Zack Harold

writer/editor

Protectors of the Forest

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, May 3, 2012. 

LANSING — Zeus has been growing in Mill Creek canyon for four centuries.
The massive hemlock tree stood watch as white explorers moved in, replacing the land’s native inhabitants.

Zeus was there as the descendants of those explorers formed a new country, and looked on as the sons of those descendants ripped the new country apart.

The old tree, named by Adventures on the Gorge when the company set up its zip line course in 2008, has seen generations of fishermen, hunters and hikers.

Some have patted his trunk, and some have climbed his branches. Some, undoubtedly, didn’t even notice the silent giant.

But Zeus might not see his 500th birthday.

There’s another hemlock standing near the old sentinel. On a recent day, that tree looked like it had just received a light snowfall, except it was late April and the weather was a comfortable 70 degrees.

Almost every limb is covered with tiny white dots. They are hemlock woolly adelgid, pests that live and lay eggs in waxy coverings between a hemlock’s needles.

“They feed on the starches within the hemlock tree, that the tree needs to grow and thrive,” said Andrea Brandon, Central Appalachian program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

“It’ll essentially suck the juice out of it.”

Under ideal conditions, trees can live up to a decade after they’ve been infested.

“It can live another six to 10 years, if it’s in a healthy stand and there aren’t any additional stressors,” Brandon said.

But ideal conditions rarely exist. If the tree encounters any other stressors, like unseasonable weather or a lack of water, death is expedited.

“If they get hit by a drought, it puts them over the edge,” Bartgis said.

In the late ’90s, the Mountain State saw a mild winter followed by a really hot, dry summer. Hemlocks in the Eastern Panhandle, already infested with woolly adelgid, became drought-stressed and died. Shenandoah Mountain was hit particularly hard.

“It killed over 90 percent of the hemlock trees,” Bartgis said.

Slow-moving threat

The hemlock woolly adelgid came to Appalachia from southern Japan over half a century ago.

Bartgis said Asia’s climate is very similar to that of the United States. The woods of eastern China are filled with maple trees, oaks, pines, hemlocks and dogwood trees, just like West Virginia. It even has rhododendrons.

“You walk through their forests and they’re amazingly like this,” Bartgis said. “Except there are monkeys in the trees.”

That makes it easy for pests like the woolly adelgid to survive the transcontinental trip, catching a ride with goods shipped from the Far East to the East Coast.

Adelgid are good hitchhikers, traveling on the wind, animal backs, bird feathers, people’s clothes and tractor-trailers. The pests reproduce asexually, so it takes only one healthy bug to start an infestation.

Hemlock woolly adelgid were first spotted in the United States in 1951, in Richmond, Va., but didn’t arrive in West Virginia until 1992, when arborists found them in trees in Grant and Pendleton counties.

Since then, the bug has slowly moved westward. The adelgid is only now reaching trees in West Virginia’s western counties.

Bud Frantz, manager of Treetops Canopy Tour, said it was difficult to spot woolly adelgid on the Adventures on the Gorge property about four years ago.

“In a few years, it exploded,” he said.

Brandon and Rodney Bartgis, state director for The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, are worried about the recent mild winter. They said temperatures were much too warm to hurt the woolly adelgid population, and the state appears to be moving into a warm, dry spring with possible drought-like conditions.

“What could be happening is the development of the perfect storm,” Brandon said.

Trees in trouble

It’s easy to gauge the health of a hemlock: You stand at its base and look up. If you see lots of blue sky as you peer through the canopy, the tree is not very healthy.

“Fern,” the first hemlock on Adventures on the Gorge’s Treetops Canopy Tour, is not very healthy. In some places, the tree offers an almost unobstructed view of the sky. Some of its branches are almost completely barren of needles.

“If we get a warm summer, that tree’s going to be in trouble,” Bartgis said.

Cold temperatures are the pest’s worst enemy. That’s why the adelgid have ravaged hemlocks in the south, including Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains. The winters are much milder, so the adelgid populations don’t get thinned out as much.

Bartgis said temperatures must reach 16 below to significantly affect woolly adelgid populations. He said this year, temperatures barely hit zero in the coldest parts of the Mountain State.

Some pesticides can be used against the adelgid. Workers at Adventures on the Gorge treat their hemlocks with a nicotine-based compound. The chemical shrinks the adelgid’s appetite, just as cigarettes work as a hunger suppressant for humans.

“They starve themselves to death,” Frantz said.

The treatment appears to be working.

Walking across the tour’s first swinging bridge, you can see the first stand of trees Adventures on the Gorge treated against the woolly adelgid. These trees are doing well, with evidence of new growth and healthy green buds on the tips of the branches.

