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The canoe bucked in the waves, shipping water over the sides with every plunge. We saw a 6-foot hole at the end of the rapid and Adam called for me to “dig deep!” and paddle harder. But the canoe was nearly swamped already and far too heavy to maneuver as swiftly as the current demanded.
We pounded into the hole, then out of it. Then we capsized. A week’s worth of gear and two intrepid adventurers were tossed into the Elk River. With over 150 miles to go, the “Elkspedition” was in jeopardy.
It was a long trip that got me into the waters of the Elk River. After I got out of the Coast Guard, I drove over 30,000 miles through the 50 states, trying to find a place to settle down and build a community, a career, and a family. Ultimately the road led back home to West Virginia. The Mountain State has more than its share of rural problems, including a complicated relationship with a struggling extraction-heavy economy, but it’s home, and a strong sense of love and resolve led me to return and be part of the solution; to guide others toward new ideas and conversations.
I’m interested in using outdoor recreation and conservation as a way to drive sustainable economic development within West Virginia. One such idea discussed in the state right now is a proposal for the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. The monument would rebrand about 120,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest, the core of which is the Cranberry Wilderness, the largest United States Forestry Service wilderness in the eastern US. The national monuments I visited in other states have been proven to increase tourism, support conservation efforts, and provide stronger protections for recreation. Birthplace of Rivers would certainly serve to drive more outdoorsmen and tourists to the area, celebrating the state’s “wild and wonderful” reputation along with our Appalachian beauty and heritage.
They call the area the “Birthplace of Rivers” because headwaters for six rivers start in the region’s high mountains and forests. I looked at a map for a while and realized that one of the rivers, the Elk, starts as a trickle in the proposed national monument, winds its way through the heart of West Virginia, and ultimately ends in the state’s capital city. My friend Adam Swisher and I dreamed up a two-week expedition to trace all 180 miles of the Elk from its origins in Birthplace of Rivers to Charleston, rallying people, businesses, and organizations along the way for the national monument proposal. We called it the “Elkspedition.”
In the uppermost reaches of the Elk’s headwaters we hiked through thick spruce forests, stinging nettle and slippery moss. Down in the river bottom we travelled on abandoned railroad tracks, pedaled along country roads, and enjoyed fishing for brook trout. Near the town of Webster Springs we took to a canoe, and despite the flip in some big rapids we finally made it to the calmer waters of Sutton Lake in one piece. We portaged past the dam in two grueling half-mile long carries and then paddled the final 100 miles to the river’s end in Charleston, where we were joined by a hundred people out to celebrate the conclusion of our journey with us.
But our story doesn’t have a happy ending. Less than four weeks after the end of the Elkspedition, record-breaking flooding devastated the Elk and the other watersheds of the Birthplace of Rivers. Whole towns were destroyed, thousands of families were left homeless, millions of dollars worth of damage was done to roads and businesses, and 23 people were killed. It was sobering to realize that the river could wreak such havoc just a short while after our fun adventure.
During our Elkspedition, we were awed by the generous people along the river that supported our trip. That kindly spirit was on display to the nation in the wake of the flooding when neighbors, businesses, and communities rallied to those in need. Mountaineers are a proud, resilient people and we will do what it takes to rise above the mud and water.
Adam and I often talked on our journey about how much of the Elk River’s potential was underutilized throughout central West Virginia: the 100 mile Elk River Water Trail doesn’t have designated campsites for overnight trips; the towns of Clay and Clendenin lack river access points; Webster Springs struggles to promote the excellent whitewater run that flows through downtown; and the gateway communities are missing out on the proven benefits that a national monument can bring — an independent study projected a $4.2 million boon to the region fueled by a 42% increase in tourism with designation of the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.
As the discussions turn to long-term flood recovery and the future of our West Virginia, I feel even more strongly that increased recreation and tourism opportunities should be part of the solution if we hope to successfully rebuild some of the communities that were hit hardest. Initiatives designed to improve quality of life and access to the fantastic recreation and public lands of our state will help to attract new businesses and new residents. None of these ideas would be a magic bullet to reverse years of difficult times made harder by historic flooding, but they could be pieces in a diverse, resilient, and sustainable plan moving forward.
Matt Kearns is a Natural Resources graduate student at West Virginia University and works on public land issues for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
To learn more about the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument proposal, visit birthplaceofrivers.org.