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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dolly Sods Wilderness on Fire

I admit, moving from the east coast (Massachusetts) was pretty tough and, at times, I'd do anything to be back. There's just something unforgettable about driving up to Cape Cod with your good friends for a night of striped bass fishing off of a jetty overlooking Woods Hole. The sights, sounds and smells of the full moon above, waves crashing below and the electric splashing of herring in the distance turning on like the flick of a light switch, as they fend for their lives from the predators below. Slack tide has arrived in the "Great Harbor."

But there is something unforgettable about any place, really. Despite what some of my hometown friends say, the midwest ain't nearly as bad as they think. The cost of living, sense of community, scenery and the close proximity to pretty much anywhere else in the country is second to none here in the rolling hills of Southeastern, Ohio. And having lived here for seven years, I've been fortunate to keep that perspective fresh as I take full advantage of the endless opportunities around me.

In the past seven years, I've been blessed to see many different areas in a number of states; yet, two places have stood out to me like no other. One of them is the backcountry keys of Key West, Florida and the other is Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. When I truly gain a love for an area, there's a good chance I'll be back. So, the backcountry keys have taken the place of my spring break for the past two years and Dolly Sods has been my autumn destination for the past three years, with a handful of trips and memories there in between. There's just something amazing about this place in the fall that keeps me coming back with different groups of friends each time.

During this past fall, I was lucky to finally have the same weekend off as three of my favorite travel friends - Alexa, Alex and Lakota (the Germain Shephard). Alex spent summers in the north woods guiding boyscout groups through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and through Quetico, Canada. Alexa has traveled all around the country to research bats as part of a private consulting company. It's always great traveling with Alexa because she is so laid back and Alex is completely full of survival information and great stories. On down the road, four and a half hours fly by as we become taken back by the increasingly growing and colorful hills mixed with a slough of good bluegrass tunes from each of our playlists.

As I picked up on at an early age, no matter how many times you visit the same place, or look up at the same sky, the only thing that will remain the same is the memory that you've kept from before. Otherwise, you have no idea what to expect the next time. That held very true during this trip as we were consumed by a dense, refreshing fog throughout most of the hike. And to many, this might put a damper on an ordinarily scenic trip like this, like trips I've experienced there before; however, it only made the area  come to life in a different way -- everything changes. This old wind blown cherry tree tells a story, perhaps many, as it it protected from encroachment of other trees by a sea of azalea and blueberry shrubs. I know one thing: this would be a sight to see had I lost my compass as the wind blows from the west in the Northern hemisphere, hence "westerlys." Perhaps it's telling me to head east, back home?

Dolly Sods sits along the Allegheny Plateau and is made up of many of the same temperate plants and animals found here in Southeastern, Ohio. This makes complete sense since we are so close to West Virginia. Although, what makes this place so surreal and unique from the rest of the midwest is its elevation. Everything is stunted here and there is little tolerance for hardwood forests because of the harsh climate from being of the subarctic tundra. Although, when you do finally come across a woodlot, my oh my! The beeches and maples and mist and northern birds had me dreaming of the very place I was standing at.

As we traveled from Blackbird Knob trail (the usual meander from year to year), the crew decided to veer off for a trek via Daubenmire Glade. For those that don't know, a glade is basically an area of vegetated land that sits right on top of bedrock; which, in this case, happens to be white sandstone made up of quartz, making it light in color. At first, it reminded me very much of that granite back in Massachusetts. But notice that weathering of the boulders. Granite endures abrasion much better than sandstone because it is an igneous rock (created by heat or lava) as sandstone is sedimentary. I always love finding plants for the first time in far off places that I've only read about, like this red elderberry. This plant is native in Ohio but not common and inedible, unlike some of its relatives.

In years past, I've been lucky to kick up a flock of ruffed grouse, a vibrant mud salamander, and even bears on forest roads leading into the wilderness. Some say to travel here during parts of the summer to see black bears foraging on the miles of blueberry and huckleberries. I don't think there's anything better than homemade blueberry pancakes under an old stand of pines...mmmm. So we happened to find this fat guy on the trail. He needs to lay off the blueberries for sure.

 And even more common than the abundance of wildlife that we see is the many edible plants that we find. I already mentioned blueberry and huckleberries. We also trip over our fair share of teaberry, cranberry, and edible mushrooms along the way. Rose hips and pine needles provide a huge vitamin-c boost as well. 

And finally, during our last night in the wilderness, we bumped into some fellow ohioans and shared some whisky and lies over the damp fire. Apparantly I woke up in the middle of the night screaming at the top of my lungs haha. I don't know what that was about but everybody thought there was a bear in the campsite when I didn't answer the first time, until it kept happening of course haha. But hey, back to the point of the story --look at the view from that campsite!!! What a great trip with excellent company. I feel blessed to have this one on my belt.

 Cheers --