Zeus also was among the first group of Adventures on the Gorge’s trees to be treated against the woolly adelgid in 2009. Because of that early intervention, it has never had a bad infestation.

Unfortunately, treatment is extremely labor intensive. Workers have to treat each hemlock individually, by burying pesticide pellets in the ground near the root system or drilling a hole in the tree’s bark and injecting the chemical directly into its stem.

Scientists around the country have been trying for years to find widespread treatment against woolly adelgid. So far, they haven’t had any luck.
Bartgis said researchers have looked at beetles that might eat the woolly adelgid, but those tests have not been successful.

Brandon said in some stands of hemlock in the eastern United States, one tree is perfectly healthy while those around it are dead, victims of woolly adelgid infestations. Researchers are studying those healthy trees to figure out what made them resistant to attack.

“We really don’t have an answer right now,” she said.

‘About a hemlock’

Hemlocks make up about 1 percent of trees in West Virginia’s forests. According to a state Department of Agriculture forest health study in 2010, more than 200,000 acres in the state are at risk for hemlock woolly adelgid infestations.

Tucker County has the highest density of hemlocks in West Virginia, with the trees accounting for 7 to 9 percent of the forests there. Pocahontas and Mercer Counties come in second, with 4 to 6 percent of their woods populated by hemlocks.

Although they’re not the most common tree in West Virginia’s woods, hemlocks are very important.

“Hemlocks are like beaver. They really affect their surroundings,” Bartgis said.

Some birds prefer to nest in hemlocks. The shade from the big evergreens makes their surrounding environments cooler.

“That’s important for species that need that cool climate, like brook trout in the stream,” Bartgis said.

Adventures on the Gorge co-owner Dave Arnold said he had no idea what woolly adelgid were when the company started planning its zip line course.

It wasn’t until an arborist was hired to determine the health of its trees that Arnold learned the hemlocks were in danger.

The company has since built a prevention plan into its business strategy. One dollar of every guest’s zip line tour goes toward treating the hemlocks. There are about 5,000 mature hemlocks on Adventures on the Gorge’s 40-acre plot.
Workers now have treated more than 1,000 of the trees. The company has spent about $30,000 on treatment, not including some labor costs.

Arnold, a longtime whitewater rafting guide, said the hemlocks along the Gauley River are among his favorite features of the waterway. He said the shady evergreens give the forest an intimate feel rafters just don’t get on the New River.

“It makes the Gauley,” he said. “These hemlocks create a mood. They create an atmosphere. Any trout fisherman understands it.”

Arnold said rafting the Gauley might be a completely different experience 20 years from now, if scientists don’t find a way to stop the woolly adelgid.

“Someday we may really have a unique place. If something doesn’t change, you’re going to have a few small places where hemlocks exist,” he said.

The stakes are high. If researchers don’t find a way to wipe out woolly adelgid once and for all, West Virginia’s forests—already irrevocably changed over the state’s history by forest fires, disease and irresponsible human behavior—may never look the same.

And the next generation of explorers will never see a tree like Zeus.

In Search of the Stone Man

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

Russ Jones navigates the woods with an ease that only comes through vast experience. His running shoes do not lose their footing on this steep, unmarked trail in Kanawha State Forest. As a certified Master Naturalist, he readily spots animal tracks and identifies birdsong, and he can name just about any plant he finds while also ticking off the bugs that like to munch on it. He’s seen just about everything there is to see in the woods. But this morning, Jones is in pursuit of something he’s never seen.

Russ Jones is looking for Bigfoot.

He doesn’t really expect to come nose-to-nose with Sasquatch in broad daylight in a popular state park. It’s more accurate to say he’s looking for evidence of Bigfoot. Jones is a local investigator for the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, a 20-year-old group made famous by Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. The group has received several reports of encounters in Kanawha State Forest, so Jones is looking for places to stash his top-of-the-line field cameras to catch photos of the fabled beast.

The trail levels off, giving us a brief respite from the steep climb. Then Jones notices something a few yards in front of him. Something that shouldn’t be there.

For the Record

Russ Jones has never seen a Bigfoot, but he has on five occasions found what he believes are Bigfoot tracks. “I don’t mean a smudge in the ground. I mean a clear track, with toes,” he says. The first time, he was a boy in southern Ohio and knew nothing about Bigfoot. He was walking in the woods with his uncle shortly after a snowstorm. They came to a cave and found a print in the snow that looked like it had been made by a human’s bare foot. “We thought maybe some druggie found that cave to get out of a storm.” Years later, after Bigfoot research became his passion, Jones saw it differently.

He also thinks he has heard a Bigfoot a few times. Recently, Jones was hiking with his wife, Cheryl, near Thurmond in the New River Gorge. He heard four “wood knocks” from across the river. Bigfoot researchers believe the creatures bang pieces of wood together to communicate. There were no Bigfoot to be seen, however, when Jones reached the location of the noises an hour and a half later.

