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Spruce, Sphagnum, and a Roaring Fork: Tom and Skip go to Beartown

Skip atop Hutchinson's Rock

From Hutchinson’s rock at 4,480 feet, the view of Burke’s Garden below is stunning, a round bowl of fertile farmland encircled by thickly forested mountain ridges. It’s the highest elevation valley floor in the state of Virginia and resembles a thumbprint made from above or the blast crater from an ancient asteroid. In reality, the valley formed when subterranean limestone caverns collapsed, creating what might be the world’s most picturesque sinkhole. Hutchinson’s rock is the highest point within Beartown Wilderness, one of the most enchanting and unique congressionally designated wilderness areas in the East. The rock itself is a geological wonder worth the journey, but as my partner ranger Skip and I found out, a trip into Beartown is no minor task.

Beartown Wilderness was established in 1984, the same year I was born, and the same year Prince made Purple Rain, three events that only the most cynical and heartless historians would attempt to explain as unrelated coincidences. The first time Skip and I explored Beartown was with seasoned expert Mark Miller of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, this time we were going in on our own, with two goals – surveying Roaring Fork trail near the entrance, and then mapping the illegal user-created trails in the interior of the wilderness.

If you are under the impression that all Eastern wildernesses are trapped within the orbits of large cities and mobbed with visitors, I recommend a visit to Beartown. Located in Bland County (population 6,561), the route to the wilderness winds through beautiful rolling hills filled with hay bales with borders of orange daylilies and blue chicory. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail passes near here, climbing Chestnut Ridge, but that’s another adventure for another time.

Roaring Fork

Skip’s four-wheel drive truck came in handy for the muddy, steep climb up to the tank trap at the the end of the road. From there we hiked approximately three miles to Roaring Fork, one of the most spectacularly beautiful creeks in the Virginia wilderness. Flowing at the base of two steep hillsides with towering trees, heavily-shaded Roaring Fork cascades down a series of ledges into deep pools, on this day less-than-roaring but possible to hear from the nearby woods. We saw native brook trout waiting patiently for passing insects in the cool water as crayfish busily walked along the bottom. What spots of sunlight managed to reach the creek were like glowing gems in the mossy darkness.

With our trusty measuring wheel, Big Orange, we completed the two-mile TRACS (Trail Assessment and Conditions Survey) of Roaring Fork Trail. Then we jumped to the other side of Roaring Fork to begin the arduous climb to the top of Beartown. This trek is straight up a ridgeline – the terrain is too loose and rocky for side-hilling, and there are no flat sections to provide any relief. I needed to drink three liters of water before I made it to the top. Skip is some sort of strange long-haired camel and drank much less. The reward for this slog is entering a fairy-tale forest that you would never guess to be located in the South. Above around 4000 feet of elevation, massive, girthy yellow birch trees and tall, perfectly straight red spruce rise from a sea of thick green moss. As we trekked through these magical woods, we passed a massive naturally-occurring structure of limestone slabs, the den of Bear King, Mayor of Beartown.

This den was no mere hole in the rocks. The roof is a solid limestone slab several feet thick, lying horizontally over limestone walls of huge size, creating a dry, enclosed space larger thank all but the most extravagant of living rooms. How could such an inviting space be left unoccupied? With features like this and the conspicuous lack of human activity, Beartown might be a sort of bear paradise.

A wall of thick rhododendron lay in our path, but from our past trip with Mark we knew there was an opening through which we could access the unofficial trail to Hutchinson’s rock. After quite a bit of crashing through the brush, we were on the trail and on our way. Near the start of the trail, it opens up into a spaghnum bog, a Northwoods scene that could have been imported from the Canadian Maritimes. We pause to take pictures of the sky, which is deep blue with intricate feathers of clouds high in the stratosphere, ice crystals riding by on the jet stream. This was some six hours or so since we started hiking from the truck. Beartown is magical, but it’s not easy.

The bogs and spruce of Beartown

Skip has a highly developed sense of smell for a human. He frequently describes smells on the trail that are never detectable to me, odors like “sunscreen” and “propane.” While hiking the trail through walls of confining rhododendron on the way to Hutchinson Rock, he reports that he smells something like a “big, dirty dog.” We conclude that, in Beartown, what smells like a big dirty dog is probably a bear. We make copious noise so as not to startle this fragrant mountain denizen that has never known shampoo, yelling “Bear-y manilow! Hallie beary! Bear-ack Obama!” at every blind twist and turn through the rhododendron.

The rhododendron tube leading to Hutchinson’s rock is long and winding, and is clearly maintained by someone. The vegetation looked like it had been clipped and chopped in the past season. It runs for miles along the spine of the ridge, with the rock perched prominently on the very end, like a lighthouse on the end of a jetty. It is roughly cubical, maybe forty feet high, and split right down the middle. Caught in the crack, a huge car-sized limestone boulder hangs inside over a slot-like canyon in the middle of the rock. Crawling over and through the rock is akin to exploring in a Tomb Raider videogame, searching for Mayan ruins in Mexico or Belize.

We wanted to make sure we got to the rock, the carrot at the end of a long stick, but by the time we reached it we hardly had time to make it back before dark. We raced back through the rhodo-tube, past the smelly bear wallow, through the bog and down the ridge. My knees were in serious pain, the loose, rolling rocks of the ridge seeming almost designed to cause a twisted ankle or ACL tear. Back over the creek, down the logging road to the truck, we reached camp right as the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping with it. I remember what Mark Miller had exclaimed the last time we came out of Beartown – “It’s the coolest wilderness in Virginia!”, and at least for now, I have to agree.

--By Tom Sentner, 2017 SAWS Wilderness Ranger

George Washington & Jefferson National Forests

Tom in the Bear King's den

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