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Watoga Trail Report

Ice fishermen brave the cold temps each winter to fish on Watoga Lake. K. Springer photos

Winter in Pocahontas County

I recently had a phone conversation with a cousin who lives in perennially sunny Southern California. As the conversation wound down, she asked, “What do you do there in the winter?”– with a strong emphasis on the word “there.”

Apparently, she has West Virginia confused with Siberia or Antarctica. But her naiveté about our great state made me give some thought to how we folks here in Pocahontas County spend these cold months awaiting the return of the ramp and morel.

I am one who truly appreciates the change of seasons – winter is not something to simply run away from. Winter for me is personified by Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I read it every December as if I am reading it for the first time; it always conjures up an atmosphere that speaks of winter to me.

This is often followed by reading the stories of Jack London and Robert Service, the “bard of the Yukon.” No wintertide would be complete without a full reading of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

Winter is a time to sit in front of the fire reading a good book. It is seeing the first deep blanket of snow from my kitchen window at daybreak. Winter is steaming hot oatmeal and real hot chocolate.

Winter is watching my dogs run out into the first big snowfall of the season, disappearing in the deep snow and bounding out with delirious joy.

Winter is the time when we gather more frequently at potlucks and library events, as much to see and talk with friends as to partake of the evening’s offering.

By early November most of the seasonal folks have winterized their camps and left for the duration of the colder months. Here along the Greenbrier River their absence is palpable.

Rush hour at Seebert is greatly diminished after their departure, and one finds plenty of parking spaces at all of the trailheads. The absence of kayaks and canoes on the river has encouraged the usually shy otters and beavers to ply the waters of the river relatively unconcerned.

For many of our denizens, winter requires anticipation and preparation starting long before the winter equinox. There is seasoned firewood to be split and stacked. The bounty from the summer’s gardens must be put up in glass jars that line basement shelves with labels such as “Aunt Millie’s Corn Relish” and “Grandmas Sweet Gherkins.”

Whether there’s just a dusting or a blanket of snow, it won’t deter avid hikers who enjoy the trails at Watoga State Park.

Winter is a time to browse through seed catalogs and get that cultivator repaired.

At coffee shops and small grocery stores around our county, prognostications about the winter weather can be overheard, one of them based on the color scheme of the wooly bear caterpillar. More brown segments predict a mild winter, where more black segments predict a severe winter.

Another opinion gives preference to the accuracy of The Farmer’s Almanac. Yet another relies on the forecasts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – she pulls out her cell phone to share the instant forecast, but it says little about the winter as a whole.

It may be true that alcohol sales go up a bit here in winter, but not so much for the elevation of one’s sense of well-being as might be suspected. Rather, as a way to ward off the chilblains that accompany the polar winds.

A logic akin to that of the cowboys that always carried whiskey in their saddlebags in case of snakebite. Further proof that we humans are not immune from a certain amount of self-delusion as well as a bit of dishonesty about our motivations.

The Hillsboro Library will offer its annual winter selection of movies on certain Sunday afternoons throughout the cold months. A chance to see a great film and chat with neighbors – popcorn and drinks for all, no charge.

Snowshoe and Silver Creek Resorts attract folks from all over to ski their magnificent slopes. Locals go there, too, and they know the best times to go so that they never have to wait in a lift line.

If you would rather avoid the crowds, take your cross-country skis or snowshoes to the many trails of the Monongahela National Forest, the Greenbrier River Trail or Watoga State Park. 

Trout freezing on Watoga Lake.

Up in Watoga State Park there are still cabins open for the season, 10 of them to be exact. You will find well-seasoned firewood in nearby sheds to keep those cabins cozy. If it snows you can put on your cross country skis, if not, your hiking boots.

The ever fascinating Green Bank Observatory is open throughout the winter, offering guided tours of the giant telescopes three times a day – Thursday through Monday. Here is a chance to find out the latest information on their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Program. (As the old saying goes, maybe they should be searching for Intelligent Life on Earth.)

As I explained to my cousin out there in sunny California, there is a lot to do here in Pocahontas County in all seasons, especially in the winter.

The following comments are what a few of your neighbors are planning for the months ahead.

“Hiking in the West Virginia winters is superb because there are no bugs or snakes to worry about, and the woods are open and clear of vegetation. In the summer you can’t see the forest for the trees, but in winter the views are unobscured and the trails are a special treat of hidden rock formations and grand old trees.” Anne Workman

“In my younger days, I couldn’t wait for a good snow in order to hit the slopes at Snowshoe or Silver Creek. Now that I am old and not as agile as I once was, I spend the winter working on history and genealogy. I have become a “pilot” – pile it here, move it, pile it there.” Ruth W. Taylor

“In the past, I would be trekking between the couch and the stove – reading and feeding the fire.  But the weather has been so warm lately that I didn’t even have a fire for three days, and I spent my time outdoors in shirt sleeves cleaning up beds – flower beds, raspberry bed, rhubarb bed, asparagus bed.”   Beth Little

And then there is that rare breed of Pocahontas County resident who looks forward to an ephemeral experience found only in the coldest period of the winter months. Environmental conditions have to be just right, but one day soon the shallow shore waters of Watoga Lake will start to freeze.

Once the lake surface is frozen all the way across and the depth of the ice will safely sustain their weight, these hardy fishermen will drill holes in the ice and extend the fishing season a bit further than most of us would be comfortable with.

The payback for their efforts is a catch of West Virginia trout that conveniently freeze on the ice – no coolers required.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer

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