Most of his Bigfoot experiences have come vicariously. Following up on reports of encounters in West Virginia or Ohio on the BFRO website, Jones has talked to policemen, teachers, nurses, and prominent politicians. “If someone said, ‘What’s the most shocking thing about Bigfoot?’ I’d say it’s the witnesses. They’re so ordinary,” he says.

Scrolling through recent reports in his Dunbar chiropractic office during a lunch break, Jones finds one witness who reports working on a deer stand deep in the woods when he noticed something odd—banging noises rang through the air long after his hammer stopped. Later that day the man heard something large moving through the trees, although he was certain no other humans were anywhere near, and he smelled a musty, body odor-like stench.

Jones decides this account is credible, as much for what the witness wrote as how he wrote it. “This guy knows how to spell. His grammar’s really good. He knows where to use commas. I think it’s important to evaluate the context of a report.” Jones’ standards for credibility have risen over time. And for good reason. “When you make a remarkable claim, remarkable evidence is required,” he says.

Burden of Proof

The woods are quiet as Jones approaches a faded blue object near a sapling, now just a few feet away. It’s a Dora the Explorer sippy cup. He picks it up, sniffs the contents, and throws the cup back on the ground. Farther up the hill Jones finds something else: a gleaming white golf ball sitting on a bed of dark, decomposing leaves. To me, the discovery feels significant—what are these things doing here, on a steep hillside in the middle of the woods with no marked trail anywhere close? When you’re looking for Bigfoot evidence, everything seems like it could be Bigfoot evidence. This is a common amateur mistake, Jones says. “I think having an experience is an exciting thing at first but after a while, when you’re sure something exists, you’ve run out of interest in experiences.”

Jones admits the cup and ball are odd finds, but the hard evidence he’s looking for eludes him. He attributes this to the animal’s primate intelligence and its high wariness of humans. Unbelievers say evidence just doesn’t exist, but Jones believes most of them simply have not reviewed the evidence. That’s why he took it upon himself to plead Bigfoot’s case.

Earlier this year Jones released his book, Tracking the Stone Man. The title is taken from the Cherokee name for the mysterious, hairy creature the tribespeople sometimes encountered in the woods. The book is part memoir. It’s also a field guide, detailing common beliefs about Bigfoot and its behaviors, with tips on running an expedition. He discusses DNA tests on alleged Bigfoot hair and scat samples and includes several witness reports, the best of the best. “I put the ones in the book I know are true.”

Jones poured two years of his life into the book, yet he knows it isn’t enough. Only one thing will ultimately prove Bigfoot exists: a dead Bigfoot. “Eventually I think that’s going to happen. A coal truck is going to go around a curve and hit it,” he says. “Then the university people are going to come out of the universities and act like they know stuff.”

If they are someday proven correct, Jones and his fellow believers will be in good company. Up until the late 1920s, many Westerners believed the giant panda was just a myth—until Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. and his brother Kermit went on an expedition to China and shot one.

But let’s admit, even if Jones will not, there is a very real chance he has spent a significant portion of his life and a large amount of money pursuing a falsehood. What will Jones have lost?

Less than you might think. Real or not, this obsession has colored Jones’ life with a rare sense of adventure. “People have this idea that we’ve explored and found all there is to find. I just don’t think that we have. Maybe it’s romantic at heart to believe there’s something left for man to discover. But I think there’s a chance.”

And when you look at it like that—who doesn’t want him to be right?

A Creek Runs Through It

This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

The fish weren’t biting when Rick Burgess and his twin brothers Denny and Danny arrived at Spruce Knob Lake for a weekend camping trip in 1976. Denny suggested they try their luck in a nearby stream he’d heard about, so he and Rick threw their gear into the Mustang II they’d driven on the trip while Danny stayed behind.

The brothers drove the winding roads about 15 minutes away to a property separated from the road by a gate. They parked the Mustang, hopped the gate, and began walking a path they hoped would lead them to Denny’s trout stream.

The brothers rounded a bend. They found the stream. And then they saw the ground open up and swallow the creek whole.

Rick and Denny had found Gandy Creek. But they had also stumbled across one of West Virginia’s geologic treasures. “I had no idea what I was looking at. We were on this beautiful little trout stream and all of a sudden it goes into this cave,” he says.  It wasn’t until later, a good while after they returned from the camping trip, that Danny saw a feature in the Sunday newspaper and finally learned the name of the cave his brothers had found: the Sinks of Gandy.

