United States Appalachia
Summer was clinging to southern West Virginia halfway through September. It was still warm, but the really stagnant days had passed. There was a breeze, and the hardwood trees along the Coal River's banks had already begun their autumn show. Bill Currey and his buddies were moving their five kayaks slowly downriver on an eight-mile stretch in the Kanawha Valley. Beneath a baby-blue sky they bobbed and weaved through some light white water, occasionally pulling over to fish in some of the deep pools that form behind bedrock boulders. Currey, now with a snowy beard, has been plying the Coal River and its tributaries since his boyhood days in St. Albans, thirteen miles from the capital, Charleston. As president of the Coal River Group, a nonprofit focused on cleaning up and promoting the river, he is so thrilled to unveil his river that he's willing to divulge some of its secrets. But not too many. "That's a great fishing float. On an eight-mile trip we were catching, on any given day, about a fish per mile," he says. They reeled in a smallmouth bass, a walleye, and some Kentucky spotted bass. ("When you catch one, they get up on their tails and dance," says Currey.) "I can't be saying any more about fishing there or my buddies'll shoot me."
The Coal is made up of three branches-the Big, Little, and Lower Coal rivers-each stretching more than thirty miles. The Big and Little legs have their headwaters up over three thousand feet in the sandstone ridges of the Coal River, Cherry Pond, Guyandotte, and Kayford mountains. The Coal River in all drains about eight hundred square miles of West Virginia's rugged, rolling mountains. When the tributaries from those peaks come together, the river is at first rough and narrow but then opens up into smooth water that would welcome any beginning paddler. All one hundred miles of the river are included on the Walhonde Water Trail. The Walhonde was recently designated as the only river trail entirely within the state boundaries of West Virginia. It's the result of four years of faith and backbreaking labor by the Coal River Group. There are nineteen marked put-in sites along the river, and no matter which section you pick, you're in for a taste of legendary Appalachia. "On the upper ends it's more like a creek where the trees practically envelop it. It's so shady and the water is clear," Currey says. The traffic on the river is so light, and some of the communities so isolated, that river-runners themselves will often become the attraction. "People don't walk outside their back door and see bright-colored kayaks going by every day," says Currey. "So when we do go by some of the more isolated areas, kids will come out and wave from their yards and ask, 'Where'd you get them pretty boats at?' That area is so virgin in so many ways. It kind of blows you away."
Appalachia is still marked by such communities, spread out along the Coal River and beyond, where the word "stranger" has no meaning and where English and Scotch-Irish ballads plucked out on a dulcimer, banjo, or fiddle are still heard. Atop heavily misted peaks, purple monkshood and trumpet creeper bloom lavishly. Huckleberries, edible violets, peppermint, and sassafras wait to be sampled, and in antithetically named "hollows," fox and opossum roam and sourwood honey flows. West Virginia has historically been a land of locals, not of tourists, but that's beginning to change. Tourism is offering some much-needed economic diversity to the state where coal was once king. While mining no longer employs many of its residents, it's still environmentally devastating-particularly in the southwestern part of the state-and politically powerful. Locals like Currey believe that if given the chance, responsible tourism could be the area's "great green hope" and offer the reprieve from mining that the state desperately needs.
West Virginia is garnering the attention of a growing number of people from the alfresco set, most of whom are fleeing densely populated urban centers on the eastern seaboard. But the Coal River is a long way, geographically and culturally, from the feathers in the cap of the state's Division of Tourism, like Harpers Ferry, the New and Gauley rivers, and Monongahela National Forest. Despite its boomtown tourism potential, the western part of the state is relatively untouched by visitors. Southern West Virginia's naturally extreme topography, which has kept so much of it isolated for centuries, seems a natural draw for outdoor-recreation types. In that way, they'd fit right in with the locals. "We're outdoor people. We've grown up getting out on the river and into the woods," says Currey. Without the influence of outsiders, locals in the state's more remote areas have remained more of the mind and pace of the original West Virginians, who stood up against and seceded from Virginia because they didn't agree with its politics. "Mountaineers are always free" became their motto.
