Wednesday, April 20, 2016


There’s a reason moving mountains is used metaphorically in description of a miracle. The mountains we know are Mother Nature’s most concrete creations, formed from the movement of tectonic plates and the very ground we walk on. They were born before us, and will persist long after our short lives are through. The best are untamable, rugged, dynamic in attitude—wild, as all the best places are.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Mount Rogers is Virginia’s tallest, and arguably wildest mountain. Located in the heart of the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA), the once-active volcano steeps over Southwest Virginia at an elevation of 5,728 feet, and serves as the crown jewel of the vastly foreign (to Virginia) landscape of the Grayson Highlands. 

    The peak is most popularly accessed via a 4.6-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail (AT) and a spur trail through Grayson Highlands State Park, the MRNRA, and Lewis Fork Wilderness Area. Scenery along the way includes grassy balds, rock outcroppings, caves, thick rhododendron forests, wide-ranging mountain vistas, a hemlock- and spruce-dominated crest zone, and the wild ponies that lend the Highlands even more unique flavor.

    It was a sunny, albeit slightly cold and windy, Saturday morning when the idea of surmounting the Old Dominion’s highest peak drifted into my mind. A relatively dry spring (thus far) was keeping the creeks running well below the seasonal average, keeping the need to go fishing at some kind of bay. 

    The week prior had been consumed pouring over topographic maps, planning a five-day backpacking trip to West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness. Thus my West Virginia preparations, along with the raw tone of a crisp spring wind, inspired visions of jagged peaks that couldn’t be ignored. Not when they’re so close. I announced my plans, and three friends jumped on board.

    To those tackling the Grayson Highlands for the first time during any season of the year, my advice is foremost to bring good, rugged shoes. Close behind is the warning to expect the high country to be twice as windy and 10 degrees colder than it is 3,500 feet lower in temperate Abingdon or Marion. 

    When I forced open the door of the car in the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands State Park, I was pleased to find the predictable air of adventure pushing back.

    To my friends, I announced the potential for a raw high country experience, shouting in contest with the wind, which was forecast to reach a maximum speed of 44 MPH. I found out later that gusts registered upwards of 60 MPH. The temperature sat firmly in the high 40s.

    Zipping on an insulated wind-breaking layer, I shouldered my 55-liter pack, loaded thoughtfully with overnight gear and backpacking essentials (for conditioning), and took on a few water bottles and snacks from my pack-less friends.

    Head into the wind, we began plodding northwest from the parking lot along the Rhododendron Trail.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    A quarter mile into the hike, we crested an open saddle, vegetated with highbush blueberry bushes and the forms of about a dozen camera-wielding day-hikers. Grayson’s renowned wild ponies were the center of attention, as they grazed peacefully despite the attention. I snapped a few photos, and we moved on.

    An even mile into the hike, there is a crossroads and a cattle gate. As we did, day-hikers should bear left to pick up the AT. It’s at this point that the road gets rugged. Following the white blazes northwest is an exercise in rock-hopping, as a single misstep can make for a painful end to an otherwise enjoyable hike.

    For 1.9 miles, the trail maintains this character, leaving the state park behind and traveling over two notable passes, and offering several wide-stretching mountain vistas.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After 1.9 miles of the AT, the trail meets the boundary of the Lewis Fork Wilderness—one of four within the MRNRA. Here the trail takes a sharp left, and skirts the boundary of the more forested, coniferous wilderness area. The Lewis Fork of the Upper Fox flows north out of the ridge slope to the right.   

    In the next 1.2 miles, we encountered several more ponies at Thomas Knob, and enjoyed a windbreak in the form of spruce and hemlock trees that line the trail. Backpackers were plentiful, as fires are permitted within the wilderness area, and not in the state park.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After those 1.2 miles, the AT again takes a sharp left, and a spur trail proceeds straight to the peak of Mount Rogers. In a half mile, the trail leaves the open country behind, traded for thick, damp coniferous forest. It’s a remarkable sight, even in contrast to the wide open scenes further below.

The summit trail. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    At the end of the line, the ascent halts, and a rock ledge studded with a US Geological Survey cap marks Virginia’s highest point. 

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


“I’m dropping out after today.”