This popular cave is located in eastern Randolph County just a few miles from the highest point in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. Gandy Creek runs through the Sinks for a mile and a half beneath Yokum Knob before emerging near Dry Fork Road. It has become a regular stop for cavers of all experience levels. Thomas Komir, a course director at the nearby Mountain Institute, has led hundreds of summer campers through the cave. Because the cave requires little technical skill, he says it’s a perfect introduction to spelunking. “There’s very minimal climbing,” Komir says. “You’re basically walking in the streambed, and it’s mostly flat.”

Although his campers are often intimidated at first, Komir says it doesn’t take long for them to overcome hteir hestitations. “They usually love it,” he says. “We walk through the water in the cave and when we reach the other side, they’re ready to do anything. Oddly enough it’s the adults who have a harder time with it.”

The Sinks are named for a family of early settlers in the area. According to family legend, the cave served as a hideout after Samuel Gandy deserted from the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. He was captured, jailed, and sentenced to hang but his brother Uriah broke him out. They escaped to Virginia and sheltered in what would become known as the Sinks of Gandy until spring.

The general public first learned of the Sinks through “The Mountains,” a fictionalized account by David Hunter Strother published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1872. In the story, a band of Virginia gentlemen organize an expedition to find the “tunnel of Gandy.” Although the story captured the imagination of readers nationwide, Strother, writing under the nom de plume “Porte Crayon,” did not paint locals in a flattering light. His narrator imagines West Virginians as “mountain nymphs” and “rude swains” with “loutish movements” and “bobbing steps.”

This, of course, is only recent history. The real story of the Sinks of Gandy goes much further back—more than a half-billion years.

A LIVING CAVE

Our tale begins in a time of great geological turmoil. At the beginning of the Paleozoic Period, more than 540 million years ago, all the dry land on Earth was joined in a supercontinent geologists call Pannotia. But the tectonic plates below the planet’s crust began to shift, and the land slowly began to break into several smaller continents.

These changes were accompanied by a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate. The oceans rose and created warm, shallow inland seas that covered parts of what is now North America. Over the next 290 million years, the bottom of those seas became littered with shell material, coral, algae, fish waste, and the remains of all manner of marine life. As that material piled up and was covered over by sand, dirt, and rock, the pressure compressed this sediment and formed limestone. “All throughout the Paleozoic, you have layer after layer after layer of different rock types forming. It’s like a big layer cake of different rock,” says Ken Ashton, a geologist with the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

By this time the continents began to slowly drift back together, forming another supercontinent known as Pangaea. The immense pressure created by these colliding landmasses caused the sedimentary rock to fold and crack. “That nice bed of limestone, now it’s being pushed up,” Ashton says. Eventually this created a long line of towering crags we now call the Appalachian Mountains.

At the time, the range was as tall as the Himalayas. Over the next few million years glaciers and prehistoric rivers whittled down the peaks to the gentle rolling hills of today. The limestone remained, however, buried deep beneath the mountains. And the water that eroded the tops of the mountains also started to cut caves beneath them.

The Sinks were formed in the same way as most of Earth’s caves—the slow, gradual dissolution of limestone. “Limestone is the cave-forming rock. Anywhere you’ve got limestone, you have a potential for caves,” Ashton says.

The process is familiar to anyone who suffers heartburn. Limestone is made from calcium carbonate, the same stuff as antacids like Tums. “You might as well chew on a piece of limestone. It neutralizes acid. Consequently, acid will dissolve calcium carbonate,” Ashton says. Because natural water can be slightly acidic, over time rivers and streams began to cut paths through the limestone. “Everything you see in a cave, everything about any cave was formed by acidic water dissolving limestone,” Ashton says.

Over years and years, Gandy Creek pounded against the limestone under Yokum’s Knob and slowly began to work its way underground. Cracks formed, allowing more water to flow through, which increased the process of dissolution. “The cracks just kept getting bigger and bigger, and that’s how the Sinks of Gandy were formed,” Ashton says.

Of course, Gandy Creek still flows through the cave today. And since water still dissolves limestone, the Sinks continue to grow and change before our eyes. It’s just taking so much time we don’t notice. “Geologic time is very slow,” Ashton says.

A LASTING IMPRESSION

Time has moved faster for Rick Burgess. He left West Virginia for Texas a few years after that fishing trip with his brothers. He returned to the Mountain State in the mid-1990s and still thought about the Sinks from time to time, but never made the trip back. At some point, he realized it had been nearly three decades since he first laid eyes on the Sinks of Gandy.

“I always wanted to go back. I knew it was a place not many people knew about,” Burgess says. “I wanted to see it again, because it had made such an impression to me the first time.” In 2013, he decided to try and find his way back. There was just one problem. “I had no idea how to get there,” he says.

Burgess drove around, trying in vain to find the gate he and Denny hopped all those years ago. He eventually flagged down a pickup and the driver pointed him to right spot. He climbed the fence, walked down a gravel road, and found the familiar depression in the earth.