Maria Gunnoe is one of the descendants of Appalachia's original mountaineers, the Native Americans who thrived in the area and were joined later by liberated slaves and English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. Maria's land is that of her granddaddy, and his daddy before him, whose wife was a Cherokee who fled the Trail of Tears and hid in these deep, bountiful recesses. Gunnoe lives in Bob White, not far from the serenity of the Coal River, where lush mountains seem to fold one over the other infinitely and where residents are custom-made for life in Appalachia. Among these isolated hills, their adaptability and self-sufficiency have made lives and land inseparable.
"My family spent four generations tending to this land to pass it on. We were God-fearing stewards of this land," Gunnoe says, surveying her forty acres, once lush with orchards. "I could walk through my yard at any given point and pull an apple off a tree, or a peach or a pear, and hazelnuts, walnuts, chestnuts-just an abundance of food that was there for the taking." But in the past few years that's all changed, due to a force that even her predecessors with all their tribulations couldn't have conceived of: mountaintop mining.
This newest method of coal extraction, called mountaintop removal/valley fill, is stripping Appalachia of its solace and natural richness. Residents of Bob White feel that like their namesake bird, the softly whirring bobwhite quail, they're being flushed from their habitat of steep mountain hollows. Gunnoe says that mountaintop mining is wresting away their safety, quiet, and subsistence. And it's yanking the heartstrings of those whose affection for and dependence on this land is no less vital than the blood in their veins. For them, mountaintop removal threatens to still the pulse of their Appalachia.
"Appalachia" refers to the dense, fertile belt that begins in Pennsylvania and stretches from the West Virginia border south along the spine of the southern Appalachian Mountains through Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia. These once-quiet rolling peaks, which begin where the glaciers of the last ice age halted, are carved from 350-million-year-old shale and limestone.
The staggering richness of the Appalachian Highlands ecosystem is renowned among the scientists, explorers, writers, and artists who have roamed there for centuries. In 1671, the frontiersman Robert Fallam said: "It was a pleasing tho dreadful sight, to see mountains and hills as if piled one upon the other." Botanist William Bartram, who traversed this wonderland in 1775, called the southern Appalachians a "sublime forest."
More recently, this area has been heralded as the most biologically diverse temperate region anywhere on earth. Around each curve here the vegetation alone astounds, from boreal, cove, pin oak, and hardwood forests-blooming dogwood, tulip poplar, and redbud are among the area's beauty queens-to heath and grassy balds. Some two thousand species of Appalachian flora have been identified, two hundred of which are said to be native to and entirely confined to this complex ecohub. Its multihued tangles of unkempt rhododendron, mountain laurel, and azalea are near mythical, its ginseng and morel mushrooms coveted worldwide.
This virtual island of biodiversity is a geological oddity. Life was chased southward by an advancing ice sheet ten thousand years ago, and where the glaciers stopped, the fifty-million-year-old mixed mesophytic forest remained-a vestige of the great forests that once dominated the northern hemisphere. These mountaintop forests packed with Fraser fir and fragrant balsam, like a vast green carpet tossed onto the earth and left lumpy and imperfect, give way to headwater streams and tributaries that strike out across the landscape like a thousand bolts of lightning. Those waters sustain life deep in the hollows, where the canopy is so thick that sunlight is seldom seen and where ferns and mosses flourish.
But what ice and rock failed to disrupt back then is now being scoured by coal collecting with a crude technique whose operations have become commonplace over the past decade. Mountaintop removal now accounts for nearly 95 percent of West Virginia surface mining and between 25 and 30 percent of all coal mining in the region.
To the dismay of locals, the Coalburg coal seam in southern West Virginia is where conditions are just right for mountaintop removal. Vast contiguous coalbeds deposited between 250 and 300 million years ago, with billions of tons of high-quality, low-sulfur spoils, lie just beneath the mountaintops. Downhill are steep valley creases where the trees and rocks blasted with dynamite from the apex are indelicately heaved. Where mountaintop removal thwacks and booms, green turns to gray, round to flat, and majestic to messy as bulldoze...