I grew up… I was raised… I spent the early part of my life in Fayette County, West Virginia. This is where the New and Gauley Rivers meet to form the Kanawha. This is where you can find catfish the size of small men. This is where the roads end and the railroad tracks begin. This is the home of the New River Gorge Bridge. But most important to me, this is my home. There is just something about Fayette County that will follow me through every life I live. Maybe not every part of it – there’s the dilapidated and uncared for buildings and homes usual to abandoned coal towns, the small-town dramas that are best avoided, and the destructive practice of Mountain Top Removal. But if you follow the New River through Fayette County, you’ll find me there, if not in person, at least in spirit.
I could write for hours and hours about the New – ironically, the oldest river in the northern hemisphere. I could tell countless stories of my adventures there – I’ll gradually tell a few of the better ones here on SmoothingIt.com but most will remain with me and my loved ones. I could mass produce pages of descriptive passages about nearly every rapid, every turn, and every hole in this section of river. But today, I’ll spare you the minutia and provide a brief account of my recent day-hiking trip to the Hawk’s Nest Dam.
I’ll get the details out of the way first. In 1927, Union Carbide began a tunnel under Gauley Mountain to divert a large portion of the New River through a hydro-electric plant. The tunnel is approximately three miles long and is the site of one of America’s worst industrial disasters. They built a dam directly below the tunnel which allowed them to manipulate the volume of water through the mountain. The dam created two very different but equally perfect sections of the New. Hawk’s Nest Lake is above the dam. Below it is the few miles of the New that most locals call “The Dries.”
My family and I began our adventure at a section of The Dries known as Cotton Hill. We walked along a service road used by the “authorities” to reach the dam. It’s an easy walk and is incredibly enjoyable. There is an abundance of beauty along this road. There are magnificent plants, flowers, trees, boulders, and views of the river.
As we walked, I told my family some of my camping and fishing stories of days past. They enjoyed hearing them but think I’m crazy most of the time (like when telling the story of a friend trying to sneak up on me at night and nearly getting stabbed.) Members of my family have been walking this road since it became a road and we all have camping and fishing stories that involve this place.
There are a few fishing trails along the way. One leads to a nice sandbar where people are prone to camp even though the signs clearly read “no camping.” At about .7 miles, you reach the trail that leads to the dam. It breaks right and goes over the hillside with a couple of switchbacks. After walking down the hill, you turn and the path is nearly flat. This is one of the prettiest trails I’ve witnessed. The trail is well worn. The woods are thick and lush from the river’s moisture. The glimpses of the river are spectacular. And as you walk, you begin seeing hints of the steel and concrete of the dam.
As you come out of the woods, you step down onto a boulder at least the size of a football field. On it, there are quite a few house-sized boulders, a lot of driftwood and a few puddles (full of salamanders, tadpoles, and even a couple of fish.) Additionally, this is a great place to “play.” My children ran and jumped over puddles and played as only children can. Some of us older children climb the large boulders, observe the rock formations and erosion, and look for interesting stones, driftwood, and potential walking sticks.
To the left of the dam is the constant rumble of the spillway or trash gate. It makes for an enjoyable soundtrack to any adventure that you have here. It’s loud enough to fill your thoughts but not so loud that you can’t enjoy conversations.
Behind the dam is at least sixty feet of water. But here in The Dries, there is only a small pool. Although, I’ve heard that every game fish in West Virginia has been caught in this pool, I’ve only caught a few species of catfish, bass, bluegill, and bait fish.
At night, there are a couple of flood lights on the dam which give you enough light to move around on the rocks but not quite enough to tie a fishing hook onto a line. Otherwise, it is perfectly dark. Throughout the night, trains will pass by making for an interesting few minutes. The sound of the train gradually grows through the valley until it overpowers the sound of the river and the conversations. As it rounds the last corner and passes the dam, the light from the front of the train makes its introduction and for a brief moment, the entire valley is well-lit. As soon as it turns, darkness returns and is followed by several minutes of “clack, clack, clack” as CSX railroad moves coal from one place to another.
Eventually we headed back to Cotton Hill as we had other Fayette County locations to explore. Throughout the day, we continued visiting several interesting locations that will likely show up here on SmoothingIt.com. But nowhere else compares to this place that I call home. Some consider visiting moms and dads, churches, or houses as visiting home. But I’ll always find my place in the world listening to the New River find its way through the mountains of West Virginia.