Although he did not explore the cave’s gaping mouth on his initial visit—he was pretty claustrophobic at the time—Burgess was braver this time. He waded into the cave’s entrance with his Nikon camera.

As he entered, a thunderous noise erupted around him—he had disturbed a family of swallows nesting in the crevices of the rock. “They just start darting out everywhere. You’re in a natural sound chamber, so the sound is incredible,” he says.

Eventually the noise settled down, and Burgess was able to tune into the other sights and sounds of the cave—the logs stuck in the ceiling from long-ago floods, the bird nests in the rock, the trickling of the water, the light reflecting off the surface.

After going nearly 30 years without seeing the Sinks of Gandy, Burgess is now a regular visitor. He has been back several times since his 2013 excursion. He’s taken photos of the cave in the spring, summer, and fall. He hopes to go back soon for some wintertime shots. “A lot of times that area, there’s always a lot of snow. I’d like to get a shot where there’s a few inches, being on the inside looking out.”

His photos have caused others to ask how to find the Sinks and see the cave for themselves. But, like an angler guarding a favorite fishing hole, Burgess is hesitant. “On one hand you want other people to know about it and experience it for themselves,” he says. “And on the other hand—it’s kind of selfish, I guess—you don’t want people to know about it.”

EXPLORING ON YOUR OWN

Spelunkers have been exploring the Sinks of Gandy for generations. But even a relatively easy cave like the Sinks is full of potential hazards for inexperienced explorers. Geologist Ken Ashton recommends cavers always have at least three sources of light. “Once you get in there, there is no light. Be prepared,” he says. “I’ve seen people go through there with nothing but a Coleman lantern, and that scares the crap out of me.”

He recommends wearing good, sturdy shoes—it’s all too easy to twist an ankle while walking across the slick rocks in Gandy Creek—and a helmet. “It’s dark and you can’t see the rocks in the ceiling.” Ashton also says it’s a good idea to take along some friends on your adventure. “It’s safer, and you’ll have a better time,” he says.

And because Gandy Creek is prone to flooding, cavers of all ability levels should keep the weather forecast in mind. In the event of heavy rain, water levels inside the Sinks can rise really high, really quickly. “Never go into that cave if there’s a chance of major rain,” Ashton says. “There are parts, you can look up into the ceiling and see sticks and branches that got stuck from previous flooding events.”

A 1941 Saturday Evening Post article tells the story of a band of Ohioans who became trapped in the Sinks of Gandy on Memorial Day 1940 when a cloudburst raised Gandy Creek by three inches, flooding the cave and cutting the party off from the outside world. Lucky for these spelunkers, they discovered the Sinks’ alternate exit and made their way out—wet, shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

With the proper precautions in mind, Ashton says the Sinks can provide a great introduction to the exciting sport of spelunking. “It’s a neat way to experience wild caving without getting the crap beat out of you,” he says. “As long as you can follow the flow of the water, you’ve got Gandy Creek to guide you.”

 

At River’s Bottom

This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

At first, no one knew exactly what was happening, or why. But one fact was clear—lots of things were dying in Dunkard Creek.

Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologists Frank Jernejcic and Dave Wellman were at the Monongalia County stream almost every day during the September 2009 fish kill, surveying the damage. Lifeless fish lay dead on the shores and sandbars. The fish that remained alive thronged into pools of unspoiled water created by the confluence of Dunkard’s tributaries with the main waterway. “They couldn’t move into the main flow of the stream. They were stuck in these little areas,” says Jernejcic, who retired in late 2014.

The fish couldn’t swim upstream into those tributaries because the water level was too low. “They were frantic, like if someone sets off a bomb in the middle of a fairground and people try to make it to the exit,” Wellman says. Jernejcic remembers the last two he saw alive, a carp and a muskie. By the next time he visited the pool, those fish were died, too.

And then there were the white soft clumps of matter Wellman noticed floating downstream. “The first couple times I saw them, I thought it was clumps of toilet paper,” he says. But he realized it was much more worrisome than litter. After checking with fellow DNR biologist Janet Clayton, Wellman confirmed his hypothesis: those white clumps were actually mussels, floating free of their shells after they were killed by whatever unseen force wiped out the rest of Dunkard Creek’s aquatic life.

More than a week later, biologists finally figured out what caused the Dunkard Creek kill. A mine drainage pipe was dumping high levels of chlorides into the stream, creating brackish conditions that, when combined with low water levels and hot weather, created a perfect environment for Prymnesium parvum—more commonly known as “golden algae”—to grow. When the algae bloomed, it released deadly toxins that damaged the gills of fish and mussels, causing them to choke to death.

