Friday, November 16, 2018

The Magic of the West Virginia Highlands

Alternate titles: Recognizing Childhood Dreams; Griffin and Q Drive Cattle; The West Virginia Tundra

A new girlfriend, Emma, asked a week or so ago if I'd be interested in riding the horses in the Sinks of Gandy in the near future. Her family owns quite a bit of land up there, and she'd always dreamed of traversing it on horseback. Familiar with the area because my family has held a lease nearby her family's land for decades and I have visited the area she wanted to ride for various conservation efforts as a part of my current and past jobs, I didn't have to think about my response, "YES!"

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Heading in through private property inholdings past lots of gorgeous red spruce

The Sinks aren't far from Canaan Valley where I live. The area harbors a lot of similar climate to Canaan and has always been a favorite place of mine as a result. Something about these high elevation areas with red spruce forests and completely bizarre plant life compared to what you'd expect at this latitude just makes my soul happy. Both Canaan and the Sinks area a sanctuary for plant life more akin to what one may find in the tundra and the Arctic Circle, not the temperate Appalachian forests found between 38-39°N latitude!

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Where the forest ends and the open pastureland begins

Part of the land Emma's family owns is one of the most unique ecotypes in the world. So unique that only a handful of places like it exist anywhere on the planet. Balsam fir and red spruce litter the landscape surrounding a high elevation swamp that harbors plant life known to the Arctic circle. Karst (limestone) outcroppings litter the hillsides of the knobs, and the headwaters of several rivers begin right on the property! 

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One of the old homes and rocky karst outcroppings

In the 1800s when the economy was booming with the timber industry, the area was extensively clear cut and used to graze cattle. Trains carried the timber away, dropped the cattle off, and then picked them up before the harsh winter weather settled in. Emma's great-great-something grandfather was known as the cattle king thanks to the thousands of head of cattle he ran over these lands. With the advent of the automobile, the steel industry, and the coal industry, the booming timber and associated train industries died away from this area by the 1920s allowing the land to rehab and forests to regrow around much of it.

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Beautiful clear skies!

Today, cattle grazing is a still key component to keeping the environment intact. The sensitive swamp has been fenced off to exclude them from that area, but a small herd still grazes the surrounding area through the summer months.

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Finally on her family's property

Emma and I opted to park the trailer out on the main USFS road and ride into the property. It gave us more mileage and helped guarantee I wouldn't booger the trailer trying to turn it around in an area I'm not as intimately familiar with.

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The headwaters of the Gandy come out of the hillside behind Emma & Q

Following the initial keyed gate to the property, we had to pass through many gates on our way to her family's property. Multiple private properties exist on the road, all surrounded by the national forest. After 5 or so gates, we were finally on her property!

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Climbing up to enjoy gorgeous vistas

I immediately demonstrated to Griffin, who hasn't had close encounters with cattle before, that the cows would run from him with little effort on his part. We would walk/trot toward them and as soon as they turned tail away from us, I'd stop and turn Grif back around. He understood and released the little bit of tension he was holding onto from initially seeing the cows. Q watched bemusedly the whole time.

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All smiles in our happy place. Aside: the cattle behind us would be the first we would drive later!

Emma wanted to climb up both knobs on the property to enjoy the views. I was game for absolutely anything, completely overjoyed to have the opportunity to ride in the area at all!

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Looking toward Blister Swamp with the Gandy headwaters (yes, that tiny trickle) below us

We marched up Big Momma and did a circuit around the top, enjoying the views in every direction. Emma shared stories of her family and childhood the whole way while I ate up both the history and the scenery.

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Haystack behind, homestead below, Blister Swamp just out of frame to the right

As we completed our circuit, looking toward Haystack, the second knob we would climb and ride around, I took the opportunity to leg Griffin into a hand gallop across the wide open space at the top of the knob. Emma and Q followed close behind.

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Enjoying the views...and the cows

Both of us giggled at the complete joy of running on horseback with 360° views of our most favorite area in all the world. I even dropped my reins and spread my arms wide for a few strides, smiling and laughing at the amazingness of the moment. As Emma and I both noted, "This definitely doesn't suck!"

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WV Highland vista <3
The rock outcroppings in every photo are karst, or limestone, which is indicative of caves! Many caves litter this area and county.

As we descended back down, we observed Emma's parents and family friend had arrived to sort the cattle for travel back to their lower winter pastures.

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And again

Emma called out to her mom to see if they'd like us to move the closest group of yearlings toward the gate. She answered in the affirmative. Emma told me to head low and push them toward the gate while she stayed high to prevent them from breaking.

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Ahhhh such a happy place!

Neither I nor the horses have ever driven cattle! Emma has done it on foot for years though, and I've read enough books, seen enough movies and documentaries, and been around enough livestock to have a pretty good idea of how to accomplish it all. Honestly, much of it is similar to the liberty work I've done with the horses on the ground so far as body language cues go!

And so Emma on Q and I on Griffin set to driving cattle for the next 45 minutes or so!

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Really cool karst boulders on the opposite hillside - biggest I've ever seen!

First, we drove the yearlings through the gate into the smaller field where they would be sorted and loaded onto the trailers. Next we helped keep the larger herd from breaking away as we pushed them through the opposite gate. Then Emma sent me back up Big Momma to turn a stray cow down the mountain while she went to try to usher in an old cow who hadn't come in with the main herd.

