Harvesting the Sods

Recently I took what is becoming an annual trek to Dolly Sods Wilderness. I go for the breathtaking views, the ego-busting long hikes, and the opportunity to commune with and harvest truly wild medicinal plants. Dolly Sods is part of the Monongahela National Forest and has terrain similar to that normally found in Canada. It feels like a magical place to me- untouched, for the most part, by humans and our constant noise and movement. If one can hike out far enough, the only sounds are the occasional call of a bird, the whispering of the trees, and the rustle of the plants in the breeze. The peace and huge silence of the place always brings up in me a bittersweet mixture of awe, gratitude and lonliness. And I always cry…

If you click on any of the thumbnails in this blog, you can see a larger image… then  hit the back arrow to return.

This year I wondered if I was going too early to harvest the wild blueberries that grow in magnificent abundance all through the Sods. The Sods micro-climate is unpredictable; both the weather and the growing season. When I first arrived in the area and noted that the Elderberries were still in flower or green berries, I thought I was too early. But a quick late evening scouting trip up the rugged mountain road to the Sods Wilderness showed profuse, plump, juicy wild blueberries everywhere.

I was lucky with the berries, but the weather was another story. The forecast predicted sunny days in the high 70’s all weekend. I arrived at my campground, Seneca Shadows, on a hot sticky Thursday evening. By that night rain arrived in torrents. It poured rain through the night and off and on all day Friday. Soggy. Damp. And even chilly. I do not mind hiking in light rain, and will brave a thunderstorm, but Dolly Sods is notorious for its powerful weather. I spent Friday driving around the area, taking back roads for the mountain scenery.

Saturday morning was misty and cool, and the camp managers said chance of rain showers all day. There was NO internet where I was camping. NO phone, NO internet, NO ipad, NO laptop… SO delightful. Showers I can deal with- so grabbing the pup, pack & rain gear we headed out. The mist had risen off the roadways, but the tops of the mountains were invisible, as if simply lopped off.  The road up to the Dolly Sods trailhead areas is rough on any day- full of potholes and barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. On this day, the road simply disappeared 50 feet ahead of the vehicle. Magical. Beautiful. And a little scary at times.

We finally made it to the parking area at the trail I had chosen. I had spent the previous soggy evening looking over my maps and had decided to hike the Bear Rocks Trail to the Raven Ridge Trail. Raven Ridge is one of the lovliest places I have ever been to… and I wanted to see it again. It is three miles out, and one must ford Red Creek to get there. Normally that isn’t a big issue, but there had just been torrential rains. We set out. Dolly Sods was a WWII training ground, and this sign is posted at every trailhead.

Dolly Sods has a variety of terrain. This trail starts out with the typical windswept, rocky blueberry & huckleberry covered open ground. This is where most of the people are; picking berries and admiring the moon-looking white rocked terrain. The ground is boggy, and after so much rain was literally covered in several inches of water on many parts of the trail. Soon, though, the terrain changed again. The mist parted to show a fern lined trail through the trees.

We climbed up a gentle slope, the mist pressing in around us and  distorting the sounds of the morning. The feeling of presence was all around, close within the mist. Still though, hikers and berry harvesters were all around, their voices floating through the trees well before they could be seen. We hiked onward.

 

 

We came upon Red Creek and a group of hikers attempting to cross it. The recent rains had this creek swollen and moving fast. We waited patiently, watching, as the 6 hikers with their hiking poles got halfway across. The lead hiker called it off, deciding the creek was too deep and running too fast. Back they came, sheepish and smiling. We bid them goodbye and good day.

 

Aengus McKee is a fearless fellow for the most part. Thunderstorms are the only exception to that rule- and this was simply nothing but a speed bump for my 14 pound fur friend. Without any discussion or consensus, he plunged into the creek. With a combination of paddling and rock hopping, he was on the far bank in a few minutes. My feet were already sodden- my boots have seen much better days and are no longer remotely waterproof- so I hopped across the rocks. Many were under water with the heavy current. I carry extra socks in my pack, so why worry? Onward…

On the opposite side of Red Creek is one of the most enchanting camps one could ever want. Surely the Fey Folk would join visitors around the campfire here. Huge pine trees have created a dark,  sweet, earth scented area. The creek runs right beside the camp, and campers have made a lovely fire ring and stone seats. Laurel in bloom was gracing the banks of the creek. I wanted to stop and admire, but my furry hiking partner was impatient to move on…

We entered a deep, silent wood filled with emerald green fern. This is a magical place, dark and quiet. I sense that the wood is holding its breath, silent, watching, as we march through. Neither friendly nor menacing, simply observant. It feels right to be silent here. There is Earth art everywhere; the star-root of a fallen tree, curlicue ferns unfolding in spiral patterns, spider webs gleaming with silver water droplets…

Up a steep, wooded slope and past a large rock cairn. At the top of the slope, a meadow with large trees opens. The mist had the trees looking like dark sentinels. I wondered if this had once been some farmers orchard. I stopped to rest for a moment under a large, friendly tree. The sounds now are fewer- the voices of humans missing. Most had chosen not to cross the creek.

As we cross the open meadow, the mist begins to thin. This is the start of the scenery that touches a deep place in me. Open, rolling mounds covered with waving grasses and studded with small, twisted trees. The trail is muddy, wet, slippery. The silence is loud. The breeze flows continually over my cheek. I am beginning to feel tired. Good. With tired comes inner silence, and the chatter in my mind slows, allowing me to hear the Voice that whispers in my ear…

Then the junction of the Raven Ridge trail. There are few others here, and even fewer where I am heading. After more silent walking we arrive at a series of fields full of my reward. Fat, ripe wild blueberries, untouched. An entire field of mountain St. John’s Wort in full golden bloom. We stop to pick and marvel. The berries are so vibrant, and loaded with antioxidants. A half cupful trumps both Vit C & E in antioxidant power. These I will preserve and eat through the long winter. The St John’s Wort will be infused in olive oil, to become a potent healing element in my Flower Power Skin Salve, and to be made into tincture for internal use. St John’s Wort heals topical nerve damage, taking the pain out of burns, cuts & abrasions. Internally, I may use it for those with depression- but it is also powerful to help control herpes of all sorts, from shingles to cold sores.  I can get St John’s Wort on my own 3 acres- but this wild, vibrant plant begs to be medicine…

My companion and I are tired and stop to rest. I admire his complete surrender to every moment. While I fuss about looking for a reasonably dry spot, he collapses with a contented sigh into the first soft grassy area he finds. Flat out, relaxed, happy. The only indication that he is awake- one ear cocks back and forth as he tracks my progress in preparing our lunch. I am enchanted by this place, and I feel sadness and joy as I sit quietly, resting.

Reluctantly we turn back. Along the way I stop frequently to pick more blueberries for my bucket. Aengus McKee, finally tiring, is less impatient with these stops. He watches me with a look that I can only describe as patient affection as I pick, eat, and drop berries into my bucket. Finally, he steps into a blueberry hedge and sticks his long nose into my berry bucket. Satisfied that he understands the task, he pushes his soft nose into a cluster of berries. He picks them off, chews them a bit and then spits them out. He does this for less than a minute each time we stop, but each time I marvel at his intelligence and willingness.

 The way back is the same path, but looks very different with a quiet mind and tired feet. A wise teacher recently suggested that I look to find the beauty in pain. The ache in my feet and back is less than the gift of this breathtaking place. I find myself repeating a prayer I recently heard, sung in a crystal clear voice by a beautiful young man. “Gracias, gracias por mi vida”. Thank You for my life.

Back past the lovely tree-sentinal, now glistening in the golden light of the afternoon. We stop here to rest a while. Now past the rock cairn, where I stop to add a stone to the pile. The mist is beginning to descend again as the day lengthens toward evening.

 

Back through the enchanted fern forest, and over Red Creek, my feet now so wet they feel heavy and make juicy sounds as I walk. Time to retire the boots- after 10 years they deserve retirement. We cross a place that is so boggy there is a boardwalk.

 

The final mile I am back into the mist, its chill cooling me as I stop to pick my last berries. I spy some Wintergreen under the berry hedges and pick it as well. Wintergreen is the primary pain and inflammation reducer in my Wintergreen & Cayenne Muscle and Joint Rub, and I am almost out of it. There is plenty, and soon it will be heating gently on my stove, releasing its medicine into olive oil for the rub.

 

The final walk through the white boulder strewn area just before the end of the trail. My feet are hurting and I am chilled. But the mist has turned everything into silvery magic. I cannot help but stop and take pictures. The grass is turned to a silvery lace rising from still water that covers the trail. A spider web gleams on a berry bush to my right. I feel the water gathering on my eyelashes and running gently down my face.

I am grateful and sad as I make my way back to the parking area and the car. Aengus McKee, always in the moment, shares none of my sadness but simply leaps into the back seat, happy for a soft place to rest. I admire the mist-jewelry hanging from my hair as I buckle him in. On the way down the mountain, a gorgeous and huge Elderberry emerges from the foggy roadside. I cannot help myself, I slow down to admire it. This weedy looking bush is a magnificent medicinal- its flowers I dry as one of several herbs in an upper respiratory tea for sinus congestion; it’s berries I dry and later decoct into an antiviral syrup that literally keeps me and my clients cold and flu free all winter. I nod my thanks. Down the mountain. Tomorrow is another day.

Join me for my final day as I hike another trail through Dolly Sods, and then visit the South Branch of the Potomac River near Smoke Hole, WV. But not tonight! Bed calls. Thank you for walking along with me, friend. See you next post.

15 thoughts on “Harvesting the Sods”

  1. Sounds like you had a rewarding walk – peacefulness, exercise and a nice bounty from nature to boot. I love the photo of Aengus flopped on his side in the deep grass – he looks so comfortable!

  2. Oh… I’m envious (in a good way) that you got away for this beautiful hike… I’ve never been to the Dolly Sods and always wanted to go. What fun for you and such good photos…
    blessings, blessings… m

  3. Thanks so much for telling us about this lovely place. I miss picking wild blueberries (which I did often in childhood in New England) and did not know of a good place to find them in this area. Your whole essay is lovely.

  4. Wow..what a wonderful description of your journey…I think my feet and hair are damp…it is certainly the next best thing to being there. Your descrptions, thoughts and photos are wonderful. And thanks for introducing Aengus to us. Thank you so much for sharing your adventure. Jan and Jim

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