Category Archives: Outdoor recreation

Hope Floats

Summer is packed with reasons to go outside – fishing, boating, or just taking a walk. On a somewhat cloudy and misty June day, 160 paddlers from 6 states went outside to Float the Fork from Good Hope, West Virginia to West Milford – 6 miles downstream. Indeed, after 9 years of negotiations, plans, and hard work, folks were ready to go outside and celebrate a restored West Fork River!

Removing three dams on the river back in 2016 improved boat access and fish passage along the West Fork. But perhaps more importantly to local residents like Clarksburg Water Board Member Al Cox, the river could become a tourist destination and a place to hold fun community events.

Guardians of the West Fork Watershed hosted the first event on June 2, 2018 – Float the Fork – along with partners including American Rivers, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Milford United Methodist Church, the town of West Milford and the Service’s West Virginia Field Office and Appalachian Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, CKB Airport also helped shuttle paddlers to and from the river.

Afterwards, everyone enjoyed a picnic with food from local vendors and learned about plans for West Milford Park.

It’s the end of the Float, but not the end of the celebration. Credit_ Haley Hutchins, AmeriCorpsJPG

A river walking trail and park are a couple of the other projects that have been launched by the collaboration hoping to restore the river’s recreational and economic potential.

The West Fork River flows north 103 miles, meandering through the valleys of north-central West Virginia until it joins with the Tygart Valley River to form the Monongahela River (or the Mon’ as the locals would say).

Although the area is dominated by forest and pasture land, coal mining had been a mainstay of the region’s economic livelihood from the 1800s to the 1970s.

In the early 1900s, four small dams were constructed south of Clarksburg, WV  – the West Milford, Two Lick, Highland, and Hartford – for drinking water and irrigation.

The dams blocked the river for more than a century. By the late 1990s, the West Fork River and its 98 tributaries were on West Virginia DEP’s list of impaired rivers. Three of the dams became obsolete after the construction of the Stonewall Jackson Dam in 1996.

After a series of tragic accidents, landowners, county officials, state and federal agencies, and a community watershed group came together to navigate a solution for repairing the broken river.

The West Virginia Field Office and Appalachian FWCO proposed removing the obsolete West Milford, Two Lick and Highland Dams. Problems at the Hartford Dam would be mitigated by installing fish passage modifications. Removing barriers to fish passage  would improve and increase the amount of suitable habitat for fish and other aquatic life, as well as, improve fishing and boating opportunities, promote safety, improve water quality, and reduce flood risks to nearby communities.

The project took years of building trust and planning. Eventually, the collaboration gained community support to move forward with the project – remove the dams, restore the river-banks, and build a trail and park that would connect everyone to the river. A cleanup effort led by the Service and volunteers removed more than 61,000 pounds of trash from the river – including 1,212 tires, several televisions, and even a car.

This would mark West Virginia’s most significant river restoration effort and first dam removal project. Since the deconstruction of these century old dams in 2016, fish move freely through 491 miles of streams and tributaries. And the Clarksburg Water Board reports a savings of at least $50,000 dollars a year in water treatment costs.

Damages to the environment can take a lifetime to repair. But removing the ‘kinks in the line,’ allowing rivers and streams to run free, can go a long way towards restoring rivers and the quality of our water. When nature takes its course, sediments are distributed naturally and sustain good fish habitat, nutrients and contaminants break down as they move through the system, and fish return.

More of the beautiful West Fork, WV. Credit_ Haley Hutchins, AmeriCorps

The West Fork River restoration shows us how hope, integrity and perseverance can be a catalyst for restoration and how it doesn’t always take decades to see results.The actual repair and resulting improvements took only 2 years to realize.

I don’t live in West Virginia, and may never get to the West Fork, but I feel a lot better knowing another place in our world has been restored. Thanks for giving us hope y’all!

15 year-old Georgia Roberts takes a bow as a national qualifier

One day of practice at the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge led to a year of success for 15 year-old Georgia Roberts, a White Knoll High School athlete and qualifier for archery National’s. Roberts began shooting with the Refuge Complex Administrative Support Assistant Stacie Allison four years ago, justifying that one day at a National Wildlife Refuge can spark genuine interest and passion in the life of a teenager.

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“I had always seen the movies and the cool archers on tv and thought, ‘oh that looks pretty cool,’” Roberts began to tell me, “but I never actually tried it until that day.”