In the end, around 21,000 fish and 25,000 mussels died in the kill—every single living thing that called Dunkard Creek home. “Normally you have some fish alive. In this case, there were no fish left,” says Jernejcic, who saw hundreds of events like this in his career, and even served on the national committee that wrote the handbook on investigating fish kills.

Then, over the following weeks and months, something amazing began to happen. The algae dissipated as weather and water conditions shifted. Fish moved up from the Monongahela River and lower sections of Dunkard Creek. Within a year, biologists found 90 percent of fish species had returned to the stream. Within two years, 100 percent of species had returned, although the populations took a few more years to reach pre-kill levels. “It recovered very quickly,” Jernejcic says. “Two or three years later, I fished it and had one of the best smallmouth trips of my life.”

But not everything bounced back so easily. Years passed and the mussel population in Dunkard Creek remained nonexistent. Clayton, DNR’s foremost expert on mussels, says it can take centuries for mussel populations to recover after a catastrophic event because of the slow and cumbersome way these mollusks reproduce. “In a case like Dunkard Creek, it probably never would,” she says.

Luckily, Mother Nature has people like Clayton to help her along.

* * *

DNR began its mussel restoration project in Dunkard Creek in 2011. Crews began collecting fully mature mussels during stream surveys and pulling others from streams where construction projects threatened the native mussel populations. They came from the Ohio River, Elk River, Tygart River, and several smaller streams including the unaffected north West Virginia fork of Dunkard Creek, and were planted directly in the substrate of Dunkard Creek.

Clayton and company also began growing their own mussels. In 2011, Clayton and her team moved their first brood stock into DNR’s facility in Belleville, Wood County. Mussels reproduce sexually—meaning both a male and female are required for the process—but since they can’t move to find a mate, male mussels release their sperm into the water, hoping a female somewhere downstream will catch it and use it to fertilize her eggs. This fertilization can take some time. For mussel species known as “long-term brooders,” this stage can last the entire winter.

Once the eggs have matured into larvae called “glochidia,” it’s time for another trip downstream. The mother mussel releases her glochidia into the water where, if they’re lucky, they will latch onto the gills of a passing fish. Or at least that’s how it works in the wild. At Belleville, Clayton’s crew placed the glochidia in a holding tank with small fish and then used a pump to aerate the water to keep the glochidia moving around, increasing their exposure to a potential host.

Mussels are picky about their hosts. While some species of mussels will work with entire groups of fish, other mussels require an exact subspecies before they’ll grab hold. Some, for example, only use skipjack herring. “There’s others that use catfish, there’s others that use darters,” Clayton says. “There are mussels that we still don’t know what their host is.”

For mussel species that require larger fish as hosts, Clayton had to take a more hands-on approach to inoculation. She collected the glochidia in a syringe, and then squirted it onto the gills of an appropriate host fish. She only used one side of the fish, however, to ensure the fish were not over-inoculated and had difficulty breathing.

Larvae develop into juvenile mussels during their time as parasites. When the mollusks have developed enough to survive on their own, juvenile mussels simply drop off their fish hosts and find a home on the bottom of the stream. In 2012, Clayton and her team released inoculated bluegill and drum fish at four different sites on Dunkard Creek, hoping the juveniles would settle into the streambed and begin to replenish the population. They also released fish in 2013 and 2014.

Things have not gone as Clayton hoped. “So far we’ve not seen any response,” she says. This difficulty did not come as a surprise, however—she knew from the beginning the odds were stacked against her project. The mussel reproductive process is long and finicky, and in the wild is largely a product of luck. Despite biologists’ efforts to circumvent luck, sometimes the natural order still prevails.

But that doesn’t mean Clayton has stopped trying. Mussels are far too important for that.

* * *

Clayton first became interested in mussels back in 1989. She worked for DNR’s Office of Water Resources at the time, and was in her office one day when she overhead a new employee complaining just outside her door. Their boss was going to make him attend a class on mussels, and he did not want to go. Clayton jumped at the chance and volunteered to take his place. “Once I took the class, I was fascinated. They’re just amazing,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she moved to DNR’s office in Elkins where she got involved with a research tracking acid rain’s effects on fish. She still was working on mussel projects on the side, and over time her work became less about acid rain and more about mussels. When the research program wrapped up, her bosses asked Clayton developing a new mussel program for the agency.

Mussels are found all over the state—West Virginia is home to about 63 species, nine of which are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. And despite their humble appearance, mussels are extremely important to their ecosystems. Because they bury themselves into the streambed, they help prevent erosion like trees on a hillside.

They are also nature’s sewage treatment plants. Mussels feed themselves by drawing water through their siphons and filtering out particulate matter and small organisms—a single mussel can filter five gallons of water a day. It’s not just food they are pulling from the water, however. “They also filter out the contaminants,” Clayton says. “They’re filtering everything out of the water. What they don’t use in their bodies, they’re binding into pseudofeces. Other critters can eat that. That’s less for that our water treatment plants have to deal with.”