    The declaration was one part joke, two parts intent, and escaped daily into a warm, bluebird sky from behind a bottom lip bit in collegiate compliance.

    Once you’ve invested years of tireless angling and observation, and compiled and analyzed a few thousand fish’s worth of fishing logs, you come to recognize Go-Time for what it is.

    It was Day Four of what was to be a week-long warming trend, and March’s winds were moving in response. Friday afternoon would see 75 degrees, and Saturday would bring a sharp cold snap—30 degrees and the possibility of snow. Local stream flows were double average from spring rains, and dropping slowly. In other words, it was Go-Time, and I knew it.

    With the looming reward of escaping to the mountains in search of big wild trout, I crammed my schoolwork into the dark hours, and shaved all unnecessary habits from my routine.

    Thursday afternoon found me speeding towards a Virginia mountain valley, eyes glancing nervously from the road towards the snaking creekbottom below. An eagle soared overhead—casting a shadow over the river’s course and the farm fields surrounding it in its lower reaches—it too content in the spring sun’s gaze.

    I found the water and realized a dream. Rivers—in their ideal state in my mind’s eye—run full and deep. From snow runoff, their runs and holes are highlighted an icy blue. Wonder and possibility are retained when the gravel of the streambed is not too visible. And so this river ran.
High spring water. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Within these holes and runs and un-seeable gravel lots lies the year’s most promising opportunity to tangle with a big fish, for they find confidence in the slight discoloration, and large prey is disoriented in the chaos.

    Likewise, I tied on a large crayfish fly and worked my way upstream, methodically, keeping contact with the gravel and opportunity.

    Opportunity took me by surprise a few casts into the afternoon, when a sizeable brown snapped at my fly and released it in the same breath. An hour and a half later, opportunity returned with conviction, and ripped my fly into the undercut of a rock ledge. My Tycoon Tackle Scion throbbed under the pressure of a large flash, and a thick 24-inch wild rainbow initiated an adrenaline-soaked game of net tag downstream.

24-inch wild rainbow trout taken on a streamer in the mountains. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Friday was a continuation in the weather trend, and the joke in my daily threat to abandon academic employment was further diluted with intent. The wind was raging harder; the sun, shining brighter. A storm was coming, and the front was shaping up to be a dramatic one.

    This time, I found the water slightly lower. The currents were calmer and the water clearer, though still rich with opportunity.

    Brown trout are homebodies, particularly in small mountain streams, and so I started the day with a hit list. Patiently, I placed my fly along the current seam of the first run, working my way upstream. 

    Redemption struck where she should have—in a pillow behind a large chunk rock in the streambed where she showed her face the day before—but held on, and rewarded me with 21 inches of wild butter-belly and shimmering bulls’ eyes.

About 20 inches of brown trout taken on a streamer in the mountains. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    It’s funny that fishermen yearn for redemption so avidly, and yet release her graciously once achieved. I was pondering this thought as I examined my tippet and discovered nicks that could cause me to lose another big fish, should I be so lucky. I retied.

    In the act of retying my fly, my focus shifted from my knot to the water in the background, captured by unexplained movement. My heart ricocheted about my chest, more than it would for any fish, when I quickly recognized the brown figure lumbering over the limestone streambed towards my wading boot as a hellbender salamander—18 inches of giant, beautifully adapted, rare salamander.
A hellbender salamander cruises the limestone streambed inches from my wading boot. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    With shaking hands, I reached for my backpack’s side pocket and squeezed my eyes tight in thankfulness for having remembered my waterproof camera. A few moments interacting with, and studying the awesome intricacies of the animal left my spirit enriched.

    God must have been smiling on me and rewarded my responsible stewardship, when granted redemption in that large wild brown trout, with more blessings; for the afternoon ran on, and more wild trout came to hand—approximately 40, with most being larger than 12 inches. The term “golden light” comes to mind—that moment of perfect elemental combination that results in a truly magnificent circumstance, as recognized by photographers and outdoorsmen, alike.

Photos by Matt Reilly.
    As I write this, the weather has turned stable; the water, low. I’ve hardly threatened to abandon my studies for the river, and my nighttime motivation has shrunken. The conditions are not prime for my mind to wander, but they will be again.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian