I don’t remember the year I first made the hike to Bearwallow Knob, but it was probably when I was in junior high school. It was likely in the spring also, as the route to the remote summit becomes very overgrown during the summer and virtually impassable to the non machete-wielding hiker. I doubt my brothers and I had any idea where Dad was referring to when he first suggested we “might hike over to Bear Wallow Knob…” First of all, we didn’t know what a bear wallow was (if you’re interested, Merriam Webster defines it as: a declivity or sink in the ground made or capable of having been made by bears) and second of all I wasn’t sure I wanted to go anywhere there were likely to be wild bears…
We were in Fayette County, West Virginia, on one of our semi-annual visits to Mom’s parents, who lived in the small town of Ansted, about fifty miles from Charleston and near the summit of Gauley Mountain, nestled along with U.S. Route 60 between the Gauley and New Rivers.
Though they weren’t then, both rivers are now popular destinations for white-water rafting enthusiasts, who count among their number my younger brother, Gary, (who in fact just recently returned from/survived a rafting trip on the Gauley). The picture of him and his crew below, however, was from another year – on the New River I believe. (picture used without permission from his FaceBook page, heh heh)
Now, in the days of my childhood, the outdoor entertainment was of a simpler nature and consisted almost entirely of the “sport” of hiking. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I loved hiking. Still do. (Around here I call it walking, though.) Grandmother and Granddad lived on a small hill on the western edge of town. If you’re familiar with the area, they were just about a half mile from Hawk’s Nest State Park Lodge, which overlooks the geologically ancient yet paradoxically named “New River.” We brothers, along with our dog, Rex, and Granddad’s dog, Flip, made countless small hikes ranging within a couple miles of the house, and every now and then we would go on longer hikes (usually supervised by Dad). Maybe we’d hike down and cross New River on the railroad bridge and follow the river downstream past the dam and up the other side. Almost annually, we’d hike over to the local fire tower, perched high on a ridge about three miles form Grandmother and Granddad’s. Once, I remember even hiking over this high ridge and continuing all the way to the town of Jodie (about fourteen miles away!) with Dad. We didn’t hike back. Mom picked us up in the old Mercury Montego station wagon. I found the picture below on line – not our wagon, but very close, even the color, which is dangerously close to Clark Griswold’s “Metallic Pea”…
This proposed hike to BearWallow Knob was a new wrinkle in our hiking repertoire, though. We learned it was a long trek, maybe about ten miles round trip. We were bolstered with some confidence though, after hearing that the first half of the hike would follow our familiar route to the fire tower. Only the latter half would be terra incognita to our young legs. Of course, I was still a little concerned about the whole bear thing, but we were all up for the challenge…
I screenshotted the below from my iPad map app, the red stick-pin is the location of Bear Wallow Knob; Grandmother & Granddad’s house was just to the left of the “W” where the map says “W Main St”. The New River peeks into the bottom left corner of the picture. You can clearly see the “spine” of the high ridge above their house roughly in the midddle of the picture, and the location of the Fire Tower is just a little above of dead center.
With what were, I’m sure, ample provisions and water, we started out one morning during our spring visit. There were two routes to the high ridge from Grandmother and Granddad’s. The easy route, down to the stream and up the other side to our familiar “Ridge Park” and then following well-known trails through “The Sea of Brambles” that skirted “The Lost Valley” up past the tree where Dad once saw a copperhead snake and finally up to “Top Tree.” Yes, all of these landmarks were named by us kids, I think. Only the last ten minutes of this path were particularly grueling and steep. One year we had even “marked” this trail with red thumbtacks stuck into trees along the way. Our feeble tools of trail marking were enveloped by the growing trees’ bark within a few years though.
The shorter route of reaching the ridge was following the natural arm of terrain that extended down from the ridge and terminated in the hill that Granddad’s house was on. The land directly behind Granddad’s place belonged to an aged neighbor, Grover Skaggs, who to me seemed to be about the oldest human being one could ever meet. Anyway, crossing a pasture behind Granddad’s we were soon in the woods and following a barbed-wire fence that marked the eastern edge of Grover’s land that led all the way to the high ridge. This was the type of barbed-wire fence that was designed to keep livestock from staying, and not meant to – or capable of -stopping humans – we were forever crossing such fences during our hikes in the area.
There was a crude trail that followed the fence, but it was quite steep. In some sections we would grasp the wire (between the barbs, of course!) to gain leverage in our ascent. (I remember one time, years later, when I was hiking by myself, it was along this fence where I encountered a rattlesnake. I had paused to catch my breath, and as it quieted down, I could hear another, faint rattling sound. It turned out to be a very small rattler a few feet off to my left. I gave it a wide berth and continued the ascent.)
(Below: we kids often carried this powdered sugar candy – I don’t know if they even still make it – with the colorfol packaging <hard plastic fruit-shaped containers>. I don’t think Mom & Dad generally approved of its consumption but Dad did remark once on a hike that it was “good for hiking,” as the simple sugar no doubt gave one an immediate energy boost.)
Those who are no stranger to hiking will be familiar with the type of boost our sprits received when we finally gained the top of the ridge. After the steep climb, we were ready for a rest, and on many hikes over the years we stopped there. I remember there was a long-since fallen tree trunk near the trail, covered with soft green moss and just the right height for kids. This made a comfy, natural “bench” and was a frequent and was thus a favorite break spot on our many hikes. There’s also something that lifts the spirit when you’re on the ridge. You feel kind of like you’re tracing the backbone of the countryside. There were also a few open spaces where the otherwise obscuring trees temporarily parted and offered a view of the valley to the south and town below. I remember as a kid always having an odd feeling as I looked out, knowing that I was observing the town, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, from my unseen vantage point far away. The route to Bear Wallow knob followed along this ridge for a mile or so, keeping the town of Ansted in view below and to the southeast. This section of the route was easy hiking, though.
-TO BE CONTINUED-
Below (top): Gary relaxing upriver (on the New River) from Ansted, with the world famous New River Gorge Bridge behind him.
Below (bottom): A view of New River Gorge downstream from Ansted.