The Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia

“Aww f&@#,” says my wife of almost 4 months, “Are you kidding me?! Thirty degrees!”

My wife has just woken up after a nap while I drive up an unpaved mountain road.  This reaction to the frigid weather is just the beginning.  What began as an ascent surrounded by brilliant fall colors of numerous deciduous trees has given way to red spruce forest.    As my Jeep reaches its destination at about 4,000 feet in elevation it begins to hail.

Red Spruce among the boulders of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Red Spruce among the boulders of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

My wife is from South Florida.  She loves blue seas, palm trees, the everglades, and sunshine.  If it gets below 75 degree, well, it’s cold.  So you can imagine her reaction to seeing the sky send us the ominous hail.   

If only someone purchased for me some head phones that block out extraneous noise as a wedding gift.

(Note to wife:  Just kidding, honey.  I love you very much.)

It is the first week of October and most areas around the Chesapeake Bay are hovering in the low 60 degree range.  Mild weather, crisp air, and delicious apples are peaking in taste.  But on the far western boundary of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed lies an area that is unlike any other in the entire watershed.  This area is more akin to a Canadian ecosystem.  High above on the Allegheny plateau, we are camping in the Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia. 

There is no Dolly, but there are plenty of sods and it is one of my favorite designated wilderness areas.  The wilderness lies within the Monongahela National Forest and parts of the Dolly Sods are preserved by the Nature Conservancy.  Water that drains from the eastern border of the wilderness flows into the Potomac River and eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay.  The weather is unpredictable and can change from calm to snow or from rain to flood, and sometime all four within an hour.  This capricious quality is highly influenced by the Potomac River.  Because of where the Dolly Sods is located along the Allegheny Plateau it receives Canadian wind from the Northwest that collides with warmer air rising from the Potomac.  The end result is very extreme, and very windy, weather.  Along the rim of the plateau many spruce trees have taken on a flag form appearance due to the constant bombardment of fierce, cold winds.  The banshees like wail of the wind against my tent on this particular camping trip inspired me to originally write this piece around Halloween time.  

The Forest floor of the Solly Sods showing plants more common in the arctic

The Forest floor of the Solly Sods showing plants more common in the arctic

To view the vast landscape of the Dolly Sods is nothing short of breathtaking.  Upon first glance you might think you are standing in the expansive Alaskan tundra because of similar flora and fauna. Besides spruce and fir trees, there are miles of blueberry and huckleberry bush, sphagnum and reindeer moss, cranberry bogs, heath barrens, and incredible wind swept boulder formations. 

The area has had an interesting history.  Most of the old growth spruce forest is gone due to logging (most of the vegetation you see is second growth forest) and in the 1940’s the area was used by troops in the US Army as grounds for artillery and mortar training.  Live mortars may still exist in the sods, two were recovered in 2006.  Land to make the wilderness was acquired over the years by the nature conservancy (parts of it are overseen by the US Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy). 

Fall foliage in the lower elevations is incredibly spectacular.  Rivaling that of New England, the leaves turn in mid to late September and among the best I have ever seen.  In the higher elevations, the tundra like appearance is striking.  The miles of blueberry bush turn scarlet red contrasted amongst the green of the spruce.  Along the more moist areas strands of Balsam Fir are found as well. 

Fast forward to our current camping trip.  My wife, while complaining she cannot handle cold, is quite resilient and we had the tent up in a matter of minutes.  We hiked, camped, made s’mores, froze, and had another wonderful time there.  The hiking in this area is always great but one must be careful as many of the trails are not, or barely, marked.  It is recommended that one take topographic maps made by the US Geological Survey, but do not let that deter you, as the Bear Rocks Preserve area of the wilderness is easily accessible.  However if you are a backpacker the area offers some of the wildest and most beautiful camping opportunities.   

Previous trips to this area were always cold-but nothing like this.  With the wind chill the temperature hovered around 15 degrees.  Water that filled the openings in the boulders was now ice.  Any skin exposed to the elements became numb.  When the conditions are less than comfortable I find myself becoming more conscious of trying to create work that tells the story of the watershed.  There is something about feeling a tad uncomfortable that makes me more goal-oriented in the field.   

I created this video to give one a basic overview of the area.  I hope you enjoy it.  I have more video I plan to show and edit in the coming year.  It is wonderful that an area like this flows water into the Chesapeake Bay.  That this most diverse and unique environment is part of the watershed makes me appreciate the grandeur that is the Chesapeake that much more.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  As always feel free to contact me about the watershed and my photographs.

A Coda to the Summer of 2014

The Baltimore Orioles have just clinched the American League East. 

A Wild Horse- Assateague Island

A Wild Horse- Assateague Island

Damn, it felt good to write that.  One more time…….

The Baltimore Orioles have just clinched the AL East.   