But as helpful as they are to their ecosystems, mussels are also extremely vulnerable creatures. Most of the events that lead to mussel deaths are not big, dramatic happenings like Dunkard Creek. Clayton says mussel deaths are usually caused by a slow accumulation of sediments over time. “We have a lot of sediment impacts from road construction, from the oil and gas industry,” she says. Chlorides, like those found in fracking fluid or road salt, are especially dangerous. “That’s highly toxic to mussels, and even more toxic to juvenile mussels.”

They are also threatened by invasive species. Zebra mussels—a nickel-sized freshwater mollusk originally native to Russia—killed 25 percent of the native mussels in the Ohio River in 2000. The native mussels sucked the microscopic zebra mussel larvae through the water column while trying to feed. As the larvae develop, “they become this ball of zebra mussels on top of the native mussel,” Clayton says. The intruders use up all the food and oxygen in the water and starve out the native mussel.

By and large, there’s little anyone can do about these threats. The golden algae could come back, if the conditions are right. Clayton says industrial disasters seem to be getting more and more frequent. There’s nothing to prevent zebra mussels from entering the state’s waterways.

But she can try to repair what’s been broken. Although the Dunkard Creek restoration isn’t going very well at the moment, there have been other, more successful projects. When chemical spills on the Ohio River killed thousands of mussels, Clayton and her team went into the river to stock adult muscles. “Our main purpose was to get some mussels in there to help hold the substrate,” she says. But those mussels made way for more to follow. “The last time we surveyed it four years ago, we picked up an endangered species that has naturally recruited back into that site.”

It’s these kinds of victories that keep Clayton fighting her fight. Although it has been nearly 30 years since she attended that first class on mussels, her passion for the creatures remains as strong as ever. It might seem odd to some to devote so much energy—not to mention a career—to these often overlooked, not very attractive, bottom-feeding creatures. But for Clayton, it’s no mystery. “They’re quite important,” she says.

Real-life ginseng hunts are more satisfaction than reality show drama

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 14, 2014.

If you watch reality shows like the History Channel’s “Appalachian Outlaws” or the National Geographic Channel’s “Smokey Mountain Money,” you know hunting ginseng is a dangerous business of greed and guns.

But if you’ve ever gone into the woods looking for this elusive medicinal root, you know those shows are laughably over-hyped and about as far from “reality” as you can get.

Ernie Burdette, 52, of Cedar Grove, has been hunting ginseng for 12 years.

He’s never been threatened by a rival ginsenger. The people he meets in the woods are more likely to stop for a chat than shoot at him.

Burdette did walk into a backwoods marijuana patch one time, but the grower had already harvested the crop. He turned around and high-tailed it out of there just to be safe.

The only real dangers he has encountered came from rattlesnakes, which he easily escaped by giving them plenty of space, and a few yellow jacket nests, which he did not manage to avoid.

Most of the time, however, hunting ginseng is as peaceful as a walk in the woods. Because that’s exactly what it is.

Burdette set out before sunrise last Saturday morning, bouncing his Toyota pickup through a secluded hollow in eastern Kanawha County.

This is how he spends most weekends once ginseng season opens on Sept. 1.

“I look for ginseng season like some people look for deer season,” he said.

He pulled the truck into a clearing and stepped out. Dressed in a camouflage sweatshirt, blue jeans and hiking boots, the only weapons Burdette carries into the woods are his walking stick (fashioned from an old shovel handle) and a small hoe he wears on his belt.

He picked a spot on the hillside, dug his walking stick into the dirt and hoisted himself up.

The hunt had begun.

x x x

Ginseng has been prized for its medicinal qualities for thousands of years, and was used by both American Indians and ancient Chinese cultures.

Although they are from the same family of plants, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is not the same as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and the plants are used to treat different conditions.

Asian ginseng has been used to treat everything from depression, anxiety, cystic fibrosis, certain kinds of cancer, anemia, diabetes, asthma and certain kinds of sexual disorders.

American ginseng, meanwhile, is most often used to treat stress and boost the immune system. It also is used as a stimulant, appearing in many energy drinks.

The United States began exporting its ginseng to Asia beginning in the 17th century.

Robin Black of the West Virginia Division of Forestry said West Virginians have a long history of ginseng hunting.

The plant can be found in all 55 counties, although most of the ginseng harvested has come from the southern part of the state.

Black said, historically, ginseng harvests have increased whenever coal miners went on strike or the coal business declined.

“They would basically use it for their Christmas, to have Christmas and feed their families while the strikes were going on,” she said. “That’s heritage. That’s part of their tradition.”