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Happy hearts

From there, I headed back out toward the main field to help encourage another old cow who had a limp before helping Emma escort one final big girl out of the field and into the sorting area.

IT WAS SO COOL.

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Calm down, Q. Calm down.

Nothing crazy, no running or crazy breaks from the herd, but totally satisfying to get to truly WORK cattle from horseback. With the two men on 4-wheelers, her mom on foot, and us on horseback, the large majority of the herd was where they needed to be in no time at all. 

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I so wish I had more photos! But I had to stay ON it.

I finally thought to look at my watch once we'd finished with the cattle and realized we had better start heading to the trailer if we wanted to be on the road before dark! Daylight wasting time is the worst.

So Emma bid her family farewell and we struck off.

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See the cow? We drove her down off the knob shortly after this.

The cherry on the cake for the day was getting to see my first WV golden eagle as we left. The species has overwintered in the WV highlands for years now (they travel down from Quebec), and we have reason to believe some may even be persisting through the summers, breeding and nesting. I have seen ample trail cam footage from the State wildlife agency, but had yet to witness a GOEA of my own in WV. It was SO cool to finally check that off my list!


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Long shadows, golden light, and spruce forests

I'm looking forward to a spring trip with Emma to continue exploring and enjoying the area with the horses. The early-winter landscape was gorgeous, but the late-spring landscape will display an entirely different facet of beauty Emma and I are both keen to appreciate from horseback.

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My loves

The whole day was absolutely magical and I'm so grateful to Emma (and her family!) for the experience. Both of us agreed that our souls were happier and our mental health in a much better place than it had been at the start of the day. Something about horses and time in the mountains is so very healing and fulfilling. 

35 comments:

  1. WV is heaven on earth. Thank you for sharing the love for your state with us. Q looks so settled and happy these days as well. I hope you have a great winter

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    1. I always love sharing this place! Especially the pieces that make it so unique.

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  2. Ok... this may be one of my favorite posts on your blog. WOW! I am so very, very jealous. I loved the Sinks when you shared them with us and I can only imagine how glorious that landscape would be to explore on horseback. The cattle work adds that extra cool factor, too. Incredible photos. Just WOW.

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    1. It was such a freaking gift to get to ride up there on that property. The whole of the Sinks is basically private inholdings so any chance to ride is a treat.

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  3. What an incredible day. I do really want to come explore West Virginia

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    1. I've love to show you around if you ever make it down!

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  4. I agree with Dom- I LOVE this post. Your info on the area, the pictures, the feeling you had being out in it. It was like I was traveling along with you! How beautiful and fun! Now I want to come to West Virginia and ride!

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  5. Wow, fantastic pics and looks like a fun day! So awesome!!!

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  6. That area looks incredible! Photos alone look gorgeous, so I can't even imagine it in person.

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  7. what an awesome ride! i kinda love wide open spaces like that!

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    1. Me, too! The feeling of being on top of the world/outwest/somewhere NOT WV is the coolest.

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  8. I was in awe and jealous, then saw you got to drive cattle and that really just takes the cake doesn't it! What a gorgeous piece of property to be able to ride on.

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    1. So freaking gorgeous. And yes - the cattle were a completely unexpected bonus!

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  9. Gosh, I totally have a sense of magic and excitement just from reading this post and looking at these pictures! Thank you for taking me on a mental vacation!

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  10. What a fantastic day!!! And the scenery 😍😍😍

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  11. What an experience! That is SO cool! You're making me appreciate WV more and more all the time.

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  12. I always look forward to seeing your photos on the blog or Instagram. You truly live in a paradise!

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  13. Gorgeous photos! What a beautiful place to ride <3

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  14. What a cool ride. That's such unique country. It reminds me of being up above 10k feet out west. Also a bit like the top of Mount Washington, which is also a weird climate zone full of arctic mosses and such. I didn't realize WV had such parts. I spent a summer working in WV and it was just green mountains and valleys. Pretty, but nothing like this.

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    1. Lots of odd arctic mosses and other small orchids and the like grow here! And I thought the same thing re: above 10k! What part of WV did you spend your summer in?

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  15. What a gorgeous landscape and perfect ride! I love the impromptu cattle drive!

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    1. I find that I enjoy the spontaneity of life so much more as I get older.

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  16. I would find it incredibly magical too!

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  17. Oh wow! What a great day!

    The Sinks sound really amazing- I had to look up red spruce to get an idea what it looked like but it just sounds like such a weird little bubble of Up North in the Appalachians! Does it affect birds preferrentially nesting there, I wonder, of some of the further-north species? It's also always so cool to spot eagles- all of the raptors are neat, but the eagles are just so BIG and it's so easy to forget HOW big when looking at photos. (I'm squeeing over correctly IDing my first sharpshinned hawk pair earlier and got to see one (probably the male as noticiably smaller)- they were hunting behind the hospital here in Silver!)

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    1. Sharpies are fun little birds!

      And yes, the Appalachians serve as a flyway for a lot of more northern bird species during the fall and spring migrations. Some, like the goldens, choose to overwinter in these high elevation areas of WV instead of traveling any further. The very large majority of the Quebec GOEA pop'n overwinters in the VA/WV highlands based on a series of long-term GPS studies that tracked the birds coupled with remote trail cams set on strategically placed carcasses. Through the GPS and photo identification, biologists were able to identify individual birds who returned to the same area year after year.

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  18. That. Is. The. COOLEST!!! What a dream come true!

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