Not since 1997 have my beloved Orioles won their division.  Baseball in October is going to be something of a joyful bedlam throughout the streets of Baltimore, a national pastime catharsis for the Camden Yards brethren.  Especially now that the air has gone crisp, the humidity has retreated, and appropriate hints of orange are beginning to outline the deciduous hardwoods of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays. 

The autumnal equinox is upon us.  Fall is coming. 

I must have time for pause and contemplation.  Where did the past three months go?

As summer ends its earthly rotation for another year and this essay, being my first since May, serving as both preface and epilogue to a season that began with a pivotal life event and featured adventures in wilderness on the American West and among the wilds of the Chesapeake.  I married my wonderful wife in June amongst the lodgepole pines and sublime peaks of Grand Teton National Park.  My wife and I adore the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and what better way to celebrate our union with our families than in the presence of the great bear and the wolf.  From there we spent a few weeks within the Crown of the Continent region, the Canadian Rockies, and the deserts of the American Southwest (another favorite of ours).  I plan to write on these topics within the next few months but for now I must share:  these places are amazing.

Prior to my wedding and upon my return I have been spending the majority of my time on the Coastal Bays Watershed and in the Blue Ridge mountains of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  The effects of coyote predation on whitetail fawns, the impact of off road vehicles on preservation areas, and the difference in behavior between wild horses acclimated to human presence versus those that are not are all topics I have been working on documenting.    

More often than not I could be found wandering and wading on the Coastal Bays.  The horses of Assateague have held a special place in my heart since childhood and observing their behavior is always a gift.  It has been a summer filled with rival stallions fighting, a new foal born, and all the other behaviors that come with wild, sea-faring, horses.

A Wild Horse herd galloping along the sand dunes of Assateague Island.

A Wild Horse herd galloping along the sand dunes of Assateague Island.

Additionally I documented and studied one of the most ancient biological rituals that annually occur in this region:  the spawning of the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus Polyphemus).  Thousands upon thousands of horseshoe crabs come together along the mostly wave resistant shores of Coastal Bays.  Males usually appear first, sometimes already attached to a larger female, and will attempt to fertilize as many eggs as possible upon release from their gender counterparts.  The coalescing of the crabs upon the shore offers us an almost identical view of their behavior dating back to the Triassic period, as they have remained unchanged through many epochs.  The eggs then create a smorgasbord of delight for a host of migrating shorebirds and gulls.  The excess eggs transform the beach from sandy yellow to a sickly green.  Sexy, huh? 

A Horseshoe Crab arrives on a beach along Assateague Island National Seashore

A Horseshoe Crab arrives on a beach along Assateague Island National Seashore

“Ewww, there’s guts coming out of that thing,” a young girl with an astute eye exclaims to her mother. 

“Those are just eggs, sweetie,” she replies as she attaches a tag to the shell of a crab as part of an ongoing monitoring project.  Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are considered a near threatened species, and numbers have declined due to development and over-harvesting (they serve as bait for eel fisherman and certain species of fish).  The study of the species has led to advancements in vision science, and enzymes and proteins from their blood have resulted in numerous medical studies.  Monitoring the species along the Atlantic is imperative to not just the species, but for its contributions to medicine as well.  This ancient resident of the watersheds may not be pretty, but they are extremely invaluable. 

It’s been such a wonderful, fast paced few months.  I still have much to write about.  For now though, thank you summer of 2014.  Onward to Fall on the Chesapeake. 

Let’s hope I can begin my next blog about the Orioles and the World Series.

Go O’s!!!!

Grizzly Man

October 5th marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, from the claws of a Grizzly Bear.  What is tragically ironic is the grizzly is the animal he swore to protect.  This unfortunate story has inspired numerous books, two documentaries, and a host of articles and other tawdry media hype. 

So why am I expanding on a story that has already been dissected immensely?

My goal as a nature and wilderness photographer is to communicate what I saw and felt in the great outdoors.  I want my viewers to appreciate the natural world; to get outside and get dirty and instill a sense of stewardship to the land.  Appreciation paired with education inspire conservation.  A smoker is far less likely to flick their cigarette butte on the street if they learn that it takes 15 years to breakdown and the chemicals can poison an animal’s food source (

In fact the impetus for this essay was not inspired by bears but by newly born deer fawns.

This past June as I was photographing the calving season of whitetail deer I came across more photographers and nature enthusiasts than ever before.  To get up close images of the fawns I noticed a group of photographers scaring a mother away, to which the fawn reacts by bedding down in concealment.  In nature whitetail does will leave their fawns in hiding as they feed.  If a predator approaches, they will run around wildly in order to distract it.  This is how the whitetail has evolved to behave in the natural world.  My problem with this group of overzealous photographers is that they are actively interfering in the doe and fawn’s life to get that “picture.” 

