I’ve always been drawn to wild places. It’s where the world makes the most sense. And when the beauty of wild trout—rising where they should, to a fly offered by one practiced in the art of grace and respect for such things—agrees with the surroundings, all is as it should be.
Judging by the raw setting atop West Virginia’s Black Mountain, on the eastern edge of the Cranberry Wilderness, I anticipated this to be a fitting theme for the four days to come. Fog tends to linger at 5,000 feet, and on that day, a damp spring chill, driven deeper by steady drizzle and wind, caused it to overstay it’s welcome. As my brother and I climbed into waders and shouldered packs outfitted for several days in the woods, our only clue as to the character of the projected few days was the hazy silhouettes of spruces and hemlocks, and a darkened trailhead in the treeline. Wild was an apt adjective.
A spring entered our slog through the muddied foot trail when we struck stream an hour into the descent. By all physical measurements, the tannic North Fork of the Cranberry River resembles a world-class brook trout stream—but physicality can be misleading.
Existing information on the upper reaches of the Cranberry system is polarized. One side of the fence reveres the North and South Forks as beautiful brook trout country, without citing specifics or making promises, while the other adamantly shouts “dead river.” For this reason, (and because I refuse to complete a writing assignment on any location that I haven’t personally experienced) I planned a five-day backpacking trip into the headwater region of the river to get the story for myself.
Rain turned to snow as overnight temperatures dipped into the low-30s, and morning came with the melodic crinkling of snowflakes against our tent’s rain fly. Camp was made on the middle reaches of the North Fork, to give us a good base to explore the lower and upper sections of river. After a quick breakfast of some creative arrangement of oats, my brother strung a fly rod.
My industry would be achieved with a camera and my hands. Taking a knee in the cold mountain water, I began methodically flipping over rocks, sifting through leafy debris, and perusing the surface of streamside boulders. Nothing in the form of pollution-intolerant macroinvertebrates presented itself.
Disappointed in my findings, I dried my hands and framed my brother with my viewfinder to work on another aspect of my job. As he nymphed a promising-looking pocket under a rhododendron bush, he seemed discouraged as well, having seen or felt no sign of life in several hours—factors that were undoubtedly leading him to the same hunch I was developing.
Nevermind, off to the lower river.
The clouds parted, revealing a much-welcome sun and blue sky. Our answer was found at the mouth of the creek, where a concrete and metal building branded with a sign reading “Neutralization Station” barged in on our wilderness experience. The pocket water of the North Fork below the facility ran lucid, unnaturally so, with a yellow-gray tint—presumably the result of dissolved calcium carbonate, limestone dust—and was subject to special regulations.
In the name of research, I spent hours methodically fishing and searching for macroinvertebrates in the quarter mile of stream below, and just above, the source of the limestone. Stick caddis, gray fox mayfly larvae, and stoneflies were found in relative abundance, but fish came in the form of a single, two-year-old brook trout, and two cookie-cutter, stocked rainbows. No fish persisted above the small dam at the treatment station.
Beautiful country, indeed, but as was becoming suspect, the underlying ecosystem had a past as dark as a foggy mountain hollow. During the heyday of West Virginia’s rampant coal mining industry in the early 1900s, countless stream miles were scorched of life due to acid mine drainage. Sulfides are concentrated in coal, and when exposed to water and air, become sulfuric acid, and seep from mines into adjacent watersheds, lowering pH levels, and rendering creeks uninhabitable by native brook trout.
Such was the case with the Cranberry River. Prior to the establishment of the regular liming treatment in the lower North Fork, its waters were so acidic that they prevented even the hardiest of warmwater species from existing. Today, the main stem, below the forks, is commonly revered as the Mountain State’s greatest trout fishery—though only as a stocked water.
On our hike back up into the headwaters to camp, I relaxed my mind, momentarily retreating into the hills from the disillusionment of the river’s reality. Native brook trout were rising where they should, on the seams of hemlock-lined plunge pools, to yellow sallies and sulfurs, before the cornucopian adulteration of a priceless ecosystem caught fire.
Few places remain truly wild—ungreased by the destructive hands of humanity—but many look and feel wild. Rivers epitomize these places. Fish tell us the difference, and give us a reason to take action.