It was 2010 and Roberts was staying with her grandparents during a hot, summer month close to the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge. Beverley, Georgia’s grandmother, had a close relationship to Stacie Allison at the complex, and asked if Allison would be willing to give Georgia and her cousin Tessa a lesson, too. “Georgia was a natural and caught on right away” said Allison, “An impressive display of caring from someone that young.”

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This September, Roberts will be going into her Sophomore year of high school and into her second year on the high school archery team. In March, the Archery team at White Knoll High School qualified as the only public school to compete in Nationals this year.

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Unfortunately, due to large transportation costs and rising scheduling issues, the team was unable to compete. “We have to raise money on our own. To do that, we’ve hosted tournaments.” Most of the financial success from the fundraisers come from parents, family, and friends.

Roberts has not since visited the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge, but still recalls that first day of practice perfectly. Roberts is the epitome of how just one day, one session, and one hit can spark an uncharted passion in people of all ages.

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“I guess I haven’t seen [the Hunger Games] in a while, but I bet I could critique everything she was doing wrong if I watched it again” said Roberts about The Hunger Games series’ protagonist Katniss Everdeen. She continued, “I do like Hawkeye though, he’s pretty cool.”

The Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge consists of three refuges: The Refuge Complex is located at the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck refuge, while the Occoquan Bay refuge and the Featherstone refuge complete the remainder. To get involved with a National Wildlife Refuge complex program click here.

Using Sight for Song: A Deaf Birder’s Life Hack

If you’re an avid birdwatcher, nature lover, or even just enjoy going for a stroll near your home, you’d probably be thrilled to see a yellow warbler whizz by or hear its cheerful “sweet- sweet- sugary- sweet” song ring through the trees.

Yellow warbler, photo by Tom Teztner

While many of us enjoy wildlife encounters like these, the experience isn’t the same for everyone.

Generally, avid birders and ornithologists rely on calls and songs to identify nearby birds just as much as they use their sight. But for birders who are deaf or hard of hearing, birding by sound can prove a difficult, or even impossible, task. In an effort to overcome this challenge, Ron Popowski – who is deaf – and former U.S. Forest Service colleague in northern Arizona, Hans – who is hearing- have developed a helpful life hack to help deaf birders better locate birds for identification.

With a series of hand signals and motions, Hans tips Ron off to a bird when it vocalizes. With his knowledge of ecosystems and bird behavior, Ron is able to deduce the general habitat and locate a bird for a species-specific identification. This way, Ron can still enjoy the same challenge that comes with identifying birds without simply being told what it is.

For example, Hans may hear a “tap tap tap tap” in the woods and therefore signal “woodpecker” for Ron. Ron can then determine the general habitat, height, and possible direction to visually locate the woodpecker. From there, he can determine it is a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

The spelling and ASL sign for ‘woodpecker’ video by ASL Stem Forum

This silent code proved beneficial for data collection when Ron and Hans created it in the 1990s. The pair were working on several analysis areas in Coconino National Forest to collect baseline data, and their code allowed Ron to expand his data collection to record bird species. They worked in diverse habitats, including treeline and tundra, ponderosa pine and spruce-fir forests, pinyon-juniper, chaparral, grasslands, desert scrub, riparian, and marsh and open water.  Some of the species included Clark’s nutcracker, doves, poorwill, warblers, wrens, sandhill crane, Northern goshawk, and Mexican spotted owl.

It’s helpful to remember that everyone’s needs are different. Some alternatives to Ron’s Manual may be more beneficial for birders with limited hearing. For example, bird songs are often given phonetic spellings or mnemonics, to assist hearing or hard of hearing birders alike to remember and identify songbirds. To some the red-eyed vireo may sound like it’s saying “look up, over here, see me, up here.” Giving words to notes could help some to better distinguish sounds.

Additional tools are available for those with high-register hearing loss, or presbycusis. While costly, devices like SongFinder are available to lower the pitch of bird calls without slowing them down, allowing a birder to detect its pattern and rhythm in a lower, audible register.

We are always looking for more tips and tricks that can be useful for recreationists to enjoy the outdoors. If you have helpful tools or strategies that improve your experiences in nature, we’d love to learn from you. Please comment and share!

Ron Popowski is Endangered Species and Conservation Planning Assistance Supervisor at the New Jersey Field Office.