Timothy Treadwell actively interfered in the lives of Alaskan Grizzlies for 13 years.  Singing to wild bears, touching wild bears, swimming with wild bears and he seemingly broke every rule about surviving in bear country.  Yet there was a dichotomy in his approach as well.  The man truly believed in his mission to save the bear.  He actively preached conservation of the bear’s environment and gregariously shared that message with thousands of children in schools for no fee.  He went to Alaska to heal himself from depression and addiction, and if you talk to anyone who shares a kinship with the wilderness they too will speak of the mental healing you can experience in nature, myself included.

We live in a world where it is easier to get to wild places than ever before, and every year there is a headline of a death from a wild animal that could have been prevented.  Since the Treadwell tragedy there have been other “whisperers” of wild animals who are warmed under the glowing spotlight of the media.  The uninformed among us go into national parks and look at the wildlife as analogous to an amusement park.  I once witnessed park rangers in Yellowstone chastise a visitor because he thought it would be “cute” to try to put his child on top of a bison for a photograph.  The bison almost charged.


Grizzly Bear Sow.  Yellowstone National Park.

Grizzly Bear Sow.  Yellowstone National Park.

Seeing the mighty grizzly bear in the wild is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.  It is a privilege to see them in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Yukon and Alaska.  I highly encourage you to get out there too, and appreciate the great bear and its environment.  But with appreciation also comes respect.  Do your research, err on the side of caution, and never harass a wild animal.  We all share this world so let us all be safe as well. 

I believe that is what Treadwell would have wanted.


Sharing the Adventure


A friend of mine, whom for blogging purposes we will call “D”, has no interest in wilderness or photography.  He is not moved at the sight of a wild animal on a large museum exhibition print, nor stimulated at the prospects of seeing one in the landscape.  Camping, hiking, and getting off the grid are foreign concepts in his universe of video games, social networking, and communication by text.  Not that these activities serve no purpose, but turning off the Wi-Fi now and then is a good thing.  So you can imagine my surprise when “D” told me he wanted to begin training for an obstacle race.  Not just any obstacle race, but one featuring a motley crew of zombies, Spartan warriors, and perhaps a chance encounter with a future “Mrs. D.”  Whatever inspires you……

I suggested he join me on a mountain hike to begin his training regimen.  He agreed to this proposition as long as he did not have to wake up early.

Now late May into June is a most exciting time in the natural world as the sounds of the songbird fill the forest with their music and the gentle trickles of spring rain flow through waterfalls and streams. This harmonious symphony would not be complete without the sounds of all the newborns! Coyote pups howling, the chirping of newborn Robins, and the steps of a whitetail deer fawn following its mother through the forest; each sound epitomizes the seasons of rebirth and growth.


The mountains of Virginia and West Virginia provided the backdrop for many of my recent adventures, and I had scoped out different locations for my landscape work, with some requiring a few hours of hiking before I could even set up my tripod.  So you can imagine “D’s” distress when I made him wake up at 1 AM so that I could be at a location before sunrise.  Our only light source came from headlamps, along with commentary from “D” complaining about the trauma I was putting him through, making this hike seem like a regrettable enterprise.  When we finally made it to the location I was pleased to find that Mother Nature decided to cooperate with me.   



“These clouds are fantastic, with this light and……”

As I stopped midsentence I realized I had been talking to myself as I had not heard a response from “D” for a few minutes.  I looked over and D was just fixated on the clouds.  

“It’s beautiful,” he said, “I’ve never seen clouds like that before.” 

Gorgeous sunrise:  check.



 I had hoped that we would come across a bear on our hike because seeing mega fauna would hopefully inspire “D” to appreciate wildlife.  I discovered a few den sites this season which provided ample opportunities to view and photograph bears.  When we heard the cracking of dead leaves on the ground I immediately thought a bear was near but it was a whitetail deer and a newborn fawn.   I instructed “D” to stay low and watched their behavior closely to avoiding causing any distress to the mother.  Instead of exiting they strayed closer and “D” was able to see first hand the attentiveness and care the mother showed to its offspring.

                                                                                                                Cute Baby Animal: check    


Later on we came across a rather macabre looking scene of a bloody squirrel tail.  This unfortunate incident for the squirrel resulted in nourishment for another life; nature can appear cruel, but it is the cycle of life.  I surveyed the area to see if the hunter was still around but what we saw instead was much more profound.  Two fledging Barred Owl chicks were staring at us from their nesting cavity.  The answer was clear; the squirrel provided what these chicks need to survive in their first critical months of being on this Earth.  What initially began as disgust on “D’s” part transformed into childhood enthusiasm.  He had never seen a wild owl before, and now he had seen two chicks!  

Nature presenting life lessons: check.


What started out as a pain for “D” turned out to be a great day.  Was it life changing?  I certainly hope so, but until then at least I have the satisfaction of sharing the outdoors with him.  I do know he appreciates nature photography more because he visits this website.  

I did receive a text message from him though, to which I gladly re-post:

“Are you free to go hiking this week?”

So he is using the technology to schedule a wilderness outing?  I am cool with that.

Until next time, be good to each other