According to the Division of Forestry data, wild ginseng harvests statewide increased from 22,176 pounds in 1981 to 39,200 pounds just three years later, when coal mine strikes had left thousands of workers in southern West Virginia without jobs.

The state currently is in the middle of another ginseng boom, although Black said it has little to do with coal mining.

“What I see are people who want to make a quick buck after seeing the shows,” she said.

She is referring to the aforementioned reality TV shows “Appalachian Outlaws” and “Smokey Mountain Money,” which make ginseng hunting look more like the illegal drug trade than a peaceful mountain tradition.

Black is not a fan.

“They’re pitting people against each other to see how much ginseng they can dig,” she said.

Black said those shows have inspired lots of people to go into the woods looking for ginseng. And just like their television heroes, many of them are breaking the law.

“We’ve had a lot of poaching done this year. People that were growing it or had ginseng on their own property, (poachers) came in and stole the ginseng, either before season or after the season started, with no permission to be on the property,” she said.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources last month seized 190 pounds of illegally-harvested ginseng, the largest bust in the agency’s history.

Black said the Division of Forestry has ramped up its efforts to fight ginseng poaching. They are reviewing buying reports from September to see if dealers might have purchased any illegally-harvested roots.

She said the poaching could have a negative effect on West Virginia’s wild ginseng crop, since illegal diggers often grab plants before they’ve had a chance to spread their seeds.

The boom has also had a negative effect on ginseng sales.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s going down because of the over-harvest. There’s too much out there. There’s not enough demand,” she said. “When the demand’s not there, you’re not going to get the larger prices.”

Last year, the average price for a pound of dried ginseng was $780.

“People thought it was going to start at that this year,” Black said.

Now, because of the overabundance of ginseng, the price is hovering around $500.

x x x

Luckily, Burdette is not motivated by the cash.

“If you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason,” he said.

It takes about 200 dried plants to make a pound, about as much as a plastic grocery bag would hold.

He said when you consider how much hunting and digging that requires, there are far better ways to make a living.

For Burdette, it’s about the thrill of the hunt.

“You’re always waiting on that big patch. It’s like fishing. You’re always looking for the big one.”

Burdette started ginsenging about 12 years ago under the tutelage of his brother-in-law.

He already was an accomplished outdoorsman — even moving to Minnesota for a time, just for the fishing — but had never learned to identify the plants. His brother-in-law took him into the woods and helped him spot some ginseng.

Burdette was instantly hooked. That night, he dreamed of the plant’s five-pointed prongs.

“All night long, in my mind’s eye, I saw ginseng.”

He has gotten better over the years, but ginsenging is a hobby that no one ever masters.

Sometimes Burdette can spot a plant from 60 feet away. Other times, he might step on the ginseng before he sees it.

“Even somebody that’s experienced, you can still walk on by. We could’ve walked past 100 already. Who knows?” he said.

On Saturday, Burdette spotted five plants during his two hours on the mountain.

Three were too small to pick, with only two prongs of leaves poking out of the ground.

State law forbids harvesting ginseng younger than five years old. The easiest way to tell a plant’s age is by the leaves: a five-year-old plant should have three stems, with five leaves on each prong.

Before continuing on his hunt, Burdette leaned over to pluck the leaves off these immature plants. This prevents less ethical ginsengers from finding the plants and digging them illegally.

A little later he spotted a three-prong plant from about 25 feet away.

Burdette pulled his hoe from its holster and, bending at his waist, tore into the black dirt.

His first swing didn’t unearth the ginseng root, so he chopped at the ground again. And again. And again.

The root never appeared.

This is how it goes, he said. Sometimes the leaves are there, plain as day, but you never find the ginseng’s root, no matter how long you dig.

“They become ghosts,” he said.

Disappointed, he stood and slid the hoe back onto his belt.

“All right, you can have that one,” Burdette said, to no one in particular.

On a good day, Burdette might dig 30 or 40 roots. Once, while ginsenging near Bluefield, he stepped into a whole patch of ginseng.

“I dug 40-some plants. I had on cargo pants and both sides were stuffed full,” he said.

Most days, he finds about 10 or 20 roots.

On this particular Saturday, his efforts yielded only one six-inch-long root.

He found the plant growing beside a log, under a thick tangle of brush. Burdette plunged his walking stick in the ground and ducked beneath the branches.

After a few slashes with his hoe, he pulled out what looked like a small brown stick, covered in tiny ridges.

If this were a television show, there would probably be some dramatic banjo music playing in the background.

Or maybe a rival band of ginsengers would burst through the trees, ready to steal this sliver of “green gold.”

Instead, Burdette washes the root with a trickle from his water bottle. He inspects it for a moment and drops it into his waist pack.

Then he continues on his hunt.