As West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness Area is a winter time haven for cross-country skiers and snowshoers, Charleston, West Virginia resident John Edwards wasn’t at all surprised that the outlines of snowshoes in the rock-hard snow were the first tracks he saw as he searched for a campsite high on Kennison Mountain.
He chose to camp on the east side of the mountain because there he would be the first to receive the warmth when the sun rose the next morning. When it finally did, the mercury had plummeted to two degrees below zero.
Edwards didn’t have the entire 36,000 acre Cranberry Wilderness area to himself; several others were taking advantage of the bitterly cold, but sunny January afternoon. Far below in the valley a handful were crisscrossing the trails with skis and snowshoes and a Boy Scout troop made camp somewhere along a tributary of the Cranberry River.
Edwards soon saw tracks that made him realize he was not alone, even at his remote campsite. The tracks were made by a cougar hunting a hare.
As Edwards followed the prints in the three-inch-deep crusty snow, a story unfolded.
The mountain lion kept a low profile as it sneaked along, with its weight shifted forward ready to pounce. The cat stopped to urinate. Then it continued on.
After a few yards, the hare left the road and began making a wide loop in a hemlock forest. Eventually, Edwards lost the hare’s trail in thick brush and snow-free area of mire around a spring. The mountain lion’s trail turned and went deeper into the hemlocks. Perhaps it lost the rabbit, or something else caught its attention.
Edwards asked his camping companion, who had spent many frigid nights there as a Boy Scout, if his sleeping bag and blankets would keep him warm.
“Sleeping bags don’t keep you warm here,” Edward’s companion said, “they only keep you alive.”
For decades, winter camping in the Cranberry has been a sort of rite of passage for Boy Scouts and scarcely a winter weekend goes by without a troop setting up camp somewhere in the Wilderness or Backcountry areas.
The lessons they learn there about winter camping aren’t soon forgotten and scoutmasters keep a constant vigil on their scouts’ safety. The Cranberry is a place where sometimes-exposed fingers become numb, lifeless digits within minutes and icicles can form on moustaches within 90 seconds.
Warmth is a rare commodity during Cranberry winters.
Each year, temperatures of 10 degrees below to 15 below are recorded at nearby Snowshoe, said Ken Batty, National Weather Service Meteorologist.
Coupled with miles of flat trails, the intense cold and frequent precipitation make the area a Mecca for cross-country skiers. Because the area is located just on the west side of the Allegheny Backbone, it receives quite a bit more precipitation than the Greenbrier Valley a few miles east, Batty said. “It gets colder as you go up, but it also brings the moisture out the atmosphere and you have more precipitation. With the ‘rain shadow’ you tend to dry out, even just as far away as the Greenbrier Valley.”
Drastic temperature changes are quite normal. That’s why it’s a good idea to plan a trip early based on long-range weather forecasts, but important to check again for weather changes the day before, Batty said. “You really run into some big extremes up there. In a couple of days, it could range from the 30s to below zero,” he said.
One reason Cranberry Wilderness remains so untouched is because many of the activities normally permitted on National Forest land are not allowed. Timber harvesting, road construction and even motor vehicles are prohibited in the area.
The Cranberry’s remoteness makes lasting memories for visitors, said 2nd Lt. Theodore Webb, a Braxton County, WV native who has served nearly a year with the Army in Iraq. While Webb is stationed within sight of the ancient ruins of once-mighty Babylon, he said the Cranberry Wilderness remains the most impressive site he has seen.
“I have been an Army soldier for over two years, have traveled throughout the Unites States and the Middle East and in all my travels, I have experienced nothing like the Cranberry,” Webb said in an email from Iraq.
The Cranberry Wilderness area is a 56 square mile tract carved from the 80 square mile Cranberry Backcountry.
At the southern extreme is the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, well known for the unique arctic-tundra plant species growing there in a rare ecosystem, a high-altitude swamp. The botanical area is off-limits to visitors, who can enjoy the unique ecosystem only from a designated boardwalk.
The area extends from the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area on WV 39 between Richwood and Marlington, north to the Williams River. It is flanked by the Highland Scenic Highway to the east and extends to Kennison Mountain to the west.
The highway is truly a “road to nowhere” and was built strictly for motorists to enjoy scenery. While trails leading from the scenic highway offer the most direct route — with steep descents — to some of the area’s more remote places, the road is not plowed and the initial ascent up Cranberry and Black Mountains can be a tough one even for a four-wheel drive vehicle.
During spring and summer months, the wilderness is alive with wildflowers and unique arctic plants which make the bogs there a botanist’s paradise. Birds sing and the glades area is filled with the sweet smell of rotting peat. Fishermen hammer the Cranberry River with spinners and flies, hoping to dupe elusive trout.
“With its unique flora and fauna, it remains a blessing to the people of Appalachia and is a national treasure. The Cranberry for me will always be a magical place of black bears and timeless trails,” Webb said.
Some of those trails are, in fact, timeless. The Pocahontas Trail, a 20-mile network of trails through the area, follows a surviving branch of a trail used by Seneca Indians for centuries.
Autumn comes early and the changing leaves splash the moun-tains with their brilliant hues.
Winter also comes early and can be cruel and unforgiving. Winter is truly a high-stakes season in the Cranberry, forcing those who enjoy it to adapt to its sometimes extreme conditions while offering a world in transition seen by few.
The area is well suited for cross-country skiers and snowshoers, who particularly enjoy the Cow Pasture Trail, a nearly flat path that is relatively easy to follow, even in snow. The trail makes a nearly eight-mile loop around the Cranberry Glades area, winding through open fields, forests of birch and hemlock and past beaver communities perpetually under construction when not covered in a thick sheet of ice.
“This is such a unique place. It is beautiful,” said Brooke Bell as she trekked along the Cow Pasture Trail on snowshoes. Bell and a friend traveled from Louisville, Kentucky to enjoy the regrettably few daylight hours a weekend had to offer.
Winter months also offer good wet-fly fishing for trout, which at that time of year can be caught on a variety of nymphs.
While the Cranberry River is less silted than some other nearby waters, sometimes rains make an angler’s long drive a futile trip. However, Summit Lake, which is located off WV 39 just a few miles east of the Cranberry Glades entrance, offers fishing opportunities when all else fails.
For more information about the area, call (800) CALL-WVA.
Dave Payne Sr. is a journalist living in West Virginia. He can be contacted at email@example.com