Zack Harold

writer/editor

Dogs, by Design

This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

Look around Old Hemlock, the historic Preston County home of writer and illustrator George Bird Evans and his wife Kay, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of the lives that once filled these walls. There’s a folksy quilt on the bed, cozy wooden furnishings, a grand piano of the rectangular variety rarely seen anymore, and a big black manual Remington typewriter on a desk. There’s a well-worn long gun above the mantle and a deer skull on another wall. The bookshelves are sotcked with nature guides and books on dog breeding, as well as a sandstone carving of a long-snouted, floppy eared dog’s head.

Now, look closer. Notice how the woodwork and some of the furniture has been gnawed on. See the grooves carved in the hardwood floors, dug by thousands of cuts from excited clawed feet, the same paws that left scratches on the backs of doors. “He called it the patina of time,” says LeJay Graffious, administrator of the Old Hemlock Foundation. Graffious is the caretaker of the house now, and has staged it like George or Kay—or one of their dogs—might walk in any second. “You can’t really separate Old Hemlock from the setters.”

Known for their intelligence, unique appearance, and innate skill in the field, Old Hemlock setters have become one of the most storied bird dog breeds in the country. And it all stems from Evans’ desire to design.

Evans was a designer, by trade and by nature. When he decided to be a magazine illustrator, he spent years crafting a portfolio that would appeal to Cosmopolitan magazine and landed a job the day he dropped it off. When he saw magazines transitioning from illustrations to photography, he designed a life for himself and Kay at Old Hemlock, where he drew on a lifetime of hunting experience and fashioned a new career as an outdoors writer.

When he couldn’t find a bird dog that suited his tastes, he decided to design one of those, too.

* * *

There is a sepia-tone photo of George Bird Evans at 13 months old, seated on a small stool and dressed in a pale gown and severe black boots. Beside him lies Ted, his father’s black and white setter. Both boy and bird dog look off to the right of the camera’s lens, as if tracking the flight of a grouse just flushed from its nest.

As Evans writes in his 1971 book The Upland Hunting Life, some of his earliest memories are of his father and Ted leaving for a day of hunting. “It is things like this that mark us as shooting men years before we are men,” he wrote. Evans got his first shotgun just before his 13th birthday and learned to shoot quail with a setter named Nat. It was Nat’s son, Speck, that found the first grouse Evans shot, after hours of searching. “After he was gone, I carried his collar in my shooting coat until the scent of him had disappeared.”

Evans gave up dogs when he moved to New York City to work in magazines. But he wanted to get back to bird hunting when he and Kay moved to West Virginia in 1939 and began searching for a setter. He grew frustrated at his options, however. Breeders at the time seemed to care either about hunting or winning dog shows—so the good-looking dogs had lost their hunting abilities and the good hunters weren’t very pretty. Evans wanted both qualities in the same dog. “Form and function,” as Graffious puts it.

He purchased a stud dog from breeder George Ryman of Shohola, Pennsylvania, who had his own renowned line of setters. Evans named the dog “Blue” for his blue belton coloring. Several years later he brought Dawn, an orange belton, to Old Hemlock as Blue’s mate. The pair produced the first litter of Old Hemlock setters in 1947. When the dogs were just five weeks old, Evans selected an orange pup for his own and named him Ruff. This dog would become the template for the entire Old Hemlock line.

Ruff was a natural bird dog, helping Evans bag 547 grouse over his lifetime, and he never got sick. Evans also liked the shape of Ruff ’s head. He believed the formation of a dog’s skull affected its brain, and a long headbone meant a dog would be intelligent and sensitive with a good nose. This was certainly true of Ruff.

Ruff sired three litters of puppies, the third of which produced Dixie, “an exceptionally comfortable dog to shoot over, with intelligence to a degree that borders on neurotic,” Evans wrote. And Dixie later gave birth to Bliss. “I didn’t know it then, but it was Ruff coming back to me,” Evans wrote. “Although blue instead of orange, she had his type, his nose, his style on point and his magic way with grouse.” Bliss spent five hunting seasons with Evans, taking 250 birds. She likely would have had many more successful seasons but died during spay surgery the summer after she turned five years old.

Bliss’s abrupt death left Evans reeling, for more reasons than one. Not only did he lose a faithful companion and favorite dog, but his carefully curated Old Hemlock bloodline was about to come to an end. Luckily, a friend had bred one of Bliss’s siblings, Mark, to a Ryman setter. The friend gave Evans an orange puppy from that litter, which Evans named Briar. And, as fate and genetics would have it, Briar was as much a hunter as his great-grandfather, Ruff.

Evans made good use of this second chance. Briar sired a dozen litters during his lifetime, ensuring the Old Hemlock line would never again be in jeopardy.

* * *

Today there are 82 Old Hemlock setters scattered across the United States, from Maine down to South Carolina and as far west as Wisconsin and Minnesota. The breed’s renown grew alongside Evans’ reputation as an outdoors writer. His finely crafted prose brought Blue, Dixie, Ruff, Briar, and the rest of the Old Hemlock brood to life on the page and left readers wanting some of that magic for themselves.

That’s how Ray Brown first learned about Old Hemlock setters. He read Evans’ debut book, 1971’s The Upland Shooting Life, shortly after it was released and wrote a letter to inquire about getting one of the dogs. Evans agreed to put Brown on the waiting list, but only after he thoroughly vetted him over several more letters and phone calls. Two years later, in 1973, Kay called Brown with the news: George had a puppy for him.

Brown and Evans kept up their correspondence and became friends. The men found they had similar philosophies about hunting dogs. They appreciated animals that constantly quest for game with fire and drive but also check back in with their masters. Both men also believed in treating dogs like members of the family. This might be taken for granted today, but it was a remarkable idea in Evans’ time. Other men of his generation might trade dogs like pocket knives, but when a dog entered Evans’ life, it was there for life. Kay joked Old Hemlock was “the most elegant kennel south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Evans’ philosophy of dog-as-companion extended to breeding, too. He didn’t want a kennel of brooding bitches just waiting for a sire—he wanted both father and mother to be someone’s proven hunting partner. This created some logistical challenges, since Evans had to rely on each dog’s owner to facilitate breeding matches. He also wanted owners to agree they would not breed their dogs without his permission. “At first it was a gentlemen’s agreement, and a lot of people broke the gentlemen’s agreement,” Graffious says.

So Evans made things official. When owners got one of his Old Hemlock setters, he made sure to have both the owner’s name and his name on the papers. That way, no one could breed an official Old Hemlock setter without his permission.

When Evans died in May 1998, Brown took over the Old Hemlock line. Now, each dog’s certificate bears both the owner’s name and Brown’s. It’s all about quality control. “Not all dogs should be bred. We’re trying to use the best of the best to produce the kind of dog we’re looking for,” Brown says.

It is also now Brown’s job to vet potential owners—to ensure they share his and Evans’ beliefs about dogs and how they should be treated. It’s important to match dogs with the right people, because owners are automatically entered into an exclusive club. “You get an Old Hemlock setter, it’s more like an adoption and you become more like a family member,” Graffious says.

Until the end of his life, Evans stayed in close contact with all the owners, who often sent him photos of the dogs in the field and at home. He kept these mementos in a big wooden bowl in his studio, like a proud grandfather.

The family bond did not break when Evans died. Owners keep in touch through a newsletter. Each issue includes information about breeding activities, allows owners to ask questions or offer advice, and shares stories about training and hunting with Old Hemlock setters. And, each March, the setters and their owners get together for a family reunion of sorts.

The tradition began the spring after Evans died and now draws anywhere from 30 to 50 people, plus dogs, each year. Each year’s gathering begins with a big dinner on Wednesday night at Old Hemlock, followed by three days of hunting at a preserve in Pennsylvania.

There’s no need to wonder how George Bird Evans might feel about all this. He told us. “Humans seek immortality in bloodlines, even bird dog bloodlines,” he wrote in Troubles With Bird Dogs. “It is pleasant to hope that when Kay and I are no longer gunning, Old Hemlock setters will keep our ideals alive.”

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.