My buddy KB and I are just back from a visit to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. The Sods are 17,000 wild and wonderful acres, one of seven wilderness areas in West Virginia (all in the Monongahela National Forest). I was first introduced to the Sods by my late friend Dean in my college days, and I’ve been visiting regularly for years. My trips have included hiking and paddling and biking in every season, with a bunch of different friends.
My past trips have all been full-on adventures, often due to the extreme weather that is the norm in the Sods. With flora and fauna that is more common to Eastern Canada, it’s a unique place in the mid-south. I’ve been freezing cold (often), soaking wet (frequently), steaming hot (sometimes), and moderately lost (twice).
The most memorable trip was when I got stuck behind a flooding North Fork of Red Creek after a cold, heavy rain. My buddy Rick and I got back a day later than planned–which was, um, interesting for the folks back home (sorry!).
On our recent trip, KB and I visited the Roaring Plains West Wilderness, which is directly adjacent to the more commonly visited Dolly Sods Wilderness. This section is mostly unmarked and unmaintained, which had discouraged me from exploring here before. But the time was right, as I’ve acquired some new skills through a recent trip planning course. We plotted our route ahead of time using CalTopo and Gaia, two fancy iphone apps.
We backpacked in a few miles and set up a base camp, and then went for a day hike up and around the canyon rim on a social trail called the “Hidden Passage.” Our loop include a little bit of route-finding, but it’s a good time of year for that. The path was tricky to follow in places, but we stayed found most of the time.
On unmarked trails, it’s important not to get lost or to let the bramble rip you to shreds. But there’s one more caution in the Sods: unexploded mortars (!). During World War II, it was used as an artillery range within what was called the West Virginia Maneuver Area (WVMA). Since then, there have been decades of ongoing clean-up efforts, but there are likely still some live 60mm and 81mm shells around. Signage at the trailheads tells the story.
The area was chosen for artillery practice because it resembled the European landscape, didn’t have a lot of people, and had clear sight lines. The WVMA also included nearby Seneca Rocks, where the Army operated a rock-climbing and mountaineering school. Training started in August of 1943 and wrapped up in July of 1944, just after D-Day.
The most recent mortar discovery was back in 2014, so it’s not like shells are everywhere. But there are presumably a few still around. Periodically the feds make a push to round up more old shells, with another 15 located and detonated on site during the last major effort in 1997. That history certainly adds new meaning to the term “watch your step.”
I’ll spare you the word play about “explosive hiking,” and just say that the area is beautiful and full of solitude (despite its noisy past). Our hike focused on game trails and social trails, and we were pretty cautious. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter anything except nature.
This place has a complicated history, for sure, but a few generations can change things. We thought a lot about those that traveled before us. Maybe it’s a stretch, but I like to think of the Sods as a symbol of the freedom that our soldiers fought for.
I hope nobody ever runs into a shell out there, but separating the past from the present is supposed to be hard in wild places. Regardless, the Sods is a testament that wilderness can be lost and still be found again.