of raindrops, though the storms mostly held off. The landscape felt desolate and isolated, as a far corner of the Arctic might while preparing for winter.

Washington has been unbearably hot of late, but at 3,500 to 4,000 feet, the elevations at which our hike took place, the vegetation was faded and colorful. Imminent death hung over the landscape.

The region also has some notable outcrops of limestone, which have weathered into some bizarre formations. In the distance in above picture is Blackbird Knob.

In the spring, Dolly Sods must have a vastly different mood. We spent much of the day hiking along Raven Ridge but didn't catch a glimpse of the bird. I'll look for them when I'm back, hopefully after next winter.

The plateau was once covered by a vast forest of Red Spruce, which was reported to be the largest stand of its kind in the world. Wikipedia tells me that the trees grew as tall as ninety feet, with diameters up to twelve feet! Once the railroad penetrated the region, however, the forest was doomed, and with the trees gone, the soil dried up and blew away. Sparks from steam locomotives soon ignited slash left behind by the logging, and the trees still haven't come back, though the ecology became ideal for blueberry and huckleberry bushes. Their scent was distinctly in the air on Sunday. The region gets its name from the Dahle family, who cleared the land of logging debris so that they could sheep along the new pastureland.

The local ecology now, like the alpine areas of New England, has much in common with the Canadian tundra. In short, it feels familiar, and though a bit of a push for a day hike, should make for a good overnight in the future.

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