Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.
The Author's Blog

Heaven and Mountain For Thy Elk

Friday March 9, 2007
By David Fleming
The Elk River of Winter
Then it caught my thoughts and bade me to stop. So I paused and looked down upon it.

The last time I walked here, things looked and felt very different. That day it was green and hot, and crickets and birds sung aloud. The Elk was scarcely flowing, choosing instead to show forth its earthy assortment of stones.

But today it is snowy and cold, albeit endurably so, and mostly the sound is that of the Elk, choosing this time to pounce its stones playfully, water splashing and sparkling.

I am where the Elk River forms, where Big Spring Fork and Old Field Fork crash together thus completing their roles in this watershed. This is the genesis of the Upper Elk.

Walking about is a labored task. The snow is a foot deep or so, and each step sends my boot breaching through the glazed snowy top down deeply. Up, out, and down again. Step by step, crunch-puff, crunch-puff, I rudely impose my sounds upon the audioscape of happy water and frosted valley breath.

Two young deer, healthy, conserved and composed, welcome me on my walk this day.

I decide to about-face and walk up the track of the Big Spring Fork for a bit. As I stop to take some pictures, I realize that I have been photographed in the minds of two young deer foraging along the abandoned rail line. They look fine and healthy, and evidently don't feel an escape effort is warranted on my account. Through their frequent and casual gazes, they convey their tolerance of me and their need to conserve some hard-earned winter energy. I go about taking some pictures, and they go on scraping through the snow for whatever will work.

The larger of the two, foraging by the Big Spring Fork. The old rail bridge pillars hark back to days long gone.

Skipping across this span of the Big Spring Fork is a series of concrete pilings. They number 8 shore-to-shore, but for a long time have not held their run of rails that once allowed locomotives to turn around here, where Slatyfork proper once thrived. Instead, now they pass the time toying with defeated trees that think they've got what it takes to float past them. They seem fine, really, patient and content, harking back for our sake so that we might not forget them and the weight and pleasure of history they have borne.

Big Spring Fork as it heads for the Elk River, just beyond the rail bridge. Gauley Mountain, hoarfrosted, communes with the sky.
This would be the discharge vicinity for the sewer plant.

The view from the vicinity of these pilings is today extraordinary. I make my way down the bank of the Big Spring Fork and onto an exposed grassy isle just in the court of the pilings. Looking north-west back the way I had trod, I see Gauley Mountain, still hoarfrosted, communing with the sky so blue and cottoned. A rail bridge, disfunctional but standing, was once companion to the locomotive turning process. It spans the Big Spring Fork where the fork merges, and to me it seems that Gauley Mountain is admiring the bridge's form as am I.

This isle upon which I stand is a touch of spring emerging, and nearly flips in me the switch that would hasten away the winter from my thoughts, that would plant in me the seeds of longing for green and birdsong. But I don't want this right now, I want winter, the wintry Elk today. So I make way back up the bank and continue my crunch-puff journey towards the Elk River.

Keys of a Piano

Although cast differently in the snowy light, I recognize some familiar sights as I start out down the track. The old rail ties whose ends hang in mid-air. Back then they shadowed the dirt and gravel. Today they blacken the snow spacedly as if the keys of a piano.

The Elk meandering in the river valley east of Gauley Mountain

When I round the bend, immediately obvious is that old south railyard booth who was so shy last time. Not so today, standing proudly at attention on guard of the Elk by the command of Gauley Mountain. "Here to my east, you watch our Elk, little shed. To my west, I will keep vigil on my namesake river."

The vista is blue, deep and impactful. The teamwork remarkable. The way the Elk River flows confidently at left, the old rail line flanking dutifully at right. The steadfast shed ensconced between, and all this in the courtyard of Heaven and Mountain. It is so much, it is so beautiful.

The most blank of canvases, the virgin snow in front of
me a crystal-speckled topping, nothing more but for its
delicate contours and waves. I was mesmerized.
This little feller sure is surprised to see me.

Another 100 yards or so and the woods between river and rail widen, beckoning to me. Into them I go. Deer paths invisible last time are betraying to their followers this day. I walk in their tracks for a good distance and spy a jostle in the snow ahead. From his defensive outpost, a little chipmunk is onto me. He's a cutie, but is obviously offended by my appearance and, as I step forward, disappears into one of two holes tunneling off under the snow.

Some time later, my trek through this enchanting small wood brings me to the ardent Elk, now a river splendid in its own right, descended but decidedly released from its ancestral forks.

I spend some time walking with the river downstream quite a ways, finding here and there good places to approach its shore. Across a wide expanse, from its other side a loud snort. But I had seen her first, my presence masked by the water's rumblings. I had tried to get closer for a photograph, but this large doe was not so unwise as the earlier and tolerant, foraging children. Intently she flees, ascends a low ridge and disappears.

Late afternoon, the sun ignites the glassy river.

Downstream a little more, I am at the beginnings of an obscuring bend in the river. I pause to look back, and behold the Elk as it marvels in the late afternoon sun, ignited, capturing light incarnate into its glassy surface.

The Elk River flows as if from light itself.

At this bend in the Elk River, the whole thing becomes very alive, fairly loud and animated. Larger stones, not so easily intimidated, hold their council in these rapids.

Golden to green, the Elk is gorgeous.
Click here for large photo.

The colors are magnificent. White snow, the cold golden approach of water, the smoky green fervent rapids that ensue, and the attendant gallery of evergreen rhododendron. This is what it is to be in the company of the wintry Elk.

Resigned Prisoners of the Elk

The bends in rivers are the prisons for many travelers. Once fearful on their journey, the tree fragments and the old railroad tie are now calmed, now resigned to their place against a warden tree for a length of time that no longer matters.

The Woods Open Up

Where the bend opens up, the Elk that just earlier was so agitated becomes instead settled. Majestically, it begins to graze rather than flow.

Wildly Beautifully Frozen

I am now at the close of this stretch of magic woods, standing upon a snowy dry-stalked opening. I stare downriver, through and beyond the last few residents of this patch, and cast my thoughts and wishes into the Elk which curves and flows on.

A moment after, the frozen valley breath speaks to me that it is time to bring this walk to a close. The late light plays tricks in the icicles, intimating to me that this day, this fine day in the courtyard of River and Heaven and Mountain, is passed.

Then that which caught my thoughts releases me from its hypnotic grasp. Our conversation finished, I crunch-puff the return journey and go home. Some of me, that is.

Through its white top was weaved uncertainty, and it
conveyed to me its fears. You are not alone, I told it.
And